Oil Spill Fears in New York Harbor: They're Real

On any warm summer day, thousands of people find a place on the edges of New York Harbor to fish, go crabbing or just enjoy the water.

One of them is Kim Tirelli, a mother from Monroe Township, N.J.

Asked about the impact of an oil spill, Tirelli said "I think it would be a disaster," then quickly added the word "horrible."

Only with the biggest accidental oil spill ever -- BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year -- did it become generally known that the federal government plans for this sort of thing in every major port.

And while there are no oil wells being drilled in the waters of New York Harbor, there are plenty of oil tankers and oil barges entering, exiting and going back and forth in one of the busiest harbors in the world.

So the U.S. Coast Guard plans for a "worst-case" scenario: the collision of two big tankers just south of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island to Brooklyn.

Could it really happen here?

"It is realistic for a worst-case discharge to happen anywhere there are a lot of vessels transiting though with the type of oil products we have," said Lt. Commander Andre Murphy, who is charged with response planning for the Coast Guard in the Port of New York.

(In fact, in recent years, there have been many small spills, and a couple of more significant accidents in the harbor -- although none approached this 'worst case' scenario.)

And under the Coast Guard's nightmare scenario, it would happen with a light snow falling in the dead of winter, on a late Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend, with a flood, or incoming tide guaranteed to spread the oil far and wide throughout the harbor and up the Hudson River (at least the lower part subject to tidal action).

Within 24 hours, with two flood tides having churned through the Verrazano Narrows, the oil would lap the shores of Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty stands as one of New York's most popular tourist attractions.

It would go on to coat the Manhattan shoreline, likely beyond the George Washington Bridge, as well as the beaches of Coney Island and Staten Island and all of the shoreline of Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook--the latter part of the National Park System's Gateway National Recreation Area.

Under the Coast Guard scenario, one tanker would lose 10.5 million gallons of oil. The other would lose 8.4 million gallons (Exxon Valdez lost just over 11 million gallons in Prince William Sound, Alaska).

 "It would be really disastrous," said NY/NJ Baykeeper Debra Mans as she toured part of the harbor, "It's a really diverse estuary."

While many think of New York Harbor as a polluted and hopelessly degraded working port, the Baykeeper and other organizations along with state and federal governments, have been working for years to restore some of the natural habitat.

That includes oyster restoration(despite a setback from the NJ DEP this summer that effectively banned oyster research in New Jersey waters) and habitat restoration.

In some areas, marsh grass is overflowing with green and blue claw crabs, fiddler and horseshoe crabs--along with their eggs.

And despite miles of boom that is kept on hand around the harbor, even the Coast Guard admits it would be hard-pressed to protect shorelines.

"Oil hits the water and moves pretty fast, especially with the current here in New York," said Lt. Commander Murphy.

One big unknown is how good the response plans of nearly two dozen oil industry companies scattered around the harbor really are.

Despite requests by NBCNewYork, those plans are considered proprietary.

It is unknown if any of them deal with non-existent walruses, the way the plans of BP and other oil companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico did. (Other than the Arctic, several thousand miles away, the only known walruses around the Gulf or New York Harbor would be in a zoo).

Follow Brian Thompson on Twitter @brian4NY

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