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Posted 4/23/2003

April 15 brought the usual tax-day irritability to the Nose, who sought solace from The Man's money-grubbing by sea-kayaking in the evening sunlight along the Inner Harbor. As a stiff breeze pushed us past Harbor Point, dressed up with Cirque de Soleil's blue-and-gold tents, we caught a whiff of what reminded us of home heating oil. Then we saw the boats: police, fire, and Coast Guard, lights a-flashing. And then we saw the orange arc of containment booms just off the derelict piers across from the American Visionary Art Museum. We were in the middle of it before we knew what it was: an oil spill."We saw it coming in a wave, right around five in the evening," says Gerry Santillan, cook of the historic pungy schooner, the 100-foot-long Lady Maryland, which is berthed in front of McCormick & Schmick's restaurant on the Inner Harbor's Pier 5. "It was more a muck than a sheen." The inky concoction stained the painted planks of the Lady with lapping patterns of seaborne petro-goo. "There were a lot of boats out, and their wakes made it worse," explains Santillan. "We tried to scrub it off using deck brushes." Judging by the smudged result, the approach didn't work very well. "We'll be hauling her in to repaint her soon anyhow," Santillan shrugs, as if not to cry over spilt milk, er, oil.

Richard McIntire of the Maryland Department of the Environment, ever ready with the pertinent details, gives us the skinny on the water-fouling mess: "What you saw out in the harbor was essentially 150 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil, which is used in the marine industry. The Coast Guard is doing an investigation to determine exactly where it came from--it's suspected either from a ship that was delivering to Domino Sugar or perhaps from one of the nearby marinas." (Repeated attempts to reach anyone at Domino for a comment were in vain.)

The Nose hit the harbor waters again on April 16, to check out the spill's aftermath. The suspect ship, a 600-foot bulk carrier named Wadi Halfa out of Alexandria, Egypt, was still pulled up aside the Domino Sugar plant--but now a containment boom surrounded it, along with Domino's entire waterfront facility. At the nearby Harborview Marina, a posh, stretched-out racing sloop--the Angel Dust out of Guernsey, England--was tied fast to the marina wall, sporting a nasty looking case of oil spill stains on her otherwise pristine white fiberglass hull. Its commandant was not aboard, but presumably the well-heeled owner isn't planning a return trip to Mobtown's tarry shores anytime soon.

The cormorants, ducks, and gulls we saw cavorting around the harbor waters, though, appeared as clean as could be expected--given the woefully degraded state of the waters of the Patapsco River's Northwest Branch, which ends at Harborplace. And, fortunately, we saw no dead fish floating belly up--a common sight along our sad, sickly waterfront.

When we finally caught up with the Coast Guard on April 17, the cause of the spill was still under investigation. "We're close to completing the cleanup, and we've taken samples from the ship, Domino Sugar, other nearby vessels, and various other locations in the area and sent them up to our lab in Groton, Conn., to try to determine who was responsible," explains Coast Guard spokesman John Nay over the phone. Nay further explained that the Wadi Halfa is scheduled to leave Baltimore, but if the investigation points to them as the party responsible for the spill, "we can still go after them for the clean-up costs."

As for cleaning up oil-stained boats left in the wake of the spill, Nay suggests the Lady Maryland's method of scrubbing with deck brushes. "If they are going to use detergents, they should put containment booms around their vessels so the water doesn't get further contaminated. Either that, or they should haul their boats, clean them on shore, and contain the runoff for proper disposal."

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