BAY CENTER — The derelict R/V Hero began leaking fuel and oil shortly after it sank on March 4, and it still hasn’t stopped.
“The vessel has been producing an oily sheen for nine days,” Linda Pilkey-Jarvis of the State Department of Ecology Spills Program said on March 13.
Since March 8, DOE and the U.S. Coast Guard have been working to stop the oil spill on the South Fork of the Palix River, near the entrance to the Willapa Bay.
Based on conversations with the current owner, Bay Center resident Sun Feather LightDancer, and the findings of a 2013 USCG inspection, responders initially believed there were, at most, about 30 gallons of oil on the Hero. Once cleanup got under way, they discovered more types of contaminants, and in larger quantities than expected. So far, workers have recovered more than 1,000 gallons of oily water, and 60 to 70 gallons of diesel fuel and oil.
“We’ve encountered more oil than the vessel-owner told us was on board,” Dave Byers, a response manager with the Spills Program said. on March 14.
In DOE’s online progress reports, Pilkey-Jarvis said bad weather, uncertainty about who should pay for the cleanup, a failing dock, the poor condition of the 125-foot wooden boat, and problems with the boat’s records have complicated cleanup work. As a result, responders still don’t know if they’ve found all of the contaminants, and may not know for sure until they begin a recovery or salvage effort.
Area oyster growers fear the spill could contaminate or kill their oyster crops, and cause environmental harm. Byers said it’s too soon to say what the extent of the damage to the ecosystem might be.
“We have no direct observations of harm to fish or wildlife,” Byers said. “However, we do know that diesel fuel is toxic to the aquatic environment, and when injury occurs, it’s not always obvious above the surface”
Early cleanup efforts
“It’s not considered a pollution threat, and so right now we are monitoring it,” a USCG spokesman said on March 6. However, workers at nearby oyster businesses quickly noticed oil on the water, and the distinctive odor of diesel in the air.
By March 7, DOE and USCG were calling the event an “oil spill,” and working with DOH, the Pacific County Emergency Management Agency, and the state Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for dealing with derelict vessels.
Three days after the boat sank, USCG brought in Seattle-based Global Diving and Salvage to figure out how much oil was on board, and start removing it. Global thought it too dangerous to send divers into the boat, but workers were able to access parts of it from the river, Pilkey-Jarvis said.
The Global crew checked every accessible source of oil or fuel on the ship. Empty ports were plugged or sealed, and fuel and other contaminants were removed wherever possible. After workers determined that most of the sheen was coming from a mid-ship vault, they placed an absorbent “sweep and boom” around the inside of the vessel’s deck.
Byers explained that the booms resemble large, orange “absorbent sausages” and are used to surround a spill. The “sweeps” resemble a “two-foot-tall roll of paper towels,” Byers said. Responders spread these towels, which absorb oil, but not water, over the surface of spills to soak up pollutants.
Workers also discovered and removed a pump, tank and lines in a hydraulic system that contained about 30 to 35 gallons of “pure product,” according to the DOE web page.
Although the Global crews made good progress, Pilkey-Jarvis said they weren’t able to reach every potential source of pollution.
“…significant hazards and the inability to safely position divers to access tanks that are underwater has hindered a full accounting of the hazardous material,” Pilkey Jarvis said on March 9. “A full accounting will not be possible until the salvage and recovery operations begin.”
At mid-week, people working near the boat said they could still smell diesel, and see “a visible rainbow sheen” on the outgoing tide. Lab tests confirmed that the boat was leaking diesel into the water.
After finding a diagram of the boat, workers were able to locate a significant source of fuel in the lower portions of the boat. When the tide dropped enough to make the tank accessible, Global used a vacuum truck to removed the trapped fuel.
In all, workers removed about 1,000 gallons of oily water and saturated pads from the Hero, on March 9 and 10. Pilkey-Jarvis said pads removed from the deck of the boat were saturated with petroleum. The workers placed new absorbent materials all over the deck and throughout the inside of the vessel.
What happens now?
On Saturday, March 11, responders who were monitoring the boat reported that they could still see a sheen and smell diesel. There were high tides and white caps on the water over the weekend, but workers still made some progress, despite “less than favorable” working conditions, Pilkey-Jarvis said.
USCG, DOE and Global removed more “completely saturated” absorbent pads on Monday, and talked about the future of the cleanup effort.
USCG has turned over management of the spill to DOE, though they could become involved again, if the spill worsens, or the condition of the boat deteriorates.
DOE will continue to place absorbent materials in and around the boat until they can no longer recover any more contaminants.
We’re going to continue with our oil recovery operations through these absorbents, and keep sending crews out until we’re confident that we’ve recovered everything possible from the vessel,” Byers said. He added that DOE cannot estimate how long the cleanup will take, because workers still don’t know how much oil might be inside the tanks that are still inaccessible.
Ultimately, the state will likely try to remove the Hero from the water, but it may be quite some time before that happens — DNR’s Derelict Vessel program already has far more potential cleanup projects than it can handle, and has exhausted its budget for the current funding cycle.