Athos I Oil Spill Damage Award Funds Delaware Bay Restoration

TRENTON, New Jersey, October 15, 2010 (ENS) – To compensate the public for damage to the Delaware River estuary caused by the 2004 oil spill from the tanker Athos I, the State of New Jersey has received $20.3 million from a federal trust fund.

The Coast Guard Thursday awarded the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection the money from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is fueled by a five cent per barrel tax from the oil industry on oil produced in or imported to the United States.

The single-hulled oil tanker Athos I lists to port after striking an anchor in the Delaware River, November 2004. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said Thursday that the funds will be used to restore nearly 200 acres of Salem County wetlands and grasslands, create an oyster reef, and build a public boat ramp.

“These projects target parts of the estuary that are crucial to wildlife and the oyster industry,” Commissioner Martin said. “Restored wetlands and grasslands will create habitat for fish and many species of birds, while the reef project will advance the DEP’s efforts to help the oyster industry come back from many decades of hard times.”

The restoration of wetlands and grasslands at the Mad Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area in Salem County accounts for nearly $19.4 million from the trust fund.

This restoration will provide habitat for fish that are important to the ecological balance in the Delaware River and in Delaware Bay as well as habitat for birds, including eagles, hawks, herons and ducks.

The quality of this land as wildlife habitat had been degraded by past agricultural filling that has allowed the proliferation of phragmites, an invasive reed that has choked out native plants. The DEP will excavate the land to restore natural tidal flows and plant native grasses, shrubs and trees.

The agency is finalizing the project design and expects to begin work next year.

Phragmites in New Jersey (Photo by Wockerjabby)

The Coast Guard also awarded more than $391,271 for the creation more than 50 acres of oyster reefs in the bay, as well as $466,536 for improvements to a state-owned boat ramp at Stow Creek, along the border between Salem and Cumberland Counties. The $175,000 balance will fund the DEP’s assessment, administration and oversight costs.

The oyster reef project, which will start in the spring, involves the planting of crushed clamshells in the lower bay, likely off Cape May County’s Reeds Beach, to serve as a foundation for oyster growth. As the oysters grow, they will be transplanted to beds in fresher water farther up the bay, where they are less susceptible to disease and will be able to mature to market size.

The DEP’s Bureau of Shellfisheries has been working with researchers and oystermen to help the industry deal with naturally occurring diseases that have affected oyster production for many years.

This funding ensures the oyster restoration project can continue because before this trust fund money was offered, federal funding for the award-winning project had dried up.

Natural resource damage awards compensate the public for natural resources harmed by pollution and the public’s lost benefits and enjoyment of those resources.

The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund is funding natural resource damage claims from New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania because the owner of the Athos I tanker has reached a liability cap on spill-related activities and damages.

The 750-foot Cypriot-flagged Athos I tanker, a single-hulled vessel, spilled an estimated 263,000 gallons (8,349 barrels) of crude oil when it punctured its hull on a submerged anchor while attempting to dock at the Citgo asphalt refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey on November 26, 2004.

The spill affected some 280 miles of shoreline, and shut down commerce and outdoor recreation opportunities for more than a week.

State and federal agencies calculated that the spill resulted in $1.3 million in lost recreational uses such as fishing, hunting and boating; affected 412 acres of river bottom that provide important habitat for aquatic organisms; and exposed 3,628 acres of shoreline habitat to oil, including river, marsh and tributary shorelines. Some 3,300 birds died as a direct result of the spill.

Pennsylvania and Delaware have identified $7 million in natural resource compensation projects in their states. Pennsylvania plans to restore habitat at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, across from the spill site, and remove a dam on Darby Creek.

Delaware will improve wildlife habitat at the Blackbird Reserve Wildlife Area and enhance oyster beds in the bay.

The Coast Guard has reserved an additional $6.7 million as a contingency fund to cover increased costs the states may encounter in implementing the projects.

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