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COAST GUARD SCRAMBLES TO CLEAN UP 3 BIG OIL SPILLS

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After an extraordinary series of three shipping accidents in less than 24 hours, Coast Guard crews Saturday battled what they described as "major" oil spills in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, the Delaware River and Galveston Bay near Houston.

Up to a million gallons of light heating oil from a Greek-registered tanker that ran aground on Brenton Reef near Newport, R.I., late Friday afternoon continued to wash ashore on beaches and salt marshes, killing some shorebirds and raising the possibility of significant damage to Narragansett Bay, officials said.In the Delaware River, meanwhile, Coast Guard and private cleanup crews tried to contain an estimated 1.6 million gallons of heavy, No. 6 crude oil that oozed from a gash in the bottom of the Uruguayan-registered Presidente Rivera after the vessel apparently wandered from a marked channel and ran aground before dawn Saturday.

And in Texas, work crews with rakes and shovels scraped more No. 6 crude from the beaches of Galveston Bay, two miles from the site of a collision Friday evening between an oil tanker and an oil barge in the Houston Ship Channel.

In an unusual step, federal officials moved almost immediately to assume responsibility for cleaning up the Rhode Island spill, apparently the most serious of the three. The Coast Guard hired private contractors to help contain the spill with booms, and has assigned 400 people to various aspects of the cleanup effort, according to a Coast Guard spokesman.

"It's the largest (spill) in this area in many years," said Coast Guard Lt. Paul Wolf from Newport. "The federal government wanted to step in and get it cleaned up."

The move was in marked contrast to the Bush administration's initial response to the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, which dumped 11 million gallons of toxic crude into the bountiful waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound after grounding on a marked reef March 24. Shortly after that incident, President Bush expressed confidence in Exxon's ability to clean up the spill without federal involvement, but he changed his mind after protests from environmentalists and Alaska officials.

"We had two different situations," said Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., who flew to Rhode Island late Friday with Environmental Protection Administrator William K. Reilly. "In Valdez we had Exxon, a domestic company with deep pockets. In this case we had a foreign tanker and the captain didn't seem interested in moving all that quickly."

Saturday, Lujan and Reilly flew from Newport to Pennsylvania to assess the damage from the Delaware River spill, which Goldstein said had the potential to harm the Supawna Wildlife Refuge south of the Delaware River bridgeon the New Jersey side.

The three oil spills could hardly have come at a worse time for the oil industry, which only last week announced plans to establish five regional spill response centers at a cost of $250 million over five years. On Wednesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee is scheduled to vote on whether to extend by one year a moratorium on off-shore oil leasing in parts of Alaska, the East Coast and all of California.

"The industry is always saying that these things are few and far between, but what they show is that oil spills are a routine part of doing business," said Lisa Speer, senior staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The only way to protect sensitive areas is to keep oil out of them."

Coast Guard officials said the three mishaps pushed the service's spill-fighting abilities to the limits.

"I just came back from a month and a half in Valdez, and we were making a joke that now it's the East Coast's turn," said Chief Petty Officer Mark Kennedy, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Texas. "We must have said that to the wrong person."

The first of the three incidents occurred in calm seas and clear weather about 4:30 p.m. Friday, when the Greek-owned and registered World Prodigy struck a submerged rock near Brenton Reef about a mile south of Newport, the wealthy seaside resort at the mouth of Narragansett Bay.

The impact opened a gash in nine of the 560-foot vessel's 23 cargo tanks, but most of the oil had stopped leaking by Saturday afternoon, Coast Guard officials said. They declined to give a specific estimate of how much oil escaped from the nine tanks, which they said held about 1.6 million gallons.

Coast Guard officials moved to "federalize" the response to the oil spill within half an hour, according to Lujan, dispatching a trained oil-response team and skimming equipment from Mobile, Ala. by C-130 transport plane. Private contractors installed several thousand feet of ocean boom around the stricken vessel.

By Saturday afternoon, the spill created an oily sheen about five miles long, but officials said the impact is likely to be far less severe than that of the Valdez incident because No. 2 home heating oil is not much heavier than gasoline and evaporates quickly in warm weather, unlike the thick, tarry crude aboard the Exxon Valdez.

Still, the oil is toxic to marine life and shorebirds, and beaches were closed as environmental workers, National Guard units and even prison inmates worked to soak up the oil with absorbent pads, officials said.

The Coast Guard also had its hands full on the Delaware River, where investigators were still trying to determine how much oil had escaped from the Presidente Rivera, which was en route to an oil terminal near Philadelphia when it ran aground, officials said.

Lujan, who toured the area Saturday afternoon, said that as much as 1.6 million gallons appeared to be missing from the tanker, but that investigators had yet to establish whether it had all leaked into the river.

The spill in Galveston occurred about 6:30 Friday night when the tanker Rachel B. and a tugboat pushing three oil barges collided while traveling in opposite directions in the Houston Ship Channel in Galveston Bay, officials said. The tanker tore a hole in one of the barges that spilled an estimated 200,000 gallons.

"It's a narrow ship channel and the larger ships that go up and down it have to play a game called Texas chicken," said Kennedy, the Coast Guard spokesman.

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(ADDITIONAL INFORMATION)

Geography of spills

Here, at a glance, are some facts and figures on the multiple oil spills in the nation's waters Friday and Saturday.

RHODE ISLAND: Greek tanker World Prodigy ran aground at 4:30 p.m. EDT Friday at mouth of Narragansett Bay not far off Newport, R.I. Spill of heating oil estimated at up to 1.5 million gallons.

DELAWARE: Uruguayan tanker Presidente Rivera ran aground at 4:45 a.m. EDT Saturday in Delaware River near Claymont, Del. Spill of industrial heating oil estimated at up to 1.6 million gallons.

TEXAS: A tug-driven barge ruptured when it collided at 6:20 p.m. CDT Friday with a cargo vessel in the Houston Ship Channel near La Porte, Texas. Spill of heavy crude oil estimated at 250,000 gallons.