Local Clammers Proceed with Lawsuit Against Jet Refueling Company and Massport

Local clammer John Denehy and 19 other clammers affected by the massive clam die-off in 2010 that they say was caused by a significant oil spill at Logan have filed a lawsuit in federal court against Swissport/BOS Fueling, one of two fueling companies contracted to refuel airliners at Logan, and Massport.

Denehy and the group of clammers, through their lawyer, drafted an Oil Pollution Act Letter and sent it to Massport and the fueling company last year. Both Swissport and Massport had 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.

After the 90 days expired, Denehy, the clammers and their lawyer said they had no other choice but to proceed with the lawsuit.

“It’s nearly two years later and none of the clams in those clam beds have come back,” said Denehy.

Local clammers from Eastie and Winthrop that have dug soft-shell clams from the mud flats surrounding Logan for decades. Last year, the clammers have drawn a correlation between an October 2010 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 Denehy said he 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.

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 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 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.

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 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.

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.”

Shortly after the fuel spill that allegedly killed off the clams, Swissport was fined $90,000 by the state’s Environmental Protection Agency for failing to take adequate precautions to contain oil spills at Logan.

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