On January 19, 1996, the worst oil spill in Rhode Island history occurred when the tank barge, North Cape, and the tugboat, Scandia, grounded off Moonstone Beach in South Kingstown. The grounding occurred after the tug caught fire in its engine room during a winter storm.

Tank barge North Cape and its tow tug Scandia grounded along the south shore of Rhode Island USA. Some sheen is visible. January 1996. Photos courtesy of E.R. Gundlach

An estimated 828,000 gallons of home heating oil spilled, spreading throughout a broad area of Block Island Sound and beyond, including the shoreline of the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). 

View of stranded barge and tug from shore. January 1996. :Photos courtesy of E.R. Gundlach

According to NOAA, the spill killed massive numbers of marine animals including:

  •  9 million lobster
  • 150 million surf clam
  • 4.2 million fish
  • >1 million lbs of other organisms such as worms, crabs, and mussels.
Clams, lobsters and starfish washed ashore. January 1996. Photos courtesy of E.R. Gundlach

The spill also killed massive numbers of animals in Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds, according to NOAA:

  • 500,000 fish
  • 6.5 million marine worms, amphipods
  • >1 million crabs, shrimp, clams, and oysters
  • 2,100 marine birds, including 402 loons
Bird cleaning. January 1996. Photos courtesy of E.R. Gundlach

The Trustom Pond NWR contains the only remaining undeveloped coastal salt pond in Rhode Island and is a nesting site for endangered piping plovers The oiling killed as many as 10 piping plovers and impaired hatching of piping plover chicks at the refuge.

Following the disaster, a 250-square mile area of Block Island Sound was closed to fishing and shellfishing for an extended period, and 3,300 lost commercial charter-boat trips resulted.

Killed clams along shoreline. January 1996. :Photos courtesy of E.R. Gundlach

As a result of the severe weather at the time of the spill, oil spread quickly to the deeper levels of water, making clean-up efforts difficult. The primary organizations involved in restoration efforts were the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and the United States Coast Guard. Recovery projects included restocking wildlife populations and protecting and enhancing their habitats.US federal and Rhode Island state governments undertook considerable work to clean up the spill and restore lost fishery stocks and coastal marine habitat. The trustee agencies completed all project implementation by early 2016. Restoration project performance monitoring is ongoing. Learn more here.