Several Oak Bluffs businesses were shut down and at least one person was reportedly sent to the hospital Sunday morning following a volatile oil delivery mishap near the Sand Bar and Grill that sent a powerful geyser of diesel fuel into the air which rained down on rooftops as far as two blocks away.
According to town officials, approximately 700 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into an area in front of the Sand Bar and Grill on the Oak Bluffs harbor around 8 a.m., after the driver for the R.M. Packer Fuel Company connected to the wrong fuel tank. The tank he connected to, located under the sandy front yard of the Sand Bar and Grill, was already filled to capacity.
Pressure in the tank built up until a safety valve at the top of the tank blew, shooting diesel fuel into the air which reached all the way back to the Wash-A-Shore Laundromat on Circuit avenue extension.
Although oil was spewing into the air, the driver was unaware of the spillage and continued to operate the pump. Shielded by several buildings, he did not see the stream which was described by some as a "gushing geyser." The eruption soon subsided, but diesel fuel continued to pour out of the tank opening and saturate the soil in front of the Sand Bar and Grill.
Oak Bluffs harbor master Todd Alexander said one of his employees was conducting an inventory of the boats in the harbor when he noticed a red sticky substance seeping out of the ground. The employee contacted Mr. Alexander, who found the delivery truck parked in front of Nancy's Snack Bar and alerted the driver to the spillage.
What immediately followed was a wide-ranging cleanup effort that included members of the town police and fire departments, business owners and employees.
Andy Farrissey, owner of Farrissey Telecom, soon arrived and used a trailer-mounted vacuum normally used to excavate sand and mud, to clean up the diesel fuel before it spread into the town harbor.
Employees, rescue workers and even passersby carried heavy bags of a special absorbent product that helps clean up spills - a kind of industrial strength kitty litter - and spread it all over the harbor's edge to prevent the diesel fuel from seeping into the harbor.
At the same time, Mr. Farrissey used the vacuum to clean up the area around the broken valve.
Incredibly, officials yesterday said none of the diesel fuel made it into the town harbor. The wind was blowing off the harbor at the time, and the spray from the geyser fell back across the rooftops toward Circuit avenue and away from the water.
But the spill did its fair share of damage.
Several eyewitnesses said a woman standing in front of the Wash-a-Shore Laundromat was covered in oil when the diesel fuel cleared the rooftops and rained down on her. The woman was cleaned up and brought to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital as a precaution, one witness said.
The area in front of the Sand Bar and Grill was entirely excavated on Sunday and Monday and all contaminated soil was removed. As of yesterday, the popular harborside restaurant and bar was still closed, although owner Mark Wallace said he was hopeful it would reopen this week.
"We will work around the clock if we have to," Mr. Wallace told the Gazette yesterday at the site of the spill.
A crew from Clean Harbors Environmental worked all day yesterday to remove contaminated soil and clean up the site. Workers had removed about ten feet of soil and used a piece of equipment to check for diesel and other contaminants.
The strong smell of diesel hung over the harbor, which strengthened or abated depending on the direction of the wind. Several barricades also separated the public from the cleanup site.
Kathe Lattanzio, manager of the newly opened Sugar Shack restaurant which abuts the Sand Bar and Grill, said the restaurant was closed for lunch on Sunday. When it reopened later that night, the caustic stench of diesel fuel drove patrons away. For a restaurant trying to find its niche in the first year, she said, the timing could not be worse.
"We had to cut several servers early [Sunday] night because customers just weren't coming in; having an [environmental cleanup site] next door is not good for business, In the end it's going to hurt the bottom line for employees. This is the worst thing for them and the restaurant," she said.
Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton said the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) arrived on the scene Sunday morning to take over the cleanup effort. After DEP officials gave the okay early Monday, soil was removed from the site and loaded into lined containers and taken off-Island by barge.
Mr. Dutton said approximately 700 gallons of diesel fuel was spilled, and he estimated that between 50 and 70 yards of soil will need to be removed and replaced. All things considered, Mr. Dutton said the spill could have been worse.
"It's really quite remarkable that the spill didn't reach the harbor. A lot of credit goes to everyone involved - from town officials to the police to the people who work down there. It was really a community effort," Mr. Dutton said.
Mr. Dutton said the town should not be liable for any damages incurred in the spill.
Ralph Packer, owner of R.M. Packer Co., said yesterday he had spoken to the driver who reported he had no warning he was pumping into a full tank. There are usually several safeguards to notify an operator of a problem - including an audio and visual alarm - but those measures may have failed for some unknown reason, he said.
"There is a chance the alarm system did not operate properly - we are still looking into it," Mr. Packer said.
Mr. Packer said the company will continue to work with DEP officials and Clean Harbors Environmental to ensure the area is properly cleaned.
Oak Bluffs fire chief Peter Forend said he will meet with Mr. Packer to learn more about what might have caused the spill. He said he was particularly interested in learning if and why the alarm system failed.
"Even if a secondary warning system needs to be installed, the bottom line is steps will be taken to help prevent this from happening again in the future," Mr. Forend said.