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Case: Athos Spill, PA, NJ, and DE

Date of incident: November 26, 2004.

Location: Delaware River (near Paulsboro, NJ).


Case status: Design, implementation and monitoring of various restoration projects are ongoing per the Final Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment. For details, see Restoration Activities.

Overview of the spill: On 26 November 2004, the M/T ATHOS I (Athos) struck a large, submerged anchor while preparing to dock at a refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey. The anchor punctured the vessel’s bottom, resulting in the discharge of nearly 265,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River and nearby tributaries.

Map marking the approximate location of the Athos oil spill incident.

See Map of the approximate location of the Athos oil spill incident on the Delaware River.

Federal, state, and local agencies responded to the incident to supervise and assist in clean-up and begin assessing the impact of the spill on natural resources. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), working with the states of New Jersey and Delaware, and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania created a Unified Command for directing clean-up efforts. NOAA, FWS, and natural resource agencies within Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (collectively referred to as the natural resource trustees) began collecting “preassessment” data on the natural and recreational resources injured by the spill. This data provided the basis for crafting the preferred restoration projects. Further, the collection of these data allowed the trustees to meet their legal requirement to prepare a natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA).

Restoration: In September 2010, the Trustees were awarded $27.5 million dollars by the National Pollution Fund Center for settlement since the Responsible Party for this case met its limit of liability during the response phase of the incident. Projects to restore areas within the Delaware River watershed are in various stages of design, implementation and monitoring. These projects will benefit coastal communities and economies by improving habitat, providing green jobs during construction, and creating new opportunities to enjoy the river and its wildlife. For details, see Restoration Activities.

Legal requirements: Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) (33 U.S.C. §2706(b)), state, tribal, and federal agencies are designated as natural resource trustees, responsible for assessing natural resource losses and restoring those losses to baseline conditions, that is, the conditions that would have existed had the incident not occurred. Regulations promulgated under OPA provide a framework for conducting a damage assessment, including preassessment, restoration planning, and restoration implementation (15 C.F.R. Part 990). Funds to assess losses and to plan and implement appropriate restoration are provided by either the responsible party (RP) or, if an RP refuses, does not exist, or exceeds its limit of liability, the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund established under OPA.

Spill History: The Athos is a 750-foot, single bottom, double-sided tanker that was built in 1983. At the time of the incident, the vessel was registered under the flag of Cyprus, owned by Frescati Shipping Company, Ltd., and operated by Tsakos Shipping Trading, S.A.

The Athos departed Venezuela for the Citgo Asphalt Refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey on 20 November 2004, carrying approximately 13 million gallons of crude oil. At approximately 9:30 pm on 26 November 2004, tug operators assisting the Athos with docking at the refinery notified the USCG that the tanker was leaking oil into the Delaware River. The vessel had struck several submerged objects while maneuvering through Anchorage #9 to its berth. Within minutes, the ship lost power and listed onto its side.

Surveys of the river bottom following the incident found several submerged objects in the area, including an 18,000 pound anchor. The USCG’s investigation of the incident determined that the anchor punctured the vessel’s number seven center cargo and port ballast tanks. The bulkhead between the cargo and ballast tanks was also damaged, allowing oil to migrate into the river.

The Unified Command initially estimated that 30,000 gallons of oil spilled into the River. This estimate was revised to 473,500 gallons based on “worst-case” assumptions once the vessel was stabilized. Following a more comprehensive analysis, the USCG provided a final estimate of 263,371 gallons that spilled into the Delaware River.

At the time of the incident, the tide was incoming, and the current was moving quickly. Within the first few hours, thick oil covered the River and moved upriver with the flood tide to about the Walt Whitman Bridge, approximately six miles north. Over the following weeks and months, oil from the ruptured tanker also spread downriver, exposing natural resources over 115 river miles of the Delaware River (280 miles of shoreline oiled), as well as its tributaries. Over time, the oil spill extended from the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge to south of the Smyrna River in Delaware. Key resources exposed to the spilled oil included shorelines (marshes, sandy beaches, tidal flats, etc.), aquatic organisms (fish, shellfish, etc.), birds and other wildlife that use the Delaware River and Bay, as well as recreational areas used by the public. The incident also forced the USCG to close the Delaware River to commercial traffic for over a week and temporarily shutdown the water intake of a nuclear power plant.

Findings from the trustees' assessment indicated injuries to shorelines (e.g., wetlands, beaches, etc.), tributaries, birds, aquatic habitats, and recreational uses. Based on these findings, the trustees identified numerous potential restoration projects, both ecological and recreational, to address these losses. These alternatives were then narrowed down to the ten preferred projects which are in various stages of design, implementation and monitoring.

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