Years ago, some of the drinking water wells in York County, PA, developed an oily scum, unpleasant perhaps, but from a natural source — petroleum.

Cognizant of the petroleum production that had taken place elsewhere in the commonwealth, the appearance of the oil led to the drilling of a couple of exploratory wells in the early 1960s. One was more than 3,000 feet, the other more than 8,600. The reports described a yield of about 1 cc per 100 cc of material. Hardly a gusher, the holes were sealed and abandoned.

This Prologue column begins slightly beyond the northern and western perimeters of the Chesapeake basin, where an ancient uplift took place in the Appalachian Mountains. According to John Harper, of Pennsylvania’s Geological Survey, this uplift of rock and shales was accompanied by enough heat to either evaporate the oils in the confining strata, or move them west of the Allegheny front, where they remain in the folded Mesozoic basins of that region.

Archaeologists have found pits and other evidence in Pennsylvania and West Virginia that early Native Americans recovered small quantities of the seep oil that floated atop springs and rainwater pools.

Tobias Hirte, who traded with Pennsylvania Indians in the 1740s, observed them collecting oil from seeps using a feather. Hirte doesn’t describe the process, but we do have a description from Samuel Pees of how natives on Tonga in the Pacific collect similar seep oil by dipping a feather in the slick and then stripping it between their fingers into a small container. It would take one boy half a day to recover a pint in this fashion.

At Eastern North American sites, devices made of sticks and leaves were found in the pits along with the remains of pine log ladders. A piece of wood with hewing marks was carbon dated between 1415-1440, well before Columbus’ first voyage.

Native Americans used this resource for poultices and as a purgative. The original Pennsylvania crude oil is very high in paraffins and effectively waterproofs canoes or clothing. An excellent solvent, it might also have been used to mix pigments for decorative skin paints.

Oil seeps did not escape notice by white European colonists, who tried a variety of schemes to extract it in commercial quantities. By and large, natural petroleum was unavailable in Europe, and these seeps piqued the newcomers’ curiosity. Although oil had already been used for lighting, lubrication, medicine and in paints for centuries, it came from a variety of contemporary biological sources and was not mineral petroleum.

Wool blankets were spread over an oiled area, and when saturated, were wrung out, yielding an oil-water mix that would separate in a barrel where the floating petroleum could be ladled off. Early gatherers in the 1790s could get $4 or $5 a barrel (about 42 gallons) or about $200 in today’s currency.

Byproducts from the production of charcoal — which was a vital industrial fuel source in Colonial America, firing its young iron industry — helped fill other demands for oil-based products.

Charcoal production required resinous pine timber, which was cut in manageable lengths and stacked teepee-like around a single erect pole or “fergen,” in a brush-free forest opening — to reduce the threat of wildfires — and then covered with a thick layer of cut sod. Fire was kindled in the pile, and all openings in the sod sealed. This “kiln” arrangement would burn for days, without a supply of external oxygen, emitting a carefully monitored wisp of smoke. The sod, when burned through in spots, would create air leaks, which were patched by a man who would live alone on site.

Running off in tubes inserted for this purpose came combustible organics, which liquefied as the wood heated: turpentines, and later tars and pitch of increasing stickiness. The Royal Navy depended upon these incredibly valuable “naval stores” that were exported from the Colonies. Decks and bottoms were sealed with pitch; rigging and splices were tarred. Until these supplies became available from North America, they had been obtained elsewhere in the world, often the Baltic States, at frequently usurious rates. Regional politics or outbreaks of war could also make the supply erratic.

The wheels of colonial and European carts or carriages all turned on wooden axles, not today’s ball bearings. Lubrication was derived from a variety of fatty and waxy materials rendered as tallow from the fat of slaughtered animals.

Grease for wooden gears in mills and other early machinery was also made with animal tallow, palm oil, fish oil and sometimes graphite, the slippery mineral form of carbon.

Linseed oil was used in the production of varnishes, as a carrier for various colored paints. Once boiled, it provided a fine rubbed finish for polished wood, including gunstocks. Apropos of its role as a naval store, it was once called Baltic oil. Linseed oil was pressed from the seeds of flax plants, the long tough fibers of which were used to weave the sturdy cloth we call linen.

There was, of course, whale oil, increasingly harvested in the 18th and 19th centuries by a tough breed of men who developed ships and technology to mercilessly hunt the world’s oceanic population of cetaceans. Whale oil, especially that from the blubber of “right” and “catchalot” whales, and the immense, bulbous head “case” of the sperm whale, entered U.S. ports in tens of thousands of barrels.

In its finest form, whale oil was light, fluid and virtually odorless. It remained liquid — even at low temperatures — making it ideal for lamp oil or as lubrication for the smallest and finest bearings, such as those in watches. Because of these specialized purposes, its use persisted well past the mid-20th century, even as whaling itself came under increasing societal pressure.

But the 19th century was the era of the industrial revolution, and machines and energy requirements of all kinds were burgeoning. The quantities of oil required to meet these needs grew exponentially. But it was the need for an illumination source to supplement declining whale oil supplies, not lubrication, that would supply the impetus for petroleum exploration. Crude oil, though, burned with a great deal of smoke — as higher molecular weight organics are incompletely combusted — leaving sooty airborne particles. Benjamin Silliman Jr., a Yale-trained Pittsburgh chemist worked on a crude oil sample from Venango, PA and suggested in an 1855 report that it could be distilled to get a lighter, clarified product that smoked less. New burners were subsequently designed to conduct this oil to the point of combustion, assuring a uniform supply of air, which further reduced smoking. The resulting kerosene-like product and appropriate lamps, Harper says, became a staple of U.S. lighting within about five years.

While it is not widely credited, the first “successful” exploitation of Eastern petroleum was conducted in West Virginia. George Washington, an early speculator, knew of West Virginia oil and gas seeps in the mid-1700s, and in 1771 acquired 250 acres in the region. Wells were drilled as early as 1819, which enabled the development of tools later employed elsewhere and permitted the extraction of oils for lighting and industrial lubricants decades before the widely heralded “start” of the East Coast oil industry.

Burning Springs, in Wirt County, WV, became the first oil boom town, its population growing to 3,000. Fortunes and influential men were elevated to power quickly with oil selling for $30 a barrel in 1860. Although some small wells still produce in the vicinity, the Civil War ended the first early industry, when production fell from 2,500 barrels a day to only 50.

Most historians date North America’s oil industry from the work of Col. Edwin L. Drake. Drake worked on a seep in Pennsylvania on property owned by Hamilton McClintock that had been productive since the early 1800s. It was releasing oil into a creek through rocks and out of the stream’s alluvial gravels, where 20-30 barrels could be trapped in a season. Some of this oil was taken to New York in 1854 in an attempt to get investors interested, but it leaked on the cobblestones and was taken away by a trash hauler after creating the nation’s first “documented” oil spill.

In 1858, Colonel Drake attempted to dig for oil near Titusville, PA on the appropriately named Oil Creek. The shaft kept collapsing and he abandoned it to try a drilling rig the following year. He developed the idea of driving pipe casings through which the drilling bits could be lowered without loose material from sides of the hole collapsing inward.

He progressed about three feet a day, accompanied by the jeers of local wags. When he ran out of company money, he spent off his own account, with two Titusville gentlemen co-signing his note. A dry hole where he was drilling through a small island in the creek might have ended this phase of exploration. But Drake and his crew were lucky, and brought up oil up from a 2-foot thick layer of what came to be known as “Drake sand,” just 69 feet below the surface. An industry was born and eastern oil wells became the nation’s prime source of petroleum until western reserves were later tapped.

As the number of well fields multiplied, there were accidental releases when oil, long pressured in deep strata, erupted as gushers. These accidental releases, general sloppiness and the loss of whole barrels of oil during barge transport down turbulent rivers gave rise to a whole industry of “dippers,” children and adults who would recover what they could of these escaped materials. They acted as early spill cleanup crews, although they were in it for profit, and not to protect what was then considered a wholly expendable environment.

Mineral oils purified from crude petroleum had advantages over extracted animal and plant oils, because they did not oxidize quickly or become resinous when exposed to air, thus retaining many of their lubricant qualities until contaminated by dust, dirt or rubbed-off particles of the bearing surfaces.

The lighting market was huge and ushered in what came to be known in some circles as the “Age of Illumination.” It was only threatened by the introduction of electric lighting by Thomas Edison, and (I’d suggest) rescued at about the same time by the growth of internal combustion engines.

During this time, technology was developed that enabled single pumping stations to draw oil from the shales of several wells in proximity by conducting a “web” of pipes across the landscape. When the yield from such well fields declined to uneconomic levels, many extracting companies simply walked away, abandoning their facilities. In some cases, this happened more than a century ago and the abandoned wastes and old iron and steel structures have been swallowed up by the landscape.

EPA scientist and environmental engineer Vince Zenone cleans up these sites in the Pennsylvania hill country. He says that in the understory of what is now “old” growth and mature forest lurks a real hazard for those walking carelessly through the woods. Hidden in the undergrowth ready to surprise the unwary toe or bash the advancing shinbone, are pipes crisscrossing every which way. There are sumps saturated with oil working its way into groundwater and streams, as well as discarded “drilling muds” the pulverized rock, metal residuals and lubricants from the boring of hundreds of holes.

In the Chesapeake Basin, the use of petroleum products has escalated proportionately to the available resource and to growth and development. In our society, which to a large extent runs on the combustion of oils — from powerplants and home heating oil to motor vehicles and jet-skis — one effective way to track the overall impact of this usage is to look at the “PAHs” — poly-aromatic hydrocarbons— a general class of organic compounds resulting from combustion that have been deposited in the Bay’s sediments.

Dr. Jeff Cornwell at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Environmental Laboratory extracted a core from the Bay floor, miles from the nearest significant human influences. He measured benzo[a] pyrene, a PAH, at depths penetrating far into the past. His data showed it was present at very low background levels in 1878, as far back as samples reached. Cornwell began analyzing this particular compound in detail for the years after 1932, and found that it has generally declined to below the threshold of observed adverse effects on animals. This is good news from an environmental cleanup point of view, but on a map of benzo- [a]pyrene concentrations throughout the Bay, it reveals serious contamination in areas near our big metropolitan seaports.

PAHs are only one class of problem chemicals, many of which are not yet being controlled in society. It’s encouraging, though, that the reduction of smokestack and vehicle emissions as a result of federal and other clean air laws seems to be helping to stabilize our environment.

Combustion is not the only way that petroleum products enter the Chesapeake, as I found out years ago when I began to represent the Bay Program on the Upper Chesapeake Area Oil Spill Committee. This group brings together the EPA, U.S. Coast Guard, Fish and Wildlife Service and state representatives with contractors and responders who deal on the ground with various petroleum releases. Our job is to develop plans for meeting oil spill emergencies in the upper Bay. A long precedent — from the Amoco “Cadiz” and the Exxon “Valdez” to the destructive excesses of the Gulf War — illustrates that such planning is vital.

The flow of oil on ships, barges and via pipelines around the Bay is very large. For 1994, as an example, the Coast Guard estimates that 4,155,684,460 gallons annually transited the Chesapeake, not including local cargo moving from Baltimore to Norfolk.

Periodically, the committee sponsors actual on-the-ground exercises, where surprise scenarios — a night spill with a storm in progress on a holiday weekend — challenge teams on their readiness and judgment.

The reality, according to U.S. Coast Guard data, is that between 1985 and 1994 there were 3,651 oil spills around the Chesapeake totaling a disturbing 1,132,218 gallons. Most of these were “small” spills, from a few gallons to a few hundred, but some were much larger: 11 of these spills were greater than 10,000 gallons — up to 360,000 gallons — accounting for almost 70 percent of the total spilled volume.

More than a third of the spills in that time period occurred in Virginia’s troubled Elizabeth River, where 227,980 gallons were released. There were no spills, poignantly, in Maryland’s Patuxent River…

My colleague, Coast Guard Lt. Nick Cuccinelli said that he arrived at 2:30 a.m. April 8 at the site of the Swanson Creek oil spill. “How big is it?” he asked. “About 2,000, came the reply, and Cuccinelli began to calculate the hours ahead and a few days of cleanup facing his responders, only to find out that it was not gallons but nearly 3,000 barrels of 42 gallons each. This makes it one of the largest oil spills in the Bay’s history. To keep things in perspective, although lots of oil enters the Chesapeake every year, events of this size are fortunately rare.

It must have been a horribly frustrating for the first Potomac Electric Power Company guys out on Swanson Creek marsh that afternoon as light was failing and they were struggling to pull an oil-capturing boom across the creek to contain the product flowing off the marsh surface. Aside from the several acres drenched with a heavy, almost continuous mantle of oil, they had significant problems.

Boom deployment, spill experts tell me, is not a simple process, especially in a tidal environment. Assume that floating oil is coming down a creek toward a larger, uncontaminated body of water. Responders will sometimes anchor the boom midstream and upstream of its attachment points on the banks, so that the outward flow will deflect oil along the booms and toward the bank where it can be captured. This works in current regimes up to about one knot, (1.15 mph), before the boom begins to hydroplane, allowing oil to escape beneath it, or pour over its tilting top. The center of the boom is attached to the anchor not with one, but two rope lanyards, and these have to be trimmed in length so that the oil-capturing vanes on the boom remain vertical and doing their job. If, in the middle of the night, wind or current increases, or the tide simply reverses direction, the efficiency of retention can vastly change.

This, and more happened at the barrier between Swanson Creek and the Patuxent on Sunday, April 7, when a stiff cold front passed through followed by a spring gale mercilessly gusting from the northwest to 50 mph. It blew much of the water out of Swanson Creek and with it large quantities of oil, which went over against the opposite shoreline. A subsequent northeast gale blew much of it back against the Western Shore where booms were frantically being placed across creek mouths and at the openings of marshes against advancing oil.

Many shorelines were still oiled, and a significant number were adjacent to the yards of vocal and unhappy residents who demanded reparations ranging from dredging of the creeks to the installation of rock revetments along their shorelines. The immediate death toll for waterfowl, mammals and reptiles was sad — in the hundreds— but not as large as might have been expected based on other spills. Ecosystem and later population effects are still being assessed.

Over two weeks or more, the workforce attempting to contain and clean up the spill rose from 600 to more than 900. Two major shoreline problems were faced: the oiling of edges and interior patches of salt marsh where high tides had deposited heavy black oil, and the oiling of sandy beaches, especially those about to receive the annual migration of the Chesapeake’s diamondback terrapins. Cleanup crews, apprised of this, quickly began to deeply agitate some of these beaches with pumped water to flush out buried oil and oil which had bound to sand in dark pad-like formations. This continued for weeks in a few cases.

The marshes were visually more difficult: Once-green vegetation was now blackened, and debris and the peat surface was in some places sticky with the gloss of pooled oil. These areas were boomed off to stop the further spread of oil, and in some cases blotted by hand with absorbent diaper-like pads. At high tide, fibrous oil-absorbing “pompoms” were allowed to brush against oiled grasses. More than 1.3 million pounds of this cleanup material has, at this writing, been recovered for transport and incineration.

Beaches and marshes will be a long time healing to where the casual eye cannot tell them from unimpacted sites. It’s still unclear about the future for populations of resident marsh crabs, snails and the small animals and plants living in and among marsh peats and shoreline sediments. The problem is still a large one for this region of the Patuxent and its resolution will continue long after most people along the river put it behind them and go on with their lives.

The terrapin females, says Dr. Willem Roosenburg of Ohio University, dig their nests on the same beach every year and researchers indicate they are relatively sensitive to oiling, which can smother eggs by plugging the surface pores through which the embryos “breathe.” Roosenburg, who will study his turtles in coming years, wonders how this event will echo through a Patuxent population he has watched for 13 years.

Geologists looking via seismic sounding at sedimentary rock structures deep beneath the Chesapeake and our coastal waters some years ago, saw enough evidence that they sought to do exploratory drilling and to conduct a sale of leases such as had been done off the Carolinas.

I remember well the trucks doing their survey work along Southern Maryland roads. Public opposition at this point in our history has moved to block the process, at least until some future juncture when our hunger for more oil might overcome our concern about its incidental escape.