Clamming is All but over on the Wood Island Flats

June 29, 2011
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Clamming is all but dead on the  Wood Island flats since a fuel spill of some kind and of undetermined size allegedly wiped out the clam population last October.

No one in a position of responsibility aware of the ruined clam flats has been willing or able to pinpoint the exact reason for the change in the ecology that led to the death of the clams themselves.

Massport continues to be tightlipped about just how much jet fuel was spilled into the waters surrounding Logan International Airport back in October, which allegedly caused the decimation of the local clam population. Tight lipped as well are the deliverers of jet fuel, the Swissport Company.

“We can not give an accurate estimation of how much jet fuel was spilled on October 7 but we continue to look into it,” said Logan International Airport spokesman Phil Orlandella.

Orlandella added that in his experience the inability to get a rough estimate of spilled gallons of jet fuel is highly unusual considering the procedures in place to report a fuel spill.

Local clammers from East Boston and Winthrop that have dug soft-shell clams from the mud flats surrounding Logan for decades have drawn a correlation between the October jet fuel spill and the death of thousands of clams in the flats.

In his last 30 years of clamming on the clam flats that surround Logan International Airport John Denehy had never seen clams die off like they did in the final months of 2010.

“Usually I would get about 1,000 pounds of clams a day,” Denehy told the East Boston Times two weeks ago. “When I went to the flats this past November there was zero clams that were alive.”

The dead clams that Denehy collected across from Constitution Beach in the area the clammers call the Wood Island Flats were sent off to be tested by the state’s Marine Fisheries Department and results came back that the clams died of  neoplasia or clam cancer that killed off the majority of the clams. This cancer, in most cases, is caused by hydrocarbons found in jet fuel.

However, Massport spokesman Matt Brelis told the Washington Post that only soft shell clams were affected so he found it unlikely that they died from the fuel spill but did not say how much was spilled by Swissport/BOS Fueling, one of two fueling companies contracted to refuel airliners at Logan.

“I’ve clammed there for three decades and that is the ‘only’ type of clam out there,” argued Denehy. “Maybe you find an occasional razor clam or periwinkle but all the clams are of the soft shell variety.”

While Swissport was also unsure how much fuel was spilled according to the records obtained by the East Boston Times the documents showed that 463 gallons of a fuel/water mixture, 18 cubic yards of oily absorbents and four cubic yards of oily sludge were quietly cleaned up by Clean Harbor and sent to its facility in Braintree.

Usually when fuel is spilled the fueler reports the spill to his supervisor who reports it to the company in charge of fueling the plane. The company then reports the exact amount of fuel spilled to Massport who then reports it to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Affairs.

“It very easy to calculate,” said a former Globe Ground employee (the other company aside from Swissport that fuels planes at Logan) who wished to remain nameless. “Let’s say you have a 10,000 gallon fuel truck that is giving a plane 5,000 gallons and there is a spill. You would simply find out how much went into the plane and how much is left in the truck. So if you put 4,000 gallons into the plane and there is 5,000 left in the truck you know 1,000 gallons was spilled. It’s simple math and all these measurements are meticulously watched by the fueling companies because fuel is so expensive.”

The employee added that she is not surprised Orlandella said his inability to find out how much was spilled was ‘unusual’.

“These spills are reported directly to Massport with the amount spilled,” she said. “Sounds to me that there was an unusually high amount of jet fuel spilled if they can’t give him or the newspaper a number.”

Logan has a series of outfalls that surround the airport and discharge rainwater from the runways but sometimes jet fuel and deicing that gets spilled at the airport is mixed in and discharged into the harbor. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) allows for a certain level of these discharges but Denehy is convinced it had to be a massive Jet Fuel spill was the cause of the clam’s demise.

Records obtained by the Times shows that in October 2010, a month before Denehy found the dead clams,  the DEP was notified of a jet fuel spill by Massport and Clean Harbor–a private agency charged with cleaning up environmental spills at Logan.

Sources at the airport have said that the spill was caused when a Swissport employee refueling an aircraft overrode the safety mechanism called the ‘dead man’ on the refueling hose, went back into the fueling truck and fell asleep. By the time he woke up an undetermined number of gallons of jet fuel had been spilled and later discharged into the harbor.

This practice, known in the industry as ‘Jamming the Dead Man’ is all too common practice at Logan Airport according to former Globe Ground Fuel Supervisor George DiCicco.

On the refueling pumps, DiCicco, explained is the ‘dead man’ , which is a slang term used for the safety mechanism on the hose that forces fuel company workers at Logan to manually pump jet fuel into planes. If a worker becomes incapacitated for any reason and lets go of the hose the fuel will automatically stop pumping from the fueling truck because the worker has let go of the manual lever.

“The term dead man comes from the thought that is someone was refueling a plane and died while doing it the hose would stop working and there would be no jet fuel spilled,” said DiCicco.

However, many workers jam the safety mechanism with pen caps, rocks and other materials in order to override the safety system.

“I’d say about 90 percent of workers do it at least once,” said DiCicco. “When I was at Globe Ground we had two major spills because one of the workers jammed the dead man…in one case jet fuel was shooting out of the wings of the plane.”

With the unpredictable weather that usually befalls Logan and the North East, DiCicco said many workers do it because they don’t want to stand out in the rain, snow or cold for the 20-30 minutes it takes to refuel the plane. Other times it’s just simple laziness.

“Everyone knows about the practice,” he said. “Fuel company management, Massport…the thing is if you get caught jamming the dead man it’s suppose to be an automatic termination but most times it’s swept under the rug unless there is a major accident or spill.”

  • Melissa

    How sad…

  • Eastiegails

    So where did the investigation take Massport?  Clean Harbors cleaned up the spill.  Surely there must be some environmental enforcement on this.   Sounds rather strange that these clam beds seemed to die off naturally.

  • L. Buchanan

    Interesting article, and although some of it might be true. I would stand by my 20+ years, that all members of Massport’s Fire-Rescue Department keep a keen eye out for that sort of behavior with an absolute zero tolerance for anyone messing with the “Dead-Man-Switch”!

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