Argo Merchant oil spill was catalyst for change, 1979
Originally published on the Wicked Local: Cape Cod.
By Doreen Leggett
On Dec. 15, 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals. When less than a week later it broke in half and spilled enough oil to heat 18,000 homes for a year, residents of the Cape and Islands began imagining the worst.
“It was a scary time,” recalled Richard Delaney, who was then regional coordinator for the state Coastal Zone Management Office. Back then, he said, the name of the Liberian-flagged tanker was as seared on the nation’s consciousness as the Exxon Valdez would be years later.
Richard Hiscock was working as a volunteer assistant harbormaster in Chatham at the time and remembers his boss, Peter Ford, going up to the Coast Guard’s incident command center at Otis Air Force Base every day and returning with the most-recent coordinates of the spill.
“We had a big chart spread out on a big piece of plywood,” said Hiscock, who now lives in Vermont. “We plotted where the oil was every day and hoped it wasn’t heading toward us.”
Luckily, the wind shifted to the northwest so it never impacted the Cape at all. But the huge amount of oil, No. 6 crude, which Hiscock said has the consistency of molasses – served as a wake-up call for the peninsula.
While close to 8 million gallons of oil was covering the water 25 miles southeast of Nantucket, it became clear to those on the Cape that they were woefully unprepared.
“At that time there was no oil spill response equipment available to anyone, there was no local training, there was no oil spill contingency plan … all that came about in response to that oil spill,” said Hiscock.
The good news was that the spill was a catalyst and CZM, as well as other local and regional agencies, began formulating the Cape’s response plan – a huge document written in 1979.
The wreck also gave the Coast Guard, which rescued the crew early and later shot the bow to sink it, more authority when it came to menaces off the coast. According to retired Coast Guard Captain Dennis Bryant, the US Government refused to grant permission for the jettisoning of cargo in an attempt to lighten the ship. But although the prevailing wind and current carried the oil offshore and away from rich fishing grounds nearby, publicity surrounding the casualty resulted in Congress adopting the Port and Tanker Safety Act of 1978, giving the Coast Guard increased authority to inspect and regulate tank vessels, foreign and domestic, operating in US waters. The spill was the largest in U.S. history to that date.
“If (the wind) had gone the other way it would have been a real disaster,” said Delaney.
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