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National Grid says not ‘more than 20 gallons’ of coal tar oil spilled in Seekonk River at Tidewater Landing site

On Dec. 1, weathered coal tar oil breached the booms at National Grid’s $400 million Tidewater Landing site in Pawtucket, marking the second spill in the last month at the site

National Grid is the property owner of the $400 million Tidewater Landing project site, which is being redeveloped into a soccer stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.HANDOUT

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Officials at National Grid told the Globe that it’s likely that “no more than 20 gallons” of weathered coal tar oil breached the absorbent boom and turbidity curtain in the Seekonk River last week.

Ted Kresse, a spokesman with the company, said National Grid is not characterizing the breach as “a spill,” and that it’s difficult to calculate exactly how much oil seeped into the river.

“Considering this isn’t a traditional ‘spill’ where the volume released might be easily quantifiable in comparison to a spill from a broken pipe or hit tanker, we do not know the exact amount of coal tar oils that seeped into the river and breached the boom containment system,” said Kresse in an email to the Globe. “That being said, an initial analysis estimated that it would likely not have been more than 20 gallons of weathered coal tar that breached the absorbent boom and turbidity curtain based on the type of sheen observed and the area the sheen covered.”

The breach was the second time in a month that an undetermined amount of thick, coal tar oil spilled into the Seekonk River, which contaminated soil and left a rainbow sheen on top of the water. The oil came from the Tidewater Landing Project, a $400 million site owned by National Grid, which is being redeveloped into a soccer stadium.


“It’s more of an oil seep coming from contaminated soils that are being remediated as part of the environmental cleanup at the Tidewater site,” he said. “The planning for the cleanup has been underway for years.”

National Grid began working on the Tidewater site in Pawtucket earlier this year, which was once the location of a plant where coal was converted into gas to power electrical plants through the mid-1900s. Much of the waste material the plant used was discarded on the site and would seep into the soil, contaminating it, due to the lack of environmental standards at the time. Site remediation has been necessary to remove polluted or contaminated soil, sediment, surface water, or groundwater.


The first spill to take place since October 2009 was on Nov. 12, when there was “foul weather, which breached the boom designed to keep the oil at bay, according to officials at the state Department of Environmental Management. National Grid is the responsible party, but was not found at fault. Instead, DEM told the company that it would have to bring in stronger booms, because Mike Healey, chief public affairs officer at the agency, said the booms that were on the site previously were “not adequate.”

Kresse said the company did add an additional absorbent boom as the agency requested. But then on Dec. 1, Healey said workers “disturbed” the soil that had been underneath a temporary hard cap and emergency crews were brought to the scene.

After the breach last week, many locals took to social media and posted pictures of dead fish that washed up on shore and reported a smell of “oil or diesel.” But the dead fish were not reportedly from the oil that seeped into the river, according to Healey.

A state marine biologist with DEM inspected the Seekonk River on Friday. Healey said she found only one species of dead fish, which was a menhaden (a baitfish that is among the most abundant species on the East Coast). He said it if hundreds of fish of various species were killed, along with waterfowl or wading birds, that it would be likely indicate a “a wider-scale contamination or poisoning due to the release of liquid coal byproducts.”


“The menhaden most likely died, however, due to cold shock, which they’re susceptible to. What happens is that the fish miss some sort of ‘environmental cue’ to leave the bay,” he said. “Maybe the timing of the seasonal temperature change didn’t line up with their internal clock or maybe there was good food availability in the bay that made them stay later and then miss their chance to migrate out.”

He added, “We do not believe the fish died because of contamination or poisoning but rather from a natural phenomenon.”

Senator Meghan Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat, said in a statement that they were only informed of the breach because of pictures they received from locals.

“This is not how regulatory bodies or communities should ever, ever have to find out about oil spills — particularly when those spills are hazardous to human, animal, and ecological health,” said Kallman. “Entities involved in remediation have the obligation to communicate clearly and promptly about this and any related issue. National Grid consummately failed to do so.”

National Grid will not be fined for the breaches in the last month, Healey confirmed, and said the company did exactly what they were supposed to, which was to inform DEM and other emergency crews immediately.


Kresse said National Grid has added an additional boom and absorbent matting and that they will be “closely monitoring” the area throughout the remainder of the remediation work to prevent any future breaches to prevent any “oils from migrating into the river.”

“The breach has been contained and we believe the measures we’ve taken have addressed any additional impacts, and we’ll continue to work with the appropriate agencies in the days ahead,” said Kresse.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.