He must know somethin', But don't say nothin' -- Old Man River
It may be months before the rivers tell all. Or maybe never.
There was mild jubilation at Fredericksburg, Virginia, this week. "What spill?" asked the man who answered the phone at the environmental command post there. "We're packing up. It's all over." The country singer Hilo Brown might add, "All over not but the cryin'."
The strike forces that dealt for two weeks with the monstrous oil spill in a feeder to the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers and an even larger kerosene spill in Bull Run, which feeds the Occoquan and Potomac, have done their work.
The Rappahannock, according to Fairfax Settle of the Virginia Game Division, looked as good early this week as it has at any time since the spill March 6th.
At the Occoquan, Andy Lynn said, "Let's go fishing."
Two weeks ago 63,000 gallons of heating oil dumped into a tributary of the Rapidan high above Fredericksburg and turned more than 25 miles of the Rapidan and Rappahannock into a frothing, churning mess.
At Bull Run about 200,000 gallons of kerosene washed down to the top of Occoquan reservoir.
The problem, now that the worst is over and the rivers are returning to normal, is in assessing the environmental damage the spills inflicted.
An old man river isn't saying, just yet. On the Rapidan and Rappahannock there was "the potential for a real dramatic fish kill," said Richard Ayers, aquatic biologist for the Virginia Water Control Board. "But we haven't seen any real evidence of it yet.
"I'm one of the few optimists around here who believe the kill could have been minor," he said. "There are two schools of thought. One, that we've seen a representative proportion of fish that were killed and this just wasn't a major fish kill. Or two, that we've seen only the tip of it, because the high water and cold are keeping the dead fish from rising to the top where we could count them."
Ayers' concern and that of others trying now to figure out how much damage occurred is that as the water warms, new masses of dead fish could rise to the surface.
"At water temperatures below 40 degrees the decomposition process is very slow," said David Chance of the WCB. The fish could still be on the bottom, dead, and they might not show until the next several weeks as spring advances.
"Oddly enough," said Chance, "in the Rapidan where we expected the worst concentrations we haven't seen that much of a problem so far. We've also done some counting in the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg, and we know there were fish killed that far downriver.
"I think it's obvious we had some damage to the resident fish species. It was a very significant, serious oil spill." But how much damage, no one really knows.
The Rapidan/Rappahannock spill appears to be worse environmentally than the spill farther north, even though almost four times as much petroleum product coursed down through Bull Run.
The Occoquan was saved by the dam. The kerosene that flowed into Bull Run made a mess of the small stream, but it was largely captured by booms and suction machines in the still water near Bull Run Marina, at the head of the big reservoir in Northern Virginia.
That meant the lake itself and the Occoquan River below, which quickly runs into the Potomac, were subjected only to soluble pollutants that got below the booms.
"We feel that the pollution below the marina is diluted enough that it won't be a problem," said Ernie Watkins, the Water Control Board man at Occoquan.
"We're still seeing distressed fish in the coves above Bull Run Marina," he said early this week. "Our worse-case fear is that everything above the marina could be dead."
But even that worse case would not be disastrous in the long run.
"The potential for damage is much greater in the Rapidan and Rappahannock," said Jim McHugh of the Virginia Fish Commission.
"Even if you totally wiped out the fish population in Bull Run, the stream would quickly repopulate from the reservoir.
"In the river like the Rappahannock, if you wipe out a 20-to 25-mile stretch there's no major place to draw a new population from. They'd repopulate eventually from stocks upstream of the spill, but it could take three or four years.
"In an extreme case, we'd have to restock the river ourselves."
So far neither case appears as extreme as it might. Great good fortune put the spill in early March. A few weeks later and it would have concoided with the spawning run of anadromous fish coming up the Rappahannock and Potomac to reproduce -- perch, herring, shad and striped bass.
"Right now it doesn't appear that it will be a problem for the spawners," said McHugh."The timing was luckily in our favor. The oil roared down before the fish roared up. If it had been three or four weeks later, we'd have had the potential for really big trouble."
Officials now setting out to measure the environmental damage of the two spills from a ruptured Colonial Oil pipeline are reluctant to make predictions, other than to say early indications are it wasn't as bad as it could have been.
Some people who use the rivers are less optimistic.
Said Dickie Graves, who has lived on the Rappahannock for 21 years: "I'm afraid most of the chain of life in the river has broken down." He's found worms and minnows dead, along with bass and sunfish and catfish, chubs and suckers.
He has found blinded turtles and muskrats that are "so worried about cleaning themselves they won't spook until you're right on top of them." People brought into his shop two beavers, dead, coated with oil.
"I can't get anyone to tell me how it will affect the perch, herring, shad and rockfish coming up to spawn.
"I really can't feel optimistic now," he said. "I'm afraid we're never going to see the real picture."