A switch in the wrong position caused Oceana’s largest ever jet-fuel spill, Navy says

By Courtney Maebus, The Virginian-Pilot


An incorrectly positioned switch that routed jet fuel into a tank that was too small and overflowed for hours appears to be the cause of a spill last week at Oceana Naval Air Station that contaminated a nearby creek and chased residents from their homes, Navy Rear Adm. Jack Scorby said Friday.

Scorby, commander of Navy Region Mid-Atlantic, said how the switch was left in the wrong position is still under investigation. The jet fuel was routed into a 2,000-gallon tank instead of three 880,000-gallon tanks. The Navy doubled the number of active-duty and civilian personnel assigned to stand watch and handle quality control around the clock at the fuel farm where the spill occurred, following a safety review, he said.

About 94,000 gallons of jet fuel – the equivalent of a little more than 1,700 55-gallon drums – spilled during a routine refueling at Oceana during the evening of May 10. It is believed to be the largest ever at Oceana, the Navy’s master East Coast jet base.

The spill went unnoticed until the next morning. By then, about 25,000 gallons had spread to London Bridge Road as well as a ditch that runs parallel to it and into Wolfsnare Creek, a tributary of the Lynnhaven River.

Oceana’s tanks are filled about three times weekly from a fuel barge on the Intracoastal Waterway via an above-ground pipeline. Those refuels are automatic and scheduled, said Beth Baker, a Navy Region Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman. The Navy estimated the cost of the fuel at $1.91 per gallon, or about $184,000 for what spilled.

While Navy, Coast Guard, Virginia Beach and other state and federal crews worked to contain the fuel in the days following the spill, their actions weren’t fast enough for some local residents who complained of the fuel’s acrid smell, sore throats and headaches. An initial projection that crews would be able to clean the spill within 48 hours was “overly optimistic,” Scorby said Friday.

While environmental readings taken every couple hours have not shown residents’ health to be at risk, he said he expects the work to continue at least until early next week before moving into remediation. About 180,000 gallons of a mix of fuel and water had been recovered as of Wednesday, the Navy said.

“We’re going to take however long it takes to make sure we do a thorough and full cleanup effort,” Scorby said.

There are no national standards for exposure to the jet fuel spilled at Oceana, said Dr. Heidi Kulberg, Virginia Beach Director of Public Health. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health sets an air quality benchmark for workers without respiratory protection at 14 parts per million for an 8-hour day over a 40-hour work week, she said.

There was one reading of 17 parts per million taken in the Oceana spill’s immediate aftermath, but that was far away from a residential area, Kulberg said. All other readings taken since then have been well below that, she said.

Air quality readings taken in affected neighborhoods since Tuesday afternoon have been near zero, Scorby said. Tests of drinking water wells of two area residents also came back clear.

The Navy said booms placed along Wolfsnare Creek appeared to have stopped the fuel before it reached the Lynnhaven River, but approximately 700 animals – about 75 percent of which were fish – have been found dead.

As of Friday morning, 48 families – 177 people – had accepted the Navy’s offer to temporarily move to area hotels, Navy officials said.

Sean Pullman, whose home in Brook Greene Commons backs up to Wolfsnare Creek, said his wife and son were among those whom the Navy put up at a Clarion Inn & Suites in Virginia Beach on Thursday while he worked.

Pullman said that, while crews appeared to tackle the cleanup quickly, it took longer for residents to get answers.

Near Pullman’s home, about a dozen trucks lined Arrowfield Drive, which leads to the creek. Though the breeze wafted only a faint smell of jet fuel Friday, Pullman said he still planned to join his family at the hotel later that day. He said his wife remained concerned.

“The first couple of days, it was like sticking your head in a fuel drum,” Pullman said. “Our house smelled like a garage.”

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