Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ecology dispatches emergency response tug

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager

Ecology dispatched the state-funded emergency response tug Hunter stationed at Neah Bay at 10 a.m. today (Saturday, April 3). The Hunter was sent to stand by and possibly assist a tug and fully loaded petroleum barge experiencing difficulties roughly 30 miles off the mouth of the Columbia River.

The Hunter is expected to arrive on scene at about 9 tonight. Ecology responders do not believe there is an imminent threat, but they will continue to work closely with the Coast Guard, the company, the state of Oregon, and other partners to closely monitor the situation. They will ensure proper precautions are taken with the goal of protecting the state’s natural and economic resources from the risk of a large oil spill.

On Friday afternoon, Ecology was notified that the connection between the tug Corpus Christi and barge Petrochem Supplier began overheating when wave-caused flooding knocked out the tug’s emergency generator and affected an important lubricating system for the vessels’ connecting system. The ATB had experienced problems after heading south from Puget Sound with a full load of oil bound for California. The ATB turned back north, intending to enter the Columbia River for repairs. However, the Columbia River Pilots determined that the storm was too severe to cross the river bar.

Shortly before noon today, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a Captain of the Port order that, among other things, directed the tug and barge operator to obtain towing assistance prior to attempting to crossing the river entrance. By mid-afternoon, the owner of the articulated tug and oil barge (ATB) had assumed responsibility for the cost of the Hunter’s deployment.

U.S. Shipping Corp. owns the barge and tug. The barge is loaded with about 150,000 barrels of oil (6.3 million gallons) of heavy vacuum gas oil. Vacuum gas oil is typically a heavy residue from the refining process. It tends to be dark colored, and behaves like a heavy persistent fuel oil if spilled.

The damaged ATB is operating in heavy seas and experiencing periodic high winds as a result of the large coastal storm. As a precautionary measure, the Coast Guard has ordered the ATB to remain at least 40 miles offshore of the Columbia River bar to wait out the weather. Once the weather improves, it is anticipated the ATB will cross the bar and transit to Astoria, Ore. However, the weather may not permit such transit for a few more days.

The vessel crew is continuing to use water to cool the overheating attachment system between the barge and tug.

For updates, check the web page that Ecology established for this incident.

Sometime this evening, Crowley Maritime will move another tug to Neah Bay to ensure the state maintains this emergency safety net while the Hunter is engaged.

The tug Hunter is stationed at Neah Bay year-round to respond to shipping incidents that pose a pollution threat to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Washington’s outer coast. Crowley Maritime holds the emergency response tug contract with Ecology through June 30, 2010. Funding responsibility for the Neah Bay tug will shift from the state to the maritime industry beginning July 1, 2010.

Since 1999, a publicly funded Neah Bay response tug has stood by or assisted 44 vessels, either completely disabled or with reduced maneuvering ability. During 11 of the responses, the tug attached a towline to the disabled vessel and brought it under tow as a safety precaution.

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