Bay Journal

Oil sheen on Potomac near DC under investigation

Canada geese recovered from wildlife pond near Reagan airport being treated

  • By Whitney Pipkin on February 05, 2016
Contractors work to contain and mop up oily substance coating a Potomac River tributary in Arlington, Va. (Photo by Dave Harp)

Federal, state and local authorities are investigating an oil sheen first reported Wednesday that at one time covered an 8-mile stretch of the Potomac River just south of Washington, D.C.

The oil sheen does not pose a health threat at this time, but responders are on the lookout for wildlife that may have been affected, said Lt. David Ruhlig, incident management chief at Coast Guard Sector Baltimore, which covers Maryland and the Washington region. Eighteen oil-coated Canada geese recovered from a riverside wildlife pond in Arlington, Va. are being treated, said Ruhlig.

The sheen may be the result of oily runoff from snow melting in the region, but agencies are still investigating that possibility while moving to contain and treat oil found coming from an outfall near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, said Ruhlig.

Authorities began receiving reports Wednesday of oil sheen on the river just east of Arlington and the airport, Ruhlig said. More reports have come in since as warmer temperatures and rain melted snow and increased runoff.

But the most concentrated sheen has been spotted just north of the airport in a creek called Roaches Run, where there was a strong oily odor in the air. Orange booms were deployed to contain the rainbow-colored substance. and cleanup crews strung streamer-like "sorbent sweeps"  across the water to soak up the contaminants.

Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said he isn’t convinced that the sheen is just from storm-water runoff washing oil off streets and parking lots. He  noted there had been an oil spill last week at a Dominion Virginia Power facilitiy nearby.

Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson confirmed that 13,000 gallons of mineral oil spilled Jan. 24 from a transformer at a power substation in Crystal City, not far from Roaches Run. But he said “there’s no evidence” that the mineral oil spill is related to the sheen in the Potomac.

Dominion cleaned up 90 percent of the spill and removed 200 tons of the soil surrounding the substation, where mineral oil is used as a coolant, Richardson said. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality monitored the cleanup and Dominion checked several outfalls at the time to be sure none got in the water, he noted.

The company inspected those outfalls again Friday afternoon, Richardson said, and saw no evidence of mineral oil discharged to the Roaches Run area.

Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary, a tidal pond sandwiched between two thoroughfares in Arlington, drains under George Washington Memorial Parkway and ultimately into the Potomac.  Flanked by parkland, it's a popular place to spot waterfowl in winter and to picnic in warmer weather.

Oil recovered by Coast Guard investigators has been sent to the Coast Guard Marine Safety Laboratory for analysis.

“At this time it appears the sheen has largely dissipated and is limited to the area around Roaches Run, with minor wisps observed intermittently for five miles south,” Ruhlig said in a press release issued late Friday afternoon. “We’ll continue to maintain protective measures at the outfall and continue to monitor them, while also responding to any reports of oiled wildlife throughout the area.”

Ruhlig noted also that “with the amount of rainfall and snowmelt we’ve had this week, it’s not uncommon for a lot of street runoff to also come” into the water.

The Coast Guard is working as the lead agency on the cleanup alongside the Virginia DEQ, The District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment and the Maryland Department of the Environment. Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, based in Newark, DE, was contracted to clean and rehabilitate the geese and any other waterfowl oiled by the sheen.

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin, writes about food, agriculture and the environment. She lives in Alexandria, VA, and is a fellow of the Institute for Journalists of Natural resources and blogs at
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