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An ecological disaster that could have been prevented

[ Return To Senator Roy Dyson's Newsletter ]

Posted on June 18, 2000:

Senator Dyson Twenty years ago, a movie many critics immediately dismissed as an unrealistic environmentalist scare tactic masked as a film was released. It was called the China Syndrome and starred three Academy Award winners: Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas.

The movie was about a nuclear plant that was precariously close to “melting down.” Our heroes Lemmon, Fonda and Douglas had to rush against time – and government interference -- from stopping the potential disaster.

The critics who deemed it a farce had egg on their faces a few weeks later when Three Mile Island became a household nightmare. For several days, we waited in fear by our televisions, hoping to hear news that this Pennsylvania plant wouldn’t destroy much of the Eastern seaboard.

Thankfully, everything turned out generally all right at Three Mile Island. Containment of the potential meltdown was kept to a minimum.

All of the sudden, The China Syndrome went from mediocre box office revenues to a major hit. It’s theme: That the stewards of such a powerful fuel-producing plant could be so negligent as to allow a possible disaster to occur, struck a very deep and disturbing chord with the American pubic.

Which bring us to today. All spring, most of the talk in Southern Maryland has been about the oil spill that leaked from a pipeline at the Chalk Point plant into Swanson’s Creek and onto the Patuxent River.

Along the way, Swanson’s Creek was decimated to a point it will not recover in our lifetimes. Who knows what the long-term damage will be to our eco-system in the Patuxent.

I’m not a doom and gloom person so I’ll shed a little positive light on this situation before I get to my serious points. June 13, I waded into the Patuxent as I do each year with retired Senator Bernie Fowler. We waded as far as 31 and a half inches -- one and a half less than last year. It showed me that this river has not been totally decimated by this oil spill. We didn’t come back to shore with a trace of oil on our bodies. Yes, the oil damage is still out there, but the wade-in proved that the oil has not destroyed our beloved river.

Now to the serious stuff: Last Tuesday (June 13) I asked my Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairman, Clarence Blount (D-Baltimore) to hold a hearing or a set of hearings on the oil spill in the Patuxent. Chairman Blount and the rest of the committee eagerly agreed and said they’d even make a site visit to Chalk Point and Swanson’s Creek to survey the damage.

“I’ve never seen an oil spill,” the chairman said.

Unfortunately, he will soon. The hearings are set for late summer or early fall and believe me, we will be taking them very seriously. I am one of 11 committee members of the EEA Committee and I have plenty of questions for the officials of Pepco, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

I’m sure my 10 other colleagues will have a slew of questions as well. Accountability will be at the top of the list.

Among my questions: Why in this computerized society in which we can find the temperature in Russia or even the leaders of the U.S. Open golf tournament with a few swipes of the keyboard, could we not contain the spill into the Patuxent? Where were the indicators that a disaster was occurring? In Alaska for example, which has one of the largest -- if not the largest oil pipeline in the country, when there’s a drop in pressure or any type of unusual occurrence, an indicator goes off immediately? Why didn’t that happen at Chalk Point?. How come it failed? Where is the fail safe? We have a lot of pipelines out there in our local rivers.

Luckily, we live in an area of where there are not extreme weather related problems such as cold, extreme temperatures, or earthquakes that could easily rupture the pipelines. It’s more likely here that a ship could have ruptured the line.

I was disheartened to learn from Pepco officials last week that there are no inspections of their oil lines. Some of them were built back in World War I. Casually, the Pepco official said “These things [pipelines] can last almost forever.”

Asked to define forever in years, he said “roughly 100 hundred years. The piece of pipeline that broke [at Chalk Point] was relatively new.”

“Relatively?” we asked.

“About 27 years old.”

“And there’s no mandated inspections of these pipelines?”

[ Return To Senator Roy Dyson's Newsletter ]

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