At approximately 6:00 p.m. on Friday, January 19, 1996, the tank barge North Cape, carrying 94,000 barrels (3.9 million gallons) of two blends of No. 2 home heating oil, struck ground off Moonstone Beach in South Kingstown, Rhode Island and began to leak oil into the surrounding water. Winds reaching 50 knots formed large, breaking waves that dispersed the oil. These waves, combined with shallow waters at the site of the grounding dispersed oil throughout the water column and into contact with bottom sediments. Oil skimming and booming operations began on Saturday, January 20 in an effort to control surface oil sheens, remove oil from the water column and protect sensitive offshore and salt pond ecosystems. In total, an estimated 828,000 gallons of the two blends of No. 2 fuel oil were released into the coastal and offshore environments before the North Cape was refloated and moved to Newport, Rhode Island on Friday, January 26, one week after the grounding.
Emergency response teams reported preliminary indications of biological injury from the combined effects of the severe weather and spill. Nearly 2.9 million dead and moribund lobsters were removed from southern Rhode Island beaches following the spill. These stranded lobsters represent a fraction of the actual mortality throughout the entire marine environment. As a result of public health concerns associated with consumption of potentially contaminated lobsters, areas of Block Island Sound remained closed to lobster harvesting for five months following the spill. In the nineteen days following the spill, 405 oiled birds (of which only thirteen survived) were recovered along with large numbers of dead surf clams, crabs, and fish. In addition, United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) staff surveying Cards Pond reported a large mortality of amphipods, small crustaceans that represent a critical component of coastal food webs.