Marblehead and Swampscott unmix oil and water

Swampscott firefighters Steve Sentementes, Robert Faulkner, Captain Richard Blake and Shane Corcoran secure an 800-foot containment boom during an oil spill training exercise in Marblehead Harbor.


MARBLEHEAD — Peat moss was dumped into the harbor on Wednesday to simulate an oil spill as two dozen trainees scrambled to contain it.

The Marblehead Fire Department, Swampscott Fire Department, and harbor masters were trained by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in a hands-on exercise that they hope will prepare them to better handle spills.

The exercise included deployment of an 800-foot containment boom off the coast near Cove Lane. The floating barrier that acts as a curtain to remediate spills by containing and diverting oil.

The boom was pulled by 25-foot retired Coast Guard boat, followed by Swampscott’s 19-foot Boston Whaler. A group was stationed on the beach to anchor one end of the boom to rocks.

The team tediously pulled the heavy material through the harbor, fighting tides, winds, and obstacles, such as boat moorings. Once in place, the peat moss, commonly used for gardening, was deposited into the water.

Marblehead Fire Chief Jason Gilliland said the moss is harmless, but reacts like oil on the surface. Crews surrounded it with the boom to contain the spill.

Webb Russell, Marblehead harbormaster, said this is the third training exercise of its kind for the community. The last one was held in 2010.

The last major spill in the harbor occurred during the blizzard of 1978, said Gilliland. Wind speeds up to 90 miles per hour and 40-foot waves caused the “Global Hope,” an oil tanker, to lose power and drift into Coney Island Rock. A ship called the “Can Do,” sunk and lost five men while trying to assist vessels during the storm.

Roughly 85,000 gallons of oil were later recovered from beaches, as far away as Cape Cod.

Julie Hutcheson, chief of marine oil spill and prevention and the response team for the DEP, said a 2003 spill is what ultimately inspired legislation to improve responses. The 100,000-gallon spill occurred in Buzzards Bay.

“When that happened, the towns were kind of helpless,” Hutcheson said. “It was tough to see the impact.”

The spilled substances can harm animals, vegetation, and sediment, she said.

In response, the Oil Spill Act was enacted in 2004 to raise fines for oil spills and implement new safety standards. Eighty-one trailers containing booms were sent to coastal communities in the state based on need. Marblehead and Swampscott each  received one.

Hutcheson said while having the tools to remediate the problem helps, it’s more important that the response team knows how to use them. Conducting drills assists the department to make sure that plans work. If they don’t, there’s an opportunity to improve them, she said.

“There’s really no substitute for a hands on experience like this,” said Swampscott Fire Chief Kevin Breen. “This is really valuable. We don’t always get to practice. We’ve learned some things.”

Bridget Turcotte can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte

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