UPDATE: State Senator Mike McGuire’s office sent along the following statement from McGuire on Tuesday evening:
Humboldt Bay has some of the most pure bay waters in the nation and we must do everything in our power to protect it.
Once we were made aware of this deeply concerning incident, we immediately talked with our partners at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. We know the Coast Guard did the initial inspection of the barge and permitted them to travel to their next destination after the vessel was deemed sea-worthy. The Coast Guard also performed overflights of the area after the collision and did not observe any sheening. A Coast Guard investigation is on-going.
State Fish and Wildlife Officials did encourage the responsible party to submit an after-incident report which was completed and turned in the day after.
All of this said, we’ll be meeting with State Fish and Wildlife Representatives and their Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the coming days to talk about protocols and how all levels of government can work closer together. We’re grateful to the Fish and Wildlife Team for their work and look forward to diving deeper into this troubling incident, which could have been disastrous for the sensitive coastal environment and the aquaculture industry that farms the Bay waters.
In an accident that threatened the fragile ecosystem of Humboldt Bay, a fuel barge loaded with 1.68 million gallons of diesel collided with the South Jetty last month, damaging but not puncturing the vessel’s outer steel hull.
The United States Coast Guard has opened an investigation into the June 20 incident, and Petty Officer Andrew Kistner confirmed that it did not result in a fuel spill.
“That’s very good,” he said, “but the barge did sustain damage and is being repaired.” The Coast Guard’s investigation will look into “causal factors” including information on the vessel, its crew, the weather and other conditions, he said.
According to an incident report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration, the tank barge Monterey Bay, owned and operated by the Oregon-based Sause Bros., was being towed out of the bar channel by the tugboat Apache when the aft hull of the barge “contacted the entrance channel jetty.”
Kistner said this “grounding” happened at the far tip of the South Jetty, with the port-side hull of the Monterey Bay connecting with the concrete dolosse beneath the waterline, causing a “lesion” in the outermost of two steel hulls. The Coast Guard quickly had a 47-foot lifeboat at the scene, and the crew was able to confirm that the fuel tank had not been punctured, Kistner said.
Leroy Zerlang, chair of the Humboldt Harbor Safety Committee, said that was a huge relief.
“There was no spill, no loss of product — that was the important thing,” he told the Outpost in a phone interview earlier today. Zerlang used blunt language to convey the stakes of such an accident: “If something happened, this bay would have been fucked.”
Jennifer Kalt, executive director of environmental nonprofit Humboldt Baykeeper, agreed.
“Fortunately, the barges have double hulls, but this is another reason to get off of fossil fuels as soon as we can — along with the planet being on fire,” Kalt said. “It’s a huge risk to Humboldt Bay.”
Recalling the 5,000-gallon oil spill that temporarily closed Humboldt Bay in 1997, Kalt added that it’s important for the community to have a good understanding of the plans in place for cleaning up a spill, should one occur.
The Humboldt Harbor Safety Commission briefly addressed the accident at its July 21 meeting, but in the month since the grounding occurred, none of the agencies involved have publicized it or released information to the media.
Manila resident and Senior Manager of the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution initiative Jennifer Savage (disclosure: a friend of mine) investigated online after learning about the incident from fellow surfers. She found NOAA’s brief report and published it on her blog.
Reached by phone, Humboldt Bay Harbor District Executive Director Larry Oetker said the crew of the Monterey Bay immediately notified the Coast Guard after the grounding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ barge was nearby, as were a few other vessels, and crews aboard looked for fuel leaking into the water, thankfully seeing none, he said.
The tugboat and barge then “went a bit offshore into calm water” for an inspection out at sea, Oetker said. After it was determined that there were no leaks, the Apache continued north, towing the Monterey Bay to Coos Bay where a full inspection was conducted. Kistner said the barge remains in dock at Coos Bay. A message sent to Sause Bros. was not immediately returned.
Oil spill response equipment is maintained and held at the Harbor District’s boatyard in Fields Landing, and Oetker said that all fuel barge companies coming in and out of Humboldt Bay are required to have contracts with the oil spill response team. Chevron, which owns the fuel terminal behind the Bayshore Mall, helped fund response preparation efforts via a grant to the Harbor District that was passed along to Cal Poly Humboldt.
The university and the Harbor District have monitoring equipment at the Chevron dock and several other locations around the bay to check for spills, Oetker said. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife also has a spill response unit, and the locally based Marine Spill Response Corporation has personnel at the ready. (Reached by phone, an employee there said the organization was contacted about this incident but not activated.)
“That’s the purpose of the Harbor Safety Committee, to make sure everybody’s well prepared and equipped to handle it,” Oetker said.
Federal regulations for navigation of Humboldt Bay require all vessels transporting liquefied hazardous gasses into or out of the harbor to be aided by two assist tugs, which must escort the vessel through its transit and “be stationed so as to provide immediate assistance” if the vessel or its tow loses power or control.
Humboldt Bay sees about 32-to-34 fuel barges come through each year, according to Zerlang. They typically come in loaded with about three million gallons of fuel for delivery to the Chevron terminal.
“Ninety-five percent of the barges come in, discharge the product and leave empty” he said. When they’re empty, they don’t require an escort barge on the way out, but Zerlang said the Monterey Bay left with a “retainer” of about 40,000 barrels still onboard for delivery further north.
The crews of the Monterey Bay and Apache abided by the federal regulations requiring that escort, Zerlang said, though he couldn’t say for sure whether all safety protocols were followed. He described the Sause Bros. as “a very prominent, respected West Coast tugboat company” and said their barges are “state of the art, all double-hulled, fully approved and highly maintained.”
Kistner could not provide an estimate for when the investigation might be completed. He did gather some information about conditions on the evening of June 20, saying the National Weather Service reported winds of about 15 knots, swells of four to six feet and a current of 1.5-2 knots. Further details won’t be available until the investigation is completed.