50 Ways We’ve Saved The Bay: Changing the Oil Industry
by Chris Cassaday, communications intern
Fifty years ago, a group of Rhode Island residents concerned about the risks of oil spills in Narragansett Bay fought hard to stop the proposed construction of an oil refinery in Tiverton and eventually founded Save The Bay. Sadly, their victory wasn’t enough to stop a deluge of oil from making its way into our water years later. But our efforts surrounding three devastating oil spills in 1989, 1996 and 2000, led to the alteration of the oil transportation industry that diminishes the likelihood of another catastrophic oil spill. Our advocacy brought GPS technology to large ships and reinforced the hull strength of oil tankers making business in Rhode Island waters. These changes are now felt globally and have brought about a much-needed reformation to the industrial sector.
Putting GPS on Tanker Ships
The 420,000-gallon fuel oil spill by World Prodigy in 1989 was the first of the spills that caused Save The Bay to challenge federal laws and regulations. Recognizing that integrated GPS technology would help prevent ships like World Prodigy from inadvertently veering off course and causing preventable disasters, Save The Bay’s then-Executive Director Trudy Coxe led the charge. Coxe issued a proposal during a special hearing at Salve Regina University, urging the government to implement what was then an experimental state-of-the-art tracking system in ships and military satellites. This “Differential Global Positioning System” would allow the Rhode Island Coast Guard to keep track of ships within the Bay and notify their captains when a ship was running off course.
By the end of the year, Save The Bay, advocating for GPS integration in large vessels, had begun a campaign before the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. In July 1990, Congress passed a series of oil spill prevention laws and nominated Narragansett Bay to be the first testing ground of the GPS. Thanks to Save The Bay’s efforts, oil tankers and other large ships globally are now linked with Department of Defense satellites.
Strengthening Ship Construction
Still, human error can trump the best precautions. January 19, 1996, North Cape ran aground off Moonstone Beach in South County, spilling close to a million gallons of home heating oil and, as a result, killing millions of animals throughout 250 square-miles. Many Rhode Islanders still remember the stench of oil and decaying marine life that perished during this event.
After the devastating spill, Save The Bay denounced the oil industry’s tanker parameters, as most ships at the time were only outfitted with a single hull. Single-hulled ships contain their cargo just beyond the watertight hull; if the hull is breached, the contents can immediately leak into the water. Double-hulled ships, on the other hand, contain two separate watertight hulls, with the cargo located within the secondary, interior hull. If a ship suffers a collision, the chance of a spill is much smaller.
We teamed up with then-R.I. State Senator Charles Fogarty and then-U.S. Senator John Chafee. As a result of our advocacy, effective June 1, 1997, the Oil Spill Prevention and Control Act required all large vessels transporting oil or hazardous materials to have double-hulls or escort tugs. The subsequent Federal Oil Pollution Act required the phase-out of all single-hulled tank vessels by 2010—a monumental victory for Save The Bay.
Four years later in 2000, an estimated 9,700-14,600 gallons of oil spilled in the East Passage off Middletown. Penn. Maritime Inc. from Stamford, Conn. claimed responsibility. While the earlier North Cape spill pushed Save The Bay to advocate for double-hulled barges, Penn. Maritime—though small—furthered our agenda. Had both of these vessels been equipped with double hulls, these spills could have been avoided.
Over the course of these three disasters, Save The Bay fielded over 4,000 calls and prepared an estimated 1,500 volunteers in coastal cleanup and marine bird rescue training to assist with state and federal agencies. We lost hundreds of birds to these spills, but were it not for the volunteer force, the number would have been much higher. Our role in the North Cape spill led to the Rhode Island Coast Guard nominating Save The Bay as the official oil spill volunteer coordination center. Rhode Island’s citizens stood against the threats with everything they had. After the spill of ‘89, President George H. W. Bush recognized Save The Bay’s efforts and named us as the 76th of a “Thousand Points of Light” on February 26, 1990, an immense honor, especially for a small nonprofit based in the smallest state of the country.
2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the World Prodigy disaster, the 23rd of North Cape and the 19th of Penn. Maritime. We at Save The Bay strive to ensure that our waters stay clean and safe for the millions of people who live within the watershed; when disaster strikes, we are ready to take the call.