Virginia Beach Marsh Turns Brown After Navy Jet Fuel Spill

Pump for aviation fuel type Jet A-1. Because of a single switch improperly flipped, the Navy is cleaning up serious jet fuel spill in Virginia Beach, Va. (AP Photo)
Pump for aviation fuel type Jet A-1. Because of a single switch improperly flipped, the Navy is cleaning up serious jet fuel spill in Virginia Beach, Va. (AP Photo)

VIRGINIA BEACH -- Susie Dodd's two-story house with white columns sits on a spit of land she calls "the island." Her home is one of two hidden in the woods down a long gravel road just south of Interstate 264 and west of Oceana Naval Air Station.

An old, rickety bridge connects her property to the Brook Greene Commons neighborhood.

Last week, lush green marsh grasses lined London Bridge and Wolfsnare creeks, which run parallel to her driveway.

But not now.

The native grass is yellow, scraggly and matted down. The shriveled reeds along the water's edge are turning brown, as if someone had thrown a dingy blanket over the natural landscape.

"Everything's dying," Dodd said.

Wolfsnare Creek, a tributary along the eastern branch of the Lynnhaven River, is surrounded by tidal saltwater marsh. It took the brunt of a 94,000-gallon jet fuel spill that began during the evening of May 10 at the Navy base.

A switch was left in the wrong position in the bulk fuel farm off London Bridge Road, causing a leak that contaminated a ditch next to the road and London Bridge and Wolfsnare creeks. It went unnoticed until the next day.

The Navy has since increased the number of people assigned to the area where the spill occurred, an official said Friday.

Within a day, residents of three neighborhoods adjacent to the creeks complained of headaches, sore throats and nausea from the smell . As of Friday, 177 people had voluntarily relocated to hotels on the Navy's dime. Several families are staying away from their homes for at least another week.

The Navy announced Tuesday that it will provide money for food and incidental expenses for residents who relocated.

About 700 animals, mostly fish, had been found dead as of Friday. On Monday, crews began to remove the soil in the trench along London Bridge Road, and they tended to absorbent booms in the creeks.

The fuel smell had diminished in Brook Greene Commons by Monday morning, but the wilting marsh reminded Dodd that the ordeal is far from over.

She first noticed the difference over the weekend.

"The bottom of the grass was always green," she said.

Matt Kirwan, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has studied the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, said salt marshes are one of the most valuable ecosystems in the world.

"They are as productive as tropical rain forests," he said. "Salt marshes are very good at protecting us from flooding and coastal erosion."

The marsh is a nursery ground for small fish and crabs that can hide in its dense root system. How quickly a marsh recovers from exposure to a contaminant depends on whether or not the product is so extensive that it kills the plants' roots, Kirwan said.

"Roots bind the soil, usually keeping the marsh from eroding," he said. "If the plants die, it's much easier for the soil to wash away."

Dodd is concerned about her main line of defense against storms. She couldn't leave her house for two days during Hurricane Matthew last year when water covered the road to her house, and nothing was wrong with the marsh then.

"Our first hurricane, who knows what kind of flooding we're going to get out here," she said.

Workers from Hepaco, an environmental-cleanup service, are trying to soak up any remaining fuel along the edge of the marsh with absorbent material.

No work is planned in the marsh because it could cause further damage, according to Frank Csulak, scientific support coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is working with the Navy.

People should avoid traipsing through the marsh, agreed Carl Hershner, a VIMS professor and expert in tidal wetlands.

"If you can't catch it early, usually the best strategy is to just leave it alone," he said. "The hope is that the fuel doesn't penetrate the marsh peat greatly."

Jet fuel is lighter than crude oil, which in some cases makes it more toxic to vegetation, Hershner said.

"While it will evaporate, it will also kill plants that it touches, sort of like spraying them with an herbicide," he said. "They lose their chlorophyll and tend to dieback."

Fortunately, this is the start of the growing season, and regrowth over the next few months is possible.

"The marsh is resilient," said Chris Ludford, who harvests crabs and oysters in the Lynnhaven River, north of the spill area. He's grateful to those who contained the fuel to the creek. The alternative could have jeopardized the river's rich aquatic life.

Dodd watched a mother duck and her ducklings swim near her boat dock the other day. It's the first wildlife she's seen since the spill.

But as the marsh continued to turn brown along the creek's bank, Dodd realized her home, "the island," is not out of the woods yet.

Show Full Article