A barge carrying 4 million gallons of heating oil leaked about 720,000 gallons near a wildlife refuge area Saturday, a day after it ran aground in a storm.
Thousands of lobsters and several dozen birds were killed along Rhode Island’s southern coast. Other birds were seen covered with oil, and shellfishing was banned.
The spill is the worst in state history.
“This is a serious matter. There is a lot of uncertainty,” said John DeVillars, regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The barge stopped just off Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, midway along eight saltwater ponds that are breeding grounds for fish and migration stops for millions of water fowl.
Earlier Saturday, officials had surmised that a relatively small amount of oil leaked from the 340-foot barge.
“When we did get a chance to get on board, we found that there are, in fact, considerable breaches in the bottom of the vessel … during low tide, we began to get a significantly greater increase in oil loss,” Arnold Witte, who is heading the barge salvage operation, said at a news conference with the the Coast Guard, EPA and state officials.
Witte said that less oil leaked during high tide because water, which is heavier than heating oil, acted as a seal to keep oil in the ruptured compartments.
The cleanup effort was aided by a northwest wind that pushed the spill away from shore, Witte said. Work crews planned to pump the remaining oil from the barge, the North Cape, into another one and set it afloat again Monday.
“We hope that by the end of (Sunday), we will have solved the problem of leaking oil,” said Witte, of DonJon Marine Services.
A sheen of oil about 3 miles long and several hundred yards wide was moving southeast into the Atlantic Ocean.
Coast Guard pollution control teams were using booms to prevent the oil from spreading into the beach.
The barge, which has 14 compartments, did not break up, and oil was believed to be leaking from only two of them.
Home heating oil is lighter than other fuels and easily evaporates.