Cleanup of oil spill from unknown source stretches into Ocean City

A joint team made up of members from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources work to clean beaches of oil washing in from an unknown source. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Cleanup of an oil spill from an unidentified source continues, extending into Ocean City, Maryland.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has joined efforts to clean up oil and oil-drenched debris that has been washing ashore in Delaware and now Maryland since Oct. 19.

Maryland’s department will work with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources under the guidance of the U.S. Coast Guard to help with the cleanup.

The spilled oil has been washing ashore with high tide in “tar balls,” which range from coin- to pancake-sized, along with debris that has been drenched in oil. As of Tuesday, more than 65 tons of oil-covered sand and debris had been removed from Delaware beaches.

A crew member picks up oil-covered debris. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Though many birds and fish have migrated from the area for the season, the Coast Guard said there have been reports of birds covered in oil. They have worked to clean the exposed birds and said that there did not appear to be any lasting impact on the animals.

The spill prompted the closure of several beaches in Delaware and Maryland. Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach and Lewes have all closed their beaches as the cleanup efforts continue.

“We’re not sure how long oily debris will continue to wash up with the tide,” said Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, who was on scene surveying oil on the Delaware beaches on Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, oil can be very persistent in the marine environment, but our environmental professionals are persistent, too,” Garvin said. “They’re out there, working up and down the coastline, getting it out of the sand as much as possible.”

On Tuesday, a large beach cleanup was organized on South Bethany ahead of the arrival of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who will begin a beach replenishment operation.

It is still not clear where the oil is coming from, though the Coast Guard sent a sample to be tested using a “petroleum fingerprint” technique that should help identify potential sources.

It seems that the oily material has been spreading along the coast from the original amount that was discovered last week, which has since been moved by the tide and broken into smaller pieces, according to the Coast Guard. They don’t believe there’s an undiscovered or ongoing patch of oil in the bay or ocean.

The Coast Guard said that the remnants of Zeta passing over the area in the coming days may force them to stop their work and resume next week.

If anyone spots oil washing ashore at a beach that is not currently being cleaned, they can report it to DNREC’s environmental hotline at 800-662-8802, or the Maryland Department of the Environment at 866-633-4686.

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