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Marine Environment Protection and Safety: Con Edison East River Oil Spill

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 3520 words Published: 18th May 2020

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    The Con Edison East River spill took place on the May 07,2017 between 12.30pm-1.30pm.

    The oil was released from Fraggut substation in Brooklyn near to the east river.

    The catastrophic failure caused 37000 gallons of dielectric fluid an mineral oil that is used to prevent electric discharges leaked into the river.

    The oil did not directly leak into the river it first seeped into the ground and then gradually started to seep into the river.

    During the spill approximately 5200 gallons of mineral oil was spilled in the river but only 520 gallons were recovered.

    The same substation had approximately 179 leaks before this one but this one was one of the largest. The company then ran a test on Thursday to see how the leak was caused, so they squirted a green dye into the soil to see where it leads into the river.

    Divers inspected around the waterfront substation and the perimeter and found 4-inch hole in the ground. They found the hole and plugged it to prevent any further leaks.

    They also decided to build a barrier around the substation to prevent any such incident in the future. They used booms, absorbent sheets and skimmers to clean up the oil.


Evaluated Data

Transformer oil

Transformer oil (insulating oil) is an oil that is stable at high temperatures and has excellent electrical insulating properties. Transformer oil is most often based on mineral oil, but alternative formulations with better engineering. It is also known as insulating oil or Mineral. Insulating Oil or Mineral oil or Transformer oil. Stable at high temperature. Excellent electrical insulating properties. Primary functions are to insulate and cool a transformer. Transformer oil is any of various colorless, odorless, light mixtures of higher alkanes from a mineral source, particularly a distillate of petroleum.


•         Toxic

•         Not Flammable

•         Eye irritation

•         May irritate the skin

•         Does not affect marine life

•         Dangerous to life and health for long time exposure

Mechanical Properties

•         High thermal conductivity.

•         High chemical stability.

•         High dielectric strength.

•         Flash point – 140 ⁰C or greater.

•         Pour point – 30 ⁰C or lower.

•         Dielectric breakdown voltage 28kV or greater.


    An Oil  spill occurred in East river because of an equipment failure by Con Edison ’s Farragut substation which is located near by east river, Dumbo, Brooklyn, New York  city.

    The East river is salt water river in NY city, It connects to upper New York bay. The water way is navigable for its entire length for 16 miles and was historically the centre of maritime activities in the city.

    No Action Scenario:

    If they do not take action at a time, wind can spread spilled oil in water and make it difficult to locate.

    It would be spread by ferries, boats and ships and sometime it could be toxic for surrounded inhabitants and marine wild life as well.

    If the leak mixes with the ground water drinking water can be contaminated.












    For response options, They can consider some spill clean up techniques like plant

    Booms, take help of various types of skimmers, marine Dispersants and in-situ burning

    So deployment of Booms and Skimmers and Absorbent sheets would be the best option to apply on oil spilled area to collect oil from water body surrounded by marine wild life and human beings.

    When Oil spill happened in east river because of a ‘Catastrophic’ transformer failure, Con Edison company has responded immediately to spill by placing booms , Absorbent sheets and skimmers into the River.

    Company employees and contractors were working cordially with the US Coast Guard and New York state Department of Environmental conservation


    River is surrounded by approx. 26,36,735 people so it is not possible to spray dispersants and apply in-situ burning because of harmful and toxic to living organism.

    When talk about marine dispersants, it is used frequently and easy to put on but their long term effects are limited and dispersed hydrocarbon might enter in food chain laying worst effects on environment, marine life and human beings.

    In-situ burning can increase air pollution and risk associated with health and safety of workers as well as damage caused by residue from spill as well as incomplete combustion of oil

    They should have put booms on the periphery of substation sight which can cover river side area and can help to prevent oil spill spreading out in the river and Skimmers can skim oil easily from close periphery.

    Various types of skimmers can help to collect or recover oil from water as weir skimmers, Oleophilic skimmers which attracts oil, Drum type skimmers, belt skimmers and disk skimmers.

    When spill started on Sunday and by Monday night the hazardous fluid had spread so far out in the river so coast has declared a ‘safety zone’ and after being a ‘no wake zone’ area.

    After 4 days of oil spill, company patched 4 inch hole that they believed allowed the spill in the river.

    The hole was discovered during test that was conducted in which Con Edison engineers squirted a green dye into ground and around the facility which can led where spill happened and being spread in the River.



Facts Data And Consequences


    The transformer oil did not directly leak into the river but it first seeped into the ground and then it started to leak into the river.

    The leaking oil started to enter into the East river, Con Edison responded immediately to the spill by placing booms, absorbent sheets and skimmers into the river.

    A statement was made by Con Edison spokesperson Allan Durry that “the company’s employees and contractors were working cordially with the US coast guard and the New York state department of environmental conservation”.

    The spill started on Sunday afternoon and by Monday night the hazardous fluid had spread so far out into the river that the coast declared a “ safety zone” stretching from the water of Green Point and Midtown down to Red Hook.

    Due to the spill all the ferries, boats and all other marine vessels were prohibited to enter into the river to avoid any type of contact with the oil.

    By Tuesday they started to have little but slow movements so as to comply with a “ no wake zone” in the spill area.

    Conroy a spokesperson at Con Ed said that it isn’t that toxic as kinds of oils we usually associate with oil spills, such as diesel fuel and petroleum, however if any humans come in contact with the oil they should immediately wash their skin and avoid touching their eyes as the oil can cause irritation to eyes and skin.

    Reposts said that previously the substation had spewed more than 8400 gallons of transformer oil, hydraulic oil and antifreeze into the soil and the river over the years. This data is from the “State’s Spill Incident Database”.

    The same substation had approximately 179 leaks before this one but this one was said to be the one of the largest spills amongst all the others. The facility had the most number of spills in the city, according to a review of the State’s Database which tracks spills back to 1978

    The Con Ed site on 59th Street and 12th Avenue in Manhattan had the second worst environmental record for the agency according to the state’s database.

    The synthetic mineral oil was considered “non-toxic” by the state’s DEC and is less harmful to water quality and wildlife.

    Approximately 5,200 gallons of mineral oil was spilled in the river. But they still cannot account for the 37000 gallons of dielectric oil that could still be trapped in the soil or lost into the river during the equipment failure.

    Con Ed officials said that Thursday they patched a 4-inch hole that they believed allowed the spill in the river. The hole was discovered during a test that was conducted in which Con Ed engineers squirted a green dye into the ground and around the facility and divers around the waterfront substation inspected the perimeter to see where the green water made its way into the river.

    The officials said they found one little hole and plugged it so prevent any further spill.

    They also added that next month they would build a new barrier and and substation to shore up the location against future spills.

    520 gallons of oil was skimmed from the river.

    The green dye that was used during the test was nontoxic and would not harm the fishes or the environment and is frequently used by agencies to find out different leaks.

    The Boaters, ferry, riders and North Brooklyn residents were notified that if they see green streaks or sheens on the river they should not be alarmed said the officials.

    The current of the river made it almost impossible to collect and locate the spilled oil.

    The oil that was collected contained low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCB’s which pose mineral hazard to the public.

    There were delays and service changes for the New York city ferries which caused economical loss too.

    Along with the changes in ferries Con Ed also noted that the equipment failure led to a “voltage dip” that affected the MTA’s subway signalling system leading to train delays.


It is necessary to have an emergency plan to deal with the consequence of the oil spill.  A response strategy specialist should identify the best suitable measures to the assigned scenario. This will help them to choose appropriate methods to minimise environment impact that cause by the oil spills. Those method that we use commonly are, Booms, Skimmers, chemical dispersants, sorbents, in situ burning, vacuum systems, pumps, and shoreline cleanup systems etc. (Characteristics of Response Strategies n.d.)

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 In the current scenario of the Con Edison East River Oil Spill in the downtown Brooklyn, New York, was really a challenging task to choose the suitable response as it was near the urban area where a lot of people live. So, it wasn’t easy for them to choose some common measures. After a brief examination and research of the surrounding spill area they finally end up with these following suggested methods. (East River Oil Spill 2017)


Booms are temporary floating protection barriers which used to contain marine spills and protect the environment. Many kind of booms available which are suitable for different occasions that ranging from small, lightweight models which are suitable for small marine spills in sheltered water which can deploy manually through to the robust open sea booms which is very large and require sizeable vessels to handle them. (Containment & Recovery – ITOPF n.d.)
there are three classification for booms based on its size and the maximum height of the waves where the oil spill occurred. The con Edison oil spill happened in the East River New York where the wave height is some around 0.5 meter. As the water is protected type we assumed the height of the boom between 55 to 110 cm. (Li et al. 2018)


The function of skimmers is to remove the oil from the marine water surface and skimmers usually used with booms to clear all the oil which contained with booms. Selecting the skimmer design base on the oil viscosity as well as the sea condition. As the skimmer floats on the water same like booms, it will face operational difficulties posed by waves, wind and current. Most skimmer designs efficiency will drop even with moderate wave motions. Simple skimmers are devices which suck and remove oil from the surface of the marine water. This design usually use on the calm condition. Another complex design comes with discs, ropes or oleophilic belts. Another one is with brush system which generates vortices to recover the oil. (Containment & Recovery – ITOPF n.d.)  In our situation as it was light oil, they used the brush skimmers which is efficient enough to clean heavy oil as well as light they used it along with the vacuum/suction which is most efficient for light to medium oils. (TIP_5_Use_of_Skimmers_in_Oil_Pollution_Response.pdf n.d.)

Chemical Dispersants

These are the combination of emulsifier. this is sprayed on the surface of leaked oil and it will help the oil to breakdown and make it smaller droplet which is really easy to mix with the sea water. But the chemical dispersants don’t help to reduce the volume of oil entering the environment but it will move the oil from the surface to underwater and make it less visible. That makes it still hazardous to the marine life under the ocean.  (Dispersants n.d.)
dispersants are usually apply with aeroplanes or helicopters. But it can be applied with boats too. Make it more efficient and increase the chance make it effective the service in charge people usually coose the beast combination of chemical and droplet size as well as rate of application. Also, for perfect target they use spotter planes which has infrared detectors to identify the spills.

 as it is not environment friendly and the oil spilled in east river wasn’t toxic they didn’t need to use this.


Sorbents are materials which is insoluble or material mixtures which is used to recover spilled oil by using the absorbing mechanism. absorbents help to absorb the spilled oils and store in its molecular structure. The absorbents should be at least seventy percent insoluble in excess fluid. And commonly absorbents are really helpful to clear up final trace of oil after the skimmer been used. And the sorbent must be both oleophilic and hydrophobic in order to effective in the nature. (Sorbents | US Environmental Protection Agency n.d.). sorbents are classified into three, organic, inorganic, and synthetic. The common sorbents are synthetic sorbents like nylon fabrics, synthetic sorbents as they are environment friendly and high pick up rate. In our situation they have used synthetic sorbents.

Pump/Vacuum System

They recover  oil with the boom and skimmers are pumped it to storage tanks using suitable pumping system (Oil Spill Response Field Guide, 1996). They recover wide range of liquids from the water and even from the ground. And vaccuming trucks are available and its often called spill clean up service. These things can suck any kind of oil. But the vaccum system isn’t much efficient if the skimmer isn’t attached to the suction hose. (Oil Spill Vacuum Systems | Learn more at cleanupoil.com n.d.)

Shoreline Clean-up

The main aim to clean oil spill is to not disturb our ecological system surround the spill area so that includes the shoreline. In shoreline clean-up very common method is physical clean-up procedures that includes natural recovery. For this we use vacuum systems and remove contaminants manually.

The spill which left open, will be later cleaned up by the biodegradation and evaporation. The manual cleanup procedures include clean up light debris and small oil traces by shovels and trucks. (How Do Oil Spills Get Cleaned up on Shore? | response.restoration.noaa.gov n.d.)

considering all the responses, it is hard to follow or trust a single cleaning method. So, a combination of several methods are attributed for effective cleanup process. So, the con Edison east river oil spill used a combination of different methods that mentioned above including booms, sorbent, skimmer and shoreline cleanup methods.


  • “Characteristics of Response Strategies.” : 76.
  • “Containment & Recovery – ITOPF.” https://www.itopf.org/knowledge-resources/documents-guides/response-techniques/containment-recovery/ (June 11, 2019).
  • “Dispersants.” https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/energy/dirty_energy_development/oil_and_gas/gulf_oil_spill/dispersants.html (June 11, 2019).
  • “East River Oil Spill: ‘Catastrophic’ Con Ed Fail Spews 37,000 Gallons Of Transformer Oil.” 2017. New York City, NY Patch. https://patch.com/new-york/new-york-city/east-river-oil-spill-coned-transformer-spews-37-000-gallons-dialectric-fluid (June 10, 2019).
  • “How Do Oil Spills Get Cleaned up on Shore? | Response.Restoration.Noaa.Gov.” https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/how-do-oil-spills-get-cleaned-shore.html (June 11, 2019).
  • Li, Yaqin, Shannon L. Meseck, Mark S. Dixon, and Gary H. Wikfors. 2018. “The East River Tidal Strait, New York City, New York, a High-Nutrient, Low-Chlorophyll Coastal System.” International Aquatic Research 10(1): 65–77.
  • “Oil Spill Vacuum Systems | Learn More at Cleanupoil.Com.” https://www.cleanupoil.com/oil-spill-vacuum-systems/ (June 11, 2019).
  • “Sorbents | US Environmental Protection Agency.” https://archive.epa.gov/emergencies/content/learning/web/html/sorbents.html (June 11, 2019).
  • “TIP_5_Use_of_Skimmers_in_Oil_Pollution_Response.Pdf.” https://www.itopf.org/fileadmin/data/Documents/TIPS%20TAPS/TIP_5_Use_of_Skimmers_in_Oil_Pollution_Response.pdf (June 11, 2019).
  • “Uscg Fog.Pdf.” https://www.nrt.org/sites/2/files/uscg%20fog.pdf (June 11, 2019).


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