Response to sinking of fishing boat in San Juans encouraging, but inadequate in nightmare scenario

Wieland Shields was hardly alone in that realization. While most observers were generally impressed with the thoroughness of the response—which included a team of response boats equipped with oikomi pipes (underwater bells that can set up a warning sound to deter whales from entering the area) as well as a phalanx of oil booms deployed around sensitive bays—there were real concerns about the timeliness of the response among whale scientists observing the scene.

The first boom across nearby Smallpox Bay wasn’t in place until the morning after the sinking, and others were not in place until as long as a week afterwards. The team of response boats was first assembled a day after the sinking and ran its first drills on Aug. 26.

“Everyone involved in responding to this incident obviously cares about reducing impacts to the marine environment and all agencies have been collaborating and working hard to get this wreck resolved in the safest possibly manner,” Wieland Shields told Daily Kos. “My concern comes from the immediate response the day of the spill.

“We need to make sure we are ready to respond within hours, not days, when it comes to protecting our marine wildlife. We need the best possible containment equipment nearby and trained responders available at a local level. Even the whale hazing plan itself is theoretical—we don’t even know if it will work.”

One of the whale scientists involved in the response, Dr. Deborah Giles of Wild Orca and the University of Washington, largely agreed. “There are absolutely holes that we need to plug for the future,” she told Daily Kos. “We know that something like this is going to happen again. I do think this was a huge wake-up call for everybody.”

She added: “Yes, it could have been better, but it could have been a whole lot worse.”

Some shoreside observers questioned the length of time—five weeks in all—it took the Coast Guard and other responders to remove the sunken vessel and its toxic load. But the conditions of the recovery were fraught with complications: The powerful currents in the Haro Strait had drawn the boat over 200 feet below the surface, clinging to a canyon wall that descends another 500 feet; if it had gone down much farther, it would have been unrecoverable.

The recovery team had to wait over a week for diving equipment, including specialized equipment and gases, to be in place before work could commence. Responders were able to use a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to find the wreck, but the currents made it impossible to begin the recovery operations using them. And once the divers were in place, the challenges they faced were extraordinary.

The Orcasonian described these challenges:

A diver prepares to descend to work on salvaging the Aleutian Isle.

It is difficult to convey the sheer scale of the complexities but imagine standing underwater next to a 58-foot commercial fishing boat balanced on a steep rocky slope that drops off 500 or so feet behind you. Now picture it being completely dark, and cold enough that the only way you can work is to have hot water pumped through your dry suit. On top of all of that, you’re in a location where you need to constantly monitor the speed of the current, because if it becomes too strong, you will struggle to return to the dive bell that takes you to the surface, and risk literally being swept away. Assuming conditions are acceptable, your first job is to cut free the net and rigging that is drifting near the vessel and poses a risk of potentially entangling you or the umbilical cord that keeps you tethered to the air, heat, and communications links that are keeping you alive. Once that is done, you need to find and shut off fuel tank vents. Finally, you can work to slip small messenger lines under the hull that you will use to feed through the massive steel cables used to lift the boat. Once you wrestle those cables into place, they need to be carefully rigged and connected so that the crane lift will be smooth and balanced. Best case for each dive, you’ve had about 30 minutes of time to work safely before your window of good conditions starts to close. You return to your diving bell, and then take about 90 minutes to return to the surface, stopping periodically to ensure your body adjusts to the changes in pressure along the way. With luck, tidal conditions permit two dives a day, but often it is just one, and on some days, there is no dive window safe enough to allow a diver to go down.

The chief fear during the long wait was that killer whales—for whom exposure to petroleum can be lethal—might show up. They have no olfactory sense, and have been known to swim through oil spills unwittingly, as several pods in Alaska’s Prince William Sound did after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster; a number of those orcas died, and at least one of the pods that was exposed to the oil is now considered doomed.

This was the primary reason for assembling the team of boats equipped with oikomi pipes. The devices—which are used by Japanese crews to herd dolphins to slaughter, but do not have any known harmful effect on cetaceans—can set up underwater warnings that drive whales and dolphins away. The purpose of the Haro Strait team—organized by Brad Hanson, chief whale scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle—was to try to persuade any whales who approached the area to stay away when any sign of diesel was present.

Giles was one of the whale scientists who participated in the deterrent team. “I thought we were on top of it so fast that I was impressed, given the fact that we have had no formal training,” she said. “We were able to muster six boats within 24 hours of that happening. Now, granted, it should be six boats within two hours of that happening. So that’s where the wakeup call comes in.”

Their drill on Aug. 26 was largely a success. The boats with oikomi pipes lined up in a row 200 meters apart, and volunteers began banging on the pipes. The intent, as Giles described it, was to create a “wall of sound” that they hoped would drive whales away, or at least change their course. Hanson approached the deployed team in another boat with a hydrophone to monitor the sound, finding that it worked as planned.

The team only wound up deploying the oikomi pipes twice—both involving the two teenage Bigg’s orcas, T-60D and T-60E, who came cruising up the western side of San Juan Island on Sept. 15 and then three days later, both as the salvage operations were under way. On at least the latter occasion, the deterrents appeared to have the desired effect, driving the orcas in closer to shore and changing their course away from the platform where the Aleutian Isle had been raised up and half-drained.

The Aleutian Isle was finally fully lifted out of the water on Sept. 21.

Because of complications draining the boat, the platform later was towed to a shallower cove where crews could more readily access the vessel’s diesel-fueled tank, which was promptly pumped out. The craft was finally fully removed from the water and placed on a barge that towed it back the mainland on Sept. 21.

Don Noviello, the oil spill planning and response specialist for the Washington Department of Ecology (WDOE), told Daily Kos via email that the confluence of the vessel’s sinking with the arrival of endangered Southern Resident orcas in the vicinity “highlighted the need to be able to locate the whales and dispatch deterrence team promptly.”

He noted that the use of drones “to monitor the movement of the whales and check in real time for areas of sheen was crucial for the operations,” adding: “We hope to incorporate many lessons from the recent response to further enhance our ability to protect killer whales from oil spills.”

Noviello also observed that authorities are working to improve their ability to respond quickly. “[Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife] has already obtained a Department of Ecology equipment grant to help establish additional hydrophone listening station to help locate and monitor the position of killer whales in Puget Sound, particularly at night,” he explained. “We hope to expand the registered VOO [Vessels of Opportunity, primarily whale-watching boats] and train, equip and contract new participants so they can be deployed during future any future oil spills. We would also like to explore other technologies for deterrence and response efforts.

“That said, these are wild free animals, and it will always be difficult to safely control their behavior with deterrence techniques. Each situation will have to be assessed individually to provide the least risk to the whales. Again, the best way to protect [Southern Resident killer whales] from oil spills is to prevent those spills from happening.”

Brendan Cowan, director of San Juan County Department of Emergency Management, told Daily Kos that the complicated nature of the underwater terrain and the wild currents in the San Juans created challenges for the response team that couldn’t be seen from shore.

“As far as deployment time, there is a perception that boom should have been simply placed around the site where the boat went down right away, but it’s not that simple,” Cowan explained via email. “Depth, current, and positioning of the sunken boat prevented an easy approach like that.”

Furthermore, this was a diesel spill, which is different from a crude oil spill or other spills. Response tactics are different depending on the material that is spilled.  Diesel fuel is a light oil, it spreads on the surface very quickly and is only a very, very thin layer.

“It is hard to contain diesel with boom or collect it, especially on an open water area with significant current. With the sunken vessel, by the time these small releases made their way to the surface, it was so thin and dispersed that recovery was not effective. Fortunately, diesel is a lighter product that disperses and evaporates quickly.”

Indeed, wildlife observers and monitors found signs that there had been relatively little observable impact on ecosystems in the area of the spill: Harbor seals that occupy the zone did not appear to suffer any casualties, and only one dead shorebird was observed. Similarly, divers who checked the waters after the vessel was retrieved found that both the large baitfish populations and the sensitive bull kelp beds in the vicinity remained intact.

Cowan acknowledged however, that the incident exposed some gaps: “Regardless, every response can be improved upon and certainly there will be lessons learned from this event that we’ll incorporate into future efforts,” he wrote.

Those future efforts, however, may not entail a just simple fishing boat sinking and its accompanying diesel mess. There are already thousands of large ships that traverse Haro Strait annually en route to Vancouver, Canada, from the open Pacific, including a small number of tankers carrying oil. 

The real nightmare, however, lies in the near future: The numbers of oil tankers are expected to climb to over 400 a year, or around 37 a month, when the Port of Vancouver completes a massive expansion of its Westridge Marine Terminal to accommodate an anticipated flow of oil coming from Alberta’s tar sands via the Trans Mountain Pipeline currently under construction.

The sharp increase of tanker traffic dramatically raises the likelihood of a spill, particularly in areas of the route to Vancouver, such as Turn Point on the San Juans’ Stuart Island, that entail tricky navigation in strong currents, often in stormy conditions. One analysis of the projected increase in tankers found a 10% chance of a “worst case” spill—one involving 100,000 barrels or more spilled into the waters—and a 42% chance of an “average case” spill (about 50,000 barrels) in the next 50 years.

The spots with the highest likelihood of a spill along the route included Vancouver Harbor and Juan de Fuca Strait, while Turn Point was found to be the location with the “greatest level of navigational complexity for the entire passage.” In a worst-case spill at Turn Point, stochastic modeling found, there was a high probability that oil would reach most of the Salish Sea and extend out into the Pacific.

“The potential of increased oil tanker traffic is terrifying in terms of the risk it presents. Imagine something on the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill happening in Haro Strait,” Wieland Shields told Daily Kos. “We’ve learned from this incident that this geographic region is challenging with its deep water and strong currents. Early on it sounded like the currents were preventing some of the booming from even being deployed. After this, my question is: What can we do to make sure we are truly prepared in the event of a catastrophic crude oil spill?”

“The volume nature and proximity of vessel traffic in and around the San Juans, combined with narrow shipping lanes and challenging winter weather mean that the islands, and all the Salish Sea, are at risk of a major spill,” Cowan told the Journal of the San Juan Islands. “Given the geography of the islands, the nature of currents and sensitive habitats that abound, everyone should be concerned about oil spills of all kinds. There is no response that would prevent a major spill from having major impacts to the islands. Preventing spills should always be the top priority.”

The potential nightmare darkens considerably when you consider the nature of the tar-sands oil the tankers are going to be carrying. The oil from Alberta will arrive in Vancouver via pipeline in a form known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit. The oily bitumen being mined in Alberta can only flow when it is combined with powerful chemical diluents that thin it out until it can be processed at a refinery. (Most of the refineries scheduled to receive this oil are in California.) If that mixture spills into seawater, it promptly separates into its constituent parts.

Studies indicate that while the bitumen is heavier than ordinary crude oil, it will nonetheless float, at least initially, but it has been observed to sink to the ocean floor after a number of hours in the water. Some of the shipments’ defenders insist that this means the bitumen can be removed from the ecosystem, though it’s clear that a rapid response will be essential.

And because of what happens to the diluents, it’s not at all clear that a rapid response will be possible. These diluents are extremely volatile chemicals that would immediately begin evaporating, forming a toxic cloud over the spill area and the vicinity. Observers of the Aleutian Isle sinking got a small taste of this when the stench of diesel the first day and a half afterwards sickened people onshore.

A diluent cloud, however, would be exponentially worse, especially in a worst-case scenario: Not only would it kill every air-breathing creature that came into contact with it—including, of course, killer whales—but a single spark could ignite it into a massive explosion. If the Southern Residents were misfortunate enough to be in the vicinity, it almost certainly would be an extinction-level event.

Dave Byers, response section manager with WDOE’s Spills Program, acknowledged the difficulties posed by this toxic hazard. “The diluent added has the potential for fast evaporation into the air. This could create a fire and human health inhalation hazard during the initial hours of the spill,” he told Daily Kos via email. “Ecology has air monitoring that can measure the amount of diluent in the air and estimate the flammability hazard, so that emergency responders can take protective actions, such as ordering an evacuation or shelter-in-place measures.”

It’s unclear whether those actions would be effective, as well as whether nearby authorities are prepared to enact them, particularly in an area like the Salish Sea where communications can often be spotty.

“For cleanup, Ecology has been working with first responders in San Juan County and statewide through a grant program to provide safety equipment and training to help make them better prepared,” said Byers, who was the state’s on-scene coordinator for the Aleutian Isle response. “The knowledge and equipment will help them with operations, including monitoring to determine if they have to keep away until additional evaporation has occurred before it is safe to work near.

He added: “For longer-term exposure to hazards, Ecology has a network of community air monitors that would be placed in areas of potential exposure to monitor vapor concentrations and provide data to local health officials for decision making, like what was done over the last month with the Aleutian Isle spill.”

Giles finds the scenarios unfolding from the increased traffic in oil tankers to be the stuff of her worst nightmares. “The potential for harm is going to be so high,” she said. “And it’s not going to be a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. We need to recognize that and move forward from there. It’s like, well, this was a wakeup call. This does give us an opportunity to see the holes that need to be plugged.”

She says it will be incumbent on people living in the San Juans to do more than watch from shore. “This situation has given people who have never been involved in an issue like this in a response situation an opportunity to get involved, get invested, and get active,” she said. “This is going to be an opportunity for the public to get engaged, and get trained, and be ready to help out the next time there’s a response.”

“After this incident is resolved, I sincerely hope we will collectively take a closer look at how we can be better prepared to protect the Southern Residents if need be,” Wieland Shields said. “If this were a bigger spill and things had played out differently, we could be talking about a potential extinction-level event for these whales. We have to do better.”

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