Be vigilant toward our precious wetlands

Western Maine dodged a bullet this past Christmas Eve, at the very height of the holidays when most Mainers were distracted and the last thing people were thinking about was an environmental disturbance in their backyard. Based on initial findings, it may be Spring before it can be determined whether the environment is no longer in peril. Or, it may be longer.

On Dec. 24, oil from the Hebron Station School spilled into the nearby wetlands, forcing the closure of the school, relocation of students and a subsequent investigation by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The oil apparently seeped through the cement floor of the secured room where it leached into the wetlands. School was not in session at the time when a SAD 17 employee initially discovered the leak.

Last month, on Thursday, Jan. 30, Hebron residents and parents of schoolchildren from Hebron Station School attended a community meeting jointly held by SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts, Andrew Smith, Maine’s top health official with the Centers for Disease Control and top officials from the Maine DEP. Also in the audience were two members of the Hebron Selectboard and a member of the Paris Selectboard. They were there as citizen observers, and by all accounts were as interested in what transpired as anyone.

To describe some members of the audience as skeptical would be an understatement of massive proportions. Try agitated. Try irate. How about uncompromisingly cynical. By most accounts, they have a right to be.

The Power Point demonstration put on by SAD 17 and DEP was an impressive summary of what happened, what some of the ramifications are and measures that are being taken to remedy the damage that has resulted. It was a process-driven presentation chock full of potential worst-case scenarios.

But questions linger as to what caused the spill. Citizens also want to know why it took from Dec. 24 to Dec. 27 for it to be reported to DEP. Finally, what culpability should be shared by the two key parties, SAD 17 and C.N. Brown.

Moreover, questions are bound to be asked when Colpitts tells residents and parents of Hebron Station students that readings pertaining to unhealthy level readings were “within the guidelines.” These were pertaining to sample readings taken inside the school building after the spill.

Whose guidelines and by whose measurements are we talking about?

Representatives from C.N. Brown have not attended the two community meetings held so far, and both sides have gingerly avoided comments that they believe would place them in a liability risky situation.

Despite those maneuvers, Hebron residents and all those who have been impacted by the spill can never be overly zealous in their search for answers, albeit several may have been misguided in their personal assessment. For example, relying on the Internet to ascertain the level amounts and dangers posed by the oil spill may satisfy the need for immediate self absorption in one’s own expertise but it does little to move a serious discussion to one of a serious solution.

For their part, DEP officials, including Sheryl Bernard, the lead environmentalist on site, have been responsive to citizens inquiries.

Stephen Flannery, an oil and hazardous responder who supervises the Portland Response Division inside the DEP, says it’s “difficult to assess the total extent of the damage to the wetlands because of the snow covering and the ice,” and that “a large area that has been impacted.”

That echoes pretty much what Bernard and her colleagues told the audience at Hebron on Jan. 30. Flannery also described the wetlands in vivid detail, referring to them as a nutrient-filled ecosystem that act as a buffer that slows down elements so sediment can settle out. Oil, Flannery notes, is going to flow down the water. He added that if it’s in the Spring, it might not be a good time, as plant vegetation will attempt to rise, whereas in the Fall, they’re going dormant and are not as detrimental to plant life. At this point, the snow is acting an absorbent while magnifying the oil simultaneously, Flannery says.

DEP officials are also discouraging citizens from becoming their own individual environmental impact team by urging them to stay away from the spill. In their view, such well-intended acts will only exacerbate the oil spill’s negative impact. They are correct.

“The snow is acting as an absorbent itself,” Flannery notes. “It absorbs it and magnify it at the same time. We have so many ponds and lakes. We have several different wetlands, brackish, saltwater complete marshes, wooded wetlands, trees, shrubs.”

In short, Flannery states, wetlands are filters that slow down water runoff and helps with the settling of sediment. To be sure, these wetlands are ecological miracles that handle certain organic sediments and organic matter where “a lot of biological activity goes on.” The habitat is home to a lot of animals that, depending on the seasons, includes salamanders, amphibian frogs and “everything that happens here.”

That ecosystem, from a myriad of vantage points, is too high a price to pay for a preventable oil spill.

The oil spill into the wetlands behind Hebron Station School was a tragedy partially averted but it needs to be a wake-up call adhered to. Even the slightest error can wreak enormous disruption on these fragile water and marsh bodies that serve as repositories for all sorts of marine and aquatic life.

Any event such as this that compromises the integrity of one of Maine’s many natural resources, its wetlands, is something to take seriously. The public has a right to know everything that led to the disaster, and must be reassured that all measures are being taken to prevent similar occurrences in the future. We – especially those who are charged with this massive ecological responsibility – must be vigilant beyond measure to protect these ecological gems.

We hear about wetlands in other locations, such as Louisiana and the BP oil spill, and the man-made damage that can be caused when proper precautions and proper reporting aren’t given the highest priority. We all saw the oil feathered pelicans and the dead fish that washed ashore following that catastrophe.

And, just this past Friday, a barge carrying oil hit a chunk of ice in Walpole, Maine, and was leaking diesel fuel into the in the Damariscotta River. The incident happened near an aquaculture operation called Mooks Sea Farm, where Lincoln County dispatchers said about 100 gallons of fuel have spilled.

One hundred or 1,000, it doesn’t matter. It’s still oil. It’s still potentially dangerous, to both humans and the environment. And it’s still something that can be prevented.

The Hebron oil spill was much smaller than the BP disaster and larger than the one in Walpole. Still, its very size and the immediate impact clearly shows even the slightest oil spill is an environmental nightmare in the making.

Let’s clean all of this one up. Let’s take every imaginable measure to prevent similar near-disasters in the future. And let’s make sure that when it happens again, someone at the scene speaks up immediately. Not three days later.