BAY CENTER — With the R/V Hero oil spill now mostly under control, state agencies and oyster growers are trying to solve other problems that arose when the derelict Antarctic research vessel sank on March 4.
There are still unresolved questions about who is responsible for the boat and the cleanup. The state’s derelict vessel program is critically short on cash and the riddle of how to get a fragile, polluted, 300-ton wooden boat out of of a small river is proving stubbornly hard to resolve.
Even so, oyster growers are cautiously optimistic that the spill will not cause any long-term damage.
“I think the important thing is we saw a progression each day of less and less oil and sheen,” Bay Center Mariculture owner Dick Wilson said on March 27. While the most of his oysters are in Willapa Bay, well away from the spill, the company has its headquarters on Bay Center Dike Road, right next to the Hero.
Wilson said he thought the state agencies have been “very responsive,” and have done a good job of communicating with those affected by the spill.
“Unless something gets disturbed, which I am not capable of predicting, we just don’t have much going on right now except a big hulking boat sitting in the river,” Wilson said.
The state Department of Ecology (DOE) has been working with Global Diving & Salvage to monitor and clean up the spill. According to updates posted on a DOE webpage, DOE and Global crews are still regularly visiting the ship, which is docked on the South Fork of the Palix River near the entrance to Willapa Bay, to take water samples and to remove and replace materials used to contain and soak up petroleum products and dirty water.
In mid-March, Global divers explored a section of the boat that had previously been inaccessible. They found no new stores of oil but absorbent materials did become saturated.
Starting around March 17, the oil-sheen and petroleum odor started to abate, DOE staffer Linda Pilkey-Jarvis said in an update on the Hero cleanup webpage. Absorbent materials are also soaking up less oil.
DOE plans to continue taking water samples, photographing the sight, and monitoring the boat for any changes, Pilkey-Jarvis said.
“As far as the Hero goes, there was never a real spill. There was a sheen,” state Department of Health Environmental Engineer Mark Toy said last week.
DOH has the authority to shut down an area affected by an oil spill. However, the agency didn’t take that step, because the spill was relatively small, and the two oyster companies with facilities close to the boat — Bay Center Mariculture and Taylor Shellfish — voluntarily stopped selling any oysters that might have been affected.
“We basically tried to deal with it informally because the growers were not harvesting. But if it had turned out that there was a continuous leakage coming from the ship, we would have formally closed the area,” Toy explained.
How much is too much?
Food and water safety laws, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) offer guidelines about when to open an area again, but each situation is unique.
“Sheen can be very misleading about what the actual concentration is,” Toy said. Some spills look bad, but aren’t especially toxic. Some spills do sicken people, plants and animals. Others aren’t dangerous, but affect the taste or appearance of fish and shellfish.
In this case, “The main issue, as far as when to reopen an area, isn’t health impacts,” Toy said. “It’s something called ‘taint’ — an ‘off’ odor or taste. We have obligations under food-safety laws not to allow adulterated product onto the market.” Toy said these undesirable tastes or odors can be a persistent problem even the shellfish wouldn’t be dangerous to consume.
For now, DOH is communicating with growers and other agencies, and waiting to see what happens.
“It’s very difficult to make a subjective call,” Toy said.
Wilson said his company doesn’t harvest oysters near the Hero, but they do sometimes hold product in the water right downstream from the boat.
“We didn’t take any chances there,” Wilson said. “We’re just not going to use this area for a while.”
Wilson said he thought the spill “could have been a real disaster,” if oyster-growers had not pressed authorities to remove oil from the boat a couple years ago.
“Otherwise, we would have had stuff streaming out of there forever. In an old boat, it’s in everything — the bilge and everywhere,” Wilson said.
Too many boats, too little money
The location, funding and condition of the Hero are presenting an unprecedented challenge to those charged with getting it out of the river, said Troy Wood, Derelict Vessel Removal Program Manager for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“We will eventually have to deal with it at some point,” Wood said. “It’s an old wooden vessel and old wooden vessels break down. It would spread that wreckage.”
In early 2015, “It was reported to us that it was ugly-looking, but it’s not against the law to be ugly,” Wood said.
The boat’s presumed owner, Bay Center resident Sun Feather LightDancer, had the right to keep his privately-owned boat moored at his private dock, and the Hero wasn’t polluting the river then, so it didn’t qualify for the Derelict Vessel Program’s list of “Vessels of Concern.”
Once it sunk, it made the list, because it’s illegal to pollute state waters, Wood explained.
Owners are responsible for dealing with their problems boats, and any damage they cause, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Currently, there are about 147 known derelict boats around the state. Wood’s program has limited ability to deal with these boats.
“We are not a response agency, and we are the last resort, and only when funds are available,” Wood said. Currently, the program has about $120,000 left until the next two-year funding cycle starts in July 2018.
“Those (dollars) would be for little boats at this point, because we have so little funding available, and every option we’ve explored with the Hero would exceed our budget,” Wood said.
Like 46 elephants
The Hero weighs about 600,000 pounds. How heavy is that? Roughly equivalent to 46 African elephants, 7.5 loaded 18-wheeler trucks, or one blue whale.
Back when it was plowing through the ice in Antarctic backwaters, that heft was an advantage. Now that the state needs to get it out of the Palix River before it breaks into splinters, it’s a problem.
Sometimes, DNR can make a boat float again, or simply seal up all the big leaks, and put it on hold until there’s a plan and enough money to deal with it. Sometimes, it’s possible to dismantle a boat and remove it piece by piece. Due to its location DNR also considered towing the Hero away. But boat is in such a state of decay, and currents around it so swift that none of those options would work.
“Unfortunately, we would have to raise the vessel,” Wood said, “but the cost would drain our account.”
DNR also considered taking it out by land, and discovered that it wouldn’t be physically possible.
“To get a crane to lift it out of the hole it’s in — it’s not feasible at this point, because of the distance to the road,” Wood said.
With all the obvious options exhausted, the Derelict Vessel staff “(is) considering other options,” Wood said, but he didn’t want to say what they had in mind.
“I would hesitate to go into it at this point because some of them are so far outside of the box that they would be considered whimsical,” Wood said. “No idea is too silly.”