Narragansett Bay is the defining feature of Rhode Island, covering 147 miles it forms the largest natural estuary in New England and sits at the heart of the state. Its riches are at once natural, recreational, aesthetic, cultural, economic, and spiritual. Residents and tourists alike depend on the coastal environment for both recreational and economical pursuits. DEM has responded to two significant oil spills in the Bay in 1989 and 1996.
On June 23, 1989, several hundred thousand gallons of fuel oil were spilled at the mouth of the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island after the tanker MV World Prodigy ran aground on a reef near Aquidneck Island.
World Prodigy, a ship operated by Ballard Shipping under the Greek flag, was inbound to Providence when she ran aground offshore from Brenton Point State Park, after passing the wrong side of a buoy marking the channel. An estimated 300,000 gallons of oil was released into the Bay and covered close to 50 square miles. While much of the oil evaporated, the clean-up cost nearly $2 million.
After the collision, World Prodigy's captain, Iakovos Georgudis, was charged with two violations of the Clean Water Act and Ballard Shipping with one. Both the captain and company pleaded guilty; Ballard paid $1 million and Georgudis $10,000 in fines.
The North Cape oil spill took place on Friday, January 19, 1996, when the tank barge North Cape and the tug Scandia grounded off Moonstone Beach in South Kingstown, spilling an estimated 828,000 gallons of home heating oil. This spill was the worst in Rhode Island history, with oil spreading throughout a broad area of Block Island Sound and beyond, including shoreline of the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge
More than 200 square miles of commercial fishery were closed for several months following the spill. Hundreds of oiled birds and large numbers of dead lobsters, surf clams, and sea stars were recovered in the weeks following the spill. State and federal agencies undertook considerable work to clean up the spill and restore lost fishery stocks and coastal marine habitat. The North Cape oil spill is considered a significant legal precedent in that it was the first major oil spill in the continental U.S. after the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, resulting from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska on March 24, 1989. The law is designed to compensate the public for losses resulting from an oil spill. Over a year after the spill, the owners of the tug and paid a total of $9.5 million in criminal and other costs.
Many organizations were involved to find a solution to the disaster, and to find a way to clean up all the oil from the deep levels of the bay. DEM, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), US Fish & Wildlife service, and the United States Coast Guard, along with partners, worked together to create a restoration plan following the spill. Projects included restocking wildlife populations and protecting and enhancing their habitats. This incident and other disturbances have illustrated the need to improve both the ecological and social resilience of coastal environments.