On Friday, Nov. 26 a ship named the Athos I leaked what originally was thought to be 30,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware River. It has now become apparent that there are actually 473,500 gallons of oil that are unaccounted for, which could very likely all be in the Delaware. The clean-up of this disaster will cost millions, take months and it could all have been prevented by the implementation of stricter government regulations on the transport of oil.
The Athos I is a single-hulled ship. The design of such a ship is inherently impractical for oil transport because it leaves only one sheet of metal between the body of water and the oil cargo, yet this design is still widely used by oil companies. After the huge Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, the federal government passed the Oil Pollution Act, which promised to phase out single-hulled tankers by 2015.
This process has been far too slow. If single-hulled tankers had immediately been replaced with much safer double-hulled tankers when the design problem was recognized, the oil spill in the Delaware would have likely not occurred.
Tsakos Shipping and Trading, the company that owns Athos I, has openly agreed to pay the costs of the cleanup, but what their representatives are not speaking openly about is the cap on the amount of money they are actually allowed to pay. The same Oil Pollution Act that decided to gradually phase out single-hulled tankers also put a limit on the amount of money companies are liable for in the case of a spill. As of now, the limit is $10 million.
The price of a new double-hulled tanker is five times that much. This cap on the amount of monetary damages a responsible company is allowed to pay actually makes it more financially prudent for them to keep single-hulled ships, even in the case of an accident. Why shell out $50 million for a double-hulled ship when you could just keep your old single-hulled one and only pay $10 million if there is a spill?
As of this weekend, the spill has spread to cover a 70-mile stretch of the Delaware River. The number of birds estimated to have been coated in oil is between 500 and 1,000, including a bald eagle couple, members of a species still classified as “threatened.” Although extensive measures are being taken to capture and clean these birds, the majority of them will die.
The spill did not just harm wildlife and jeopardize a sensitive ecological system, but also inconvenienced a large number of other boats on the Delaware. Thousands of feet of barriers were put up on the Delaware as well as on a number of tributaries to prevent the further spread of the oil. Boats, both commercial and recreational could not pass through the area undergoing cleanup. There was no reason for this oil spill, which has caused so much damage and inconvenience. With the simple requirement of double-hulled tankers as the mode of oil transport this could all have been prevented.
The federal government is trying to avoid future oil spills, but they are not doing enough to prevent them. It is unacceptable for it to be more profitable for oil companies to continue the use of single-hulled ships, even in the event of paying for damages of a spill, than to switch to a much safer double-hulled version.
The government needs to take a tougher approach on the prevention of oil pollution by requiring the immediate retirement of single-hulled ships in the oil industry and removing the cap from the amount of damages an oil company is liable for in the event of a spill.
Companies see things in terms of profit, and the government needs to realize that their regulations are going to have little effect unless they threaten the financial interests of companies. If there is a threat of much greater financial damage in the event of an oil spill, companies will be willing to shell out the $50 million to buy safer tankers and prevent their loss, and the chance of another incident like the Athos I oil spill will be greatly reduced.
Emilie Haertsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.