Wreck of the Esperanza

An Account of IOSA’s 100th Spill Cleanup
From IOSA’s Director, Julie Knight

Like many IOSA responses, our 100th containment/cleanup response depended on a collection of contributions from many people who have helped IOSA…over many years…which came together in one short period of time.

Aug. 29, 2007 – afternoon: the seiner Esperanza hits a large rock offshore from Eagle Point on the southwest side of San Juan Island and capsizes. The crew is safe,having been picked up by nearby seiners. The IOSA pager goes off.

5:30 pm: United State Coast Guard activates IOSA to contain the vessel and remove pollutants.

6:30 pm: IOSA’s 23’ landing craft is underway from Friday Harbor with two responders, and the Sea Goose, IOSA’s 45’ pontoon vessel, is underway from Shoal Bay with me and two other responders.  During past classes and drills these responders completed the safety training that is required by state and federal agencies before working in an oil spill environment, and so they were ready to go. One responder has picked up a boom trailer in Friday Harbor and tows it to False Bay, where a second responder meets him. They prepare to offload 700’ of oil containment boom and feed it down the hill to be handed off to our response vessel.

7:30 pm: the 23’ vessel stays with the wreck and our 45’ vessel goes to nearby False Bay, where there are three potential launch points for the boom. All these points had been located, with permission and directions acquired from property owners, many years ago, and use of these points was practiced during on-site drills.

Past experience saves us a lot of time: As we approach the first access point, we find that the tide is too low, so the water is too shallow to reach shore, and the trailer needs to be moved to a more obscure access point closer to the bay’s entrance. I am onboard the vessel, so am not much help to the shore crew, but I know that one of our shore responders has firsthand experience with this access point from a drill in the 90’s and the transition to the second access site will be smooth and safe. Shore responders meet up with the helpful manager at Mar Vista. One of our shore responders takes a few extra minutes to walk the route to the access point, making sure the trail is safe before driving in with the boom trailer (another example of responders’ natural safety consciousness, as well as training, in action).

We watch the boom being carefully pulled down the hill, over and around rocks and logs, responders aided by spotlights, and ultimately the line at the end of the boom is tossed out to us.  Experience gained during the recent False Bay drill, three months earlier and also during a low tide, helps reinforce our crew’s ability to maneuver around ‘areas to be avoided’ in this bay. The shore crew tosses the line out to us, and as they feed the rest of the boom down to the water, we tow the boom from the shore and then to open water for the quick trip…

…back to the wreck. On the surface, the water is calm and the full moon is rising. We point our spotlight down and look below the surface at the huge rock that the vessel is grounded on. We also see the 10’ long green blades that are growing around the rock pulled horizontal by the strong current below and then bending in different directions in response to shifting eddies swirling around the rock (we later learn these eddies are fairly common at this spot.)

After the safety assessment, we begin setting 700’ of boom to contain any petroleum or other hazardous materials released from the vessel. The many times we’ve practiced setting containment boom in a diamond configuration, during spills and drills, helps us to cope with setting the boom in this more challenging location where the tide intensity and direction changes frequently. I am glad to be in the company of our very competent vessel operators. We first set the lead anchor, following standard procedure for a containment diamond, and in 15 minutes the current direction has changed, so the lead anchor has become the side anchor.

In the time it takes to set all the anchors for a containment diamond, the tide has switched 180 degrees, so we continue  readjusting the boom. One of our responders describes our work as a constant dance between the tide and boom on one side and the boats towing the anchors on the other side.  Ultimately our patient and steady crew sets the containment boom in a functional diamond-shaped 
configuration around the vessel. Before we head back to shore, we spread oil-absorbent pads inside the boom.

Over the next two days, we remove oily sorbent pads, some floating garbage and containers of petroleum products, and 170 gallons of diesel contained in the Esperanza’s tanks is pumped by an experienced diving contractor who we often work with during spills. With the assistance of our crews, the fuel is stored in drums onboard and then unloaded by a shore crew at Jackson Beach and taken to an interim storage site until the slightly-contaminated fuel can be picked up for recycling by a mainland contractor.

We are very glad to have removed this petroleum within the first two days. With each day that the vessel is in the water on the exposed west side of San Juan Island, its condition deteriorates. Ultimately the vessel breaks up.  Several days after IOSA removes the fuel, the owner’s initial plans to raise the Esperanza are unsuccessful because the vessel’s weight was greater than anticipated and soon after that, the window of opportunity for raising it has passed.

One hundred seventy gallons can be a lot of fuel in the water in a sensitive area. One of the most memorable spills in the past 20 years involved only 30 gallons of diesel and green paint thinner that fell off a boat at a dock near shore. The spill was witnessed and we were contacted immediately, so two hours from the time it spilled, the cleanup was completed. The next morning I went back to check for more fuel that might have been submerged and washed in on the next tide. There wasn’t any fuel, but there were over 200 dead juvenile marine invertebrates that I found washed onto the shore…including crabs, shrimp, marine worms, limpets and others. In less than two hours, they had come into contact with the spilled toxins.  More of them may have sunk to the bottom or been eaten by predators.

So… on the bad side, we know that even “small spills” can be destructive. On the good side, we prevented these pollutants from staying in the water longer and causing even more damage.

Many thanks

To all of our past and present IOSA responders,

To community members who give their time and energy to work on special and ongoing projects,

To members who donate funds for equipment and training, 

To residents who provide access to shoreline, launch and view points.