During the peak of superstorm Sandy, a storm surge and full-moon high tide coincided to cause waters to rise an unprecedented 13 feet in some parts of New York Bay.
Among the mounting devastation, hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel spilled into Arthur Kill, a narrow waterway separating New Jersey and Staten Island.
The Coast Guard National Strike Force, which is overseeing the cleanup efforts, reported damage to four storage tanks at a fuel facility in Sewaren, N.J., owned by Motiva Enterprises LLC, a joint venture of Shell and Saudi Refining, Inc. Two of the tanks appeared to have released diesel fuel, according to the Coast Guard, although just how much had spilled from the tanks was unclear as of Thursday afternoon. Initial reports had suggested around 350,000 gallons of the refined petroleum product had leaked into the water. Before the storm, each tank held 336,000 gallons.
Also not yet clear is the extent of the spill's public health risk. One environmental health expert, however, noted that a spill of diesel fuel is less worrisome than a spill of crude oil, the fuel that escaped during the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters.
"Anytime you release that many gallons of potentially toxic compounds into the water, it's not a good thing," said James Shine, an aquatic chemistry lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Luckily, for this mixture, it's got some characteristics that would make it dissipate sooner rather than later compared with crude oil."
Still, diesel fuel contains dangerous chemicals and can be acutely toxic to marine life and plants, so a quick cleanup is key.
In addition to the approximately 130 responders at the scene on Thursday, Larry Ragonese, press director for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said that truckloads of absorbent materials, five skimmer boats, two skimmer barges, and 18,000 feet of hard boom were all being enlisted in efforts to contain and clean up the lost fuel in Arthur Kill and two local waterways, Smiths Creek and Woodbridge Creek.
So far, crews have recovered some 39,000 gallons of oil and water mix, Ragonese said. They have also recovered 30 birds coated in fuel.
"We are really pretty pleased with the response," he added. "They are doing the things they need to do."
While requests for comment regarding precautions taken prior to Hurricane Sandy were not returned on Thursday, Motiva's website suggested preventative measures were a priority at the facility. "Shell and Motiva employees at all levels of the business, from offshore platforms and refineries, to terminals and retail gas stations, work to continually improve preparations for hurricane season," the site reads. "We also work to anticipate new problems by maintaining a steadfast dedication to hurricane drills and simulations to test all emergency response and recovery systems."
"Motiva is continuing to conduct a thorough inspection and damage assessment of its petroleum terminals that were situated in the path of Hurricane Sandy," Shell spokeswoman Kayla Macke told The Huffington Post in an email on Thursday.
In general, concerns over the health effects of diesel fuel are usually associated with its exhaust form -- the sickening fumes belched out of large trucks and buses.
"It's a highly volatile material," explained Shine, "which means it prefers to be in the air rather than the water."
As a result, he suggested, the diesel fuel spilled in Arthur Kill should vaporize into the air and naturally disperse and degrade in the environment fairly quickly.
Indeed, an acrid stench filled the air at the spill site on Wednesday night, as HuffPost reported earlier.
The Atlantic Strike Team conducted air monitoring for the community around Smiths Creek, where crews are working to remove contained pockets of fuel. The readings came back normal.
Breathing in diesel vapors is not healthy, said Shine. But he added that it is generally the persistence of oil spills that most troubles public health experts. The heavier components of the diesel fuel could stick to particles and get trapped in the mud around the area of the spill, he said, adding that some potentially toxic particles could also get into the food chain, accumulating into higher concentrations in fish that people might eat.
But the threats are relatively minor and short-lived compared to the long-term threat posed by crude oil spills. Concerns in the Gulf of Mexico still linger today.
"It's apples and oranges," Shine said.
The Huffington Post is eager for insights from our community, especially people with experience in power, infrastructure and engineering, on the adequacy of emergency preparation in advance of Hurricane Sandy, and the degree to which past disasters have informed adequate planning and construction. Please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org with insights and suggestions for the important questions that need to be asked of relevant private sector and government officials, and point us toward stories that need to be pursued.