Delaware River watershed projects awarded funds as natural resource compensation for 2004 oil spill

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TRENTON, NJ, Oct. 14, 2010 -- Using $20.3 million in funds from a federal trust fund, the Department of Environmental Protection will restore nearly 200 acres of Salem County wetlands and grasslands, create an oyster reef, and build a public boat ramp to compensate the public for ecological harm caused to the Delaware River estuary by the massive oil spill from the tanker Athos I in 2004, Commissioner Bob Martin announced today.

The Coast Guard awarded the DEP the money from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is fueled by a tax on the oil industry.

"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 in compensation from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. 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.

Natural Resource Damage awards compensate the public for natural resources harmed by pollution as well as 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 tanker has reached a liability cap on spill-related activities and damages.

The tanker spilled an estimated 263,000 gallons of crude oil when it punctured its hull on a submerged object while attempting to dock at the Citgo asphalt refinery at the border of West Deptford and Paulsboro on Nov. 26, 2004. The spill affected some 280 miles of shoreline to varying degrees, and shut down commerce and outdoors recreation opportunities for more than a week.

Under the plan approved by the Coast Guard, the DEP will restore 95 acres of wetlands and 100 acres of grasslands at the Mad Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lower Alloways Creek Township. This restoration will provide habitat for forage fish that are important to the ecological balance in the river and bay as well as habitat for many types of birds, including eagles, hawks, herons and ducks.

The quality of this land as wildlife habitat had been degraded by past agricultural filling that has led to a proliferation of phragmites, an invasive reed that has swept through the area and choked out native plants. The DEP will excavate the land to restore natural tidal flows. The DEP also will plant native grasses, shrubs and trees. The DEP is putting the finishing touches on the project design and expects to begin work next year.

The oyster reef project, to be launched in the spring, will involve the planting of crushed clamshells in an area of 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 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 aggressively manage oyster plantings to help the industry deal with naturally occurring diseases that have affected oyster production for many years.

At Stow Creek, the DEP will widen, lengthen and pave an existing boat ramp on state-owned land to improve boating access to the lower Delaware River and upper bay.

The DEP worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and environmental agencies in Pennsylvania and Delaware to develop a Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration plan based on extensive assessments of the spill's impacts on wildlife, shorelines, underwater ecosystems and wetlands.

They estimated that more than 3,300 birds, including ducks, gulls and geese, died as a direct result of the spill. Using risk-based assessment methods, the partners estimated that the estuary indirectly lost more than 8,500 additional birds through lost productivity and reproductive failure.

They also 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.

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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