Clammers Are Prepared to Go to Federal Court over Oil Spill

Twenty clammers affected by the massive clam die-off last year that they say was caused by a significant oil spill at Logan Airport are prepared to file a lawsuit in federal court against the fueling company and Massport.

The group of New England clammers, through their lawyer, have drafted an Oil Pollution Act Letter and sent it to Massport and the fueling company Swissport/BOS Fueling, one of two companies that refuels planes at Logan International Airport.

Both Swissport and Massport have 90-days to respond to the letter and make the clammers an offer for lost wages due to the oil spill and clam die-off before the formal lawsuit in Federal Court is filed.

Sources close to the case are pessimistic at best and do not think the companies will make the clammers the offer they need to cover the significant amount of money lost from the alleged killing of the clams in the beds that surround Logan by Swissport.

The clammers are also prepared to file a second lawsuit in federal court against Massport for the taking of clam-flats off Constitution Beach due to its proposed Runway Safety Area (RSA) project. That project is expected to extend a portion of runway 600 ft. into the waters off Logan and disrupt clam bed activity and the practice of clamming on flats that dates back to pre-colonial times.

Before the talk of lawsuits, Swissport, who stands accused of allegedly spilling hundreds of gallons of jet fuel into the water between the airport and Eastie had agreed to test the sediment in the clam beds for petrochemicals contamination.

The clammers have since become frustrated as they have not been given the results of Swissport’s test.

Both Swissport and Massport have maintained that no jet fuel made it beyond the North Outfall booms that are in position to contain large fuel spills. “There is definitely a cause and effect here,” maintains clammer John Denehy. “There is no way this many clams just upped and died for no reason.”

In his last 30 years of clamming on the clam-flats that surround Logan, 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. “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 said that only soft shell clams were affected so he found it unlikely they died from the fuel spill but did not say how much was spilled by Swissport.

“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.”

Studies have shown that soft shell clams are more prone to develop clam cancer when environmental toxins are introduced into their habitat.

A study by the Environmental Research Lab for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back in 2006 showed that of 18 species of marine invertebrates that fell victim to 11 oil spills around the U.S. only soft shell clams showed to develop neoplasia.

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 4 cubic yards of oily sludge was quietly cleaned up by Clean Harbor and sent to its facility in Braintree.

Usually when fuel is spilled the fuel company 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 Protection (DEP).

However, since June 2011 when the Times began investigating the spill neither Swissport nor Massport would comment on the amount of fuel spilled.

Records obtained by the Times show 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—the private agency charged with cleaning up environmental spills at Logan.

Sources at the airport allege 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 awoke hundreds, if not thousands 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. He alleges that “everyone knows about the practice–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.”

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