The Nestucca Story


Written by Dave Webster


Shortly before midnight Dec. 22, 1988, the tow cable parted between the tug Ocean Service and barge Nestucca, approaching Grays Harbor on the Washington State coast. As the oil-laden barge drifted toward destruction on the north jetty, the tug skipper quit rigging his Orville Hook recovery device and hurried to put crewmen aboard the barge to pass a line. In doing so, the tug was thrown against the barge's steel hull, ripping a gash through which flowed nearly a quarter million gallons of oil. Despite collision damage to the tug's steering, the leaking barge was recovered and towed offshore. But spilled oil drifted 700 kilometers (430 miles) northwest, fouling beaches of two national parks, tribal lands and other remote areas. Thousands of marine birds were oiled, and major rescue and shoreline cleanup efforts ensued. This regional event resulted in multimillion-dollar legal settlements between Sause Brothers Ocean Towing and various government agencies, creating catalyst funds for new programs dealing with oil spills. International and regional cooperation, including planning, training, equipping and financial recovery regulations for subsequent spills, have grown out of Nestucca. It brought the consequences of spilled oil to public awareness in the Pacific Northwest just before the major Valdez oilspill in Alaska. The post-Nestucca examples of cooperative effort might be replicated anywhere by government, industry and concerned citizens working together.

How Did This Happen?

On a January day of 1989 at the Ocean Shores "Dirty Bird Hospital," I spoke with Alice Berkner from the International Bird Rescue & Research Center. Told that the Nestucca story might make a book, Alice responded "Go for it!"

That was seven years ago. Other oil spills and many related developments have lengthened and complicated this story. Even as I write these words, there are remnant loose ends, but....

Why did I start? Perhaps it goes back to boyhood assignment to clean our chicken house. Necessary but undesirable jobs can bring benefits such as fresh eggs and drumsticks, even fertilizer to help the garden grow. Bad events similarly may bring about good results.

For example, there is a special quality that develops among a group working for a common goal, such as caring for oiled birds. It's also evident in such community projects as soup kitchens or Habitat for Humanity, and I have experienced it in religious settings. Many of us harbor a hunger that responds to need in such a manner that we ourselves are fed or cleansed or housed--as those who've shared such experiences will testify.

As I've moved one step at a time through an unmapped maze, the most important factor has been the cooperation of unnumbered individuals who have responded helpfully. Those interviewed, most with my portable tape recorder, include Captain Raymond Freel of Astoria, Thom Davis of Global Diving & Salvage, Seattle; Chuck Janda of Port Angeles, retired chief ranger of Olympic National Park; Alice Berkner at her home in Vancouver, Washington; Ron Holcomb, Jim Oberlander, Diane Harvester and Dick Logan of Washington State Ecology; Leni Oman and Sara LaBorde of Washington State Wildlife; Lewey Kittle of the Washington State Health Department, formerly with Ecology; Roland Miller, CleanSound executive; Dr. Larry Galt of the NOAA HazMat staff in Seattle; Vince Cooke, Denise Daley and Bobby Rose of the Makah Tribe at Neah Bay; Dave LeBlanc of Tofino, B.C., and Larry Pokeda, officer in charge of Canada Coast Guard's vessel traffic control station at Amphitrite Point, Ucluelet, B.C. One person, Diane Harvester, also contributed the notes she made during winter weeks on Olympic National Park beaches.

Several reporters have written portions of this volume, newspaper articles published after the Nestucca spill or, in the case of Constance Perenyi of Seattle, in an ornithological journal. Capable writers all, they deserve mention: Stephen Clutter of the Seattle Times, Bryn Boerse, Juli Bergstrom and David Wasson of the Aberdeen Daily World; Kevin Patterson of the Peninsula Daily News, Port Angeles; John Marshall, James Wallace and Lisa Schnellinger of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Karen Reed of The Herald in Everett, John Dodge of The Olympian, Jacqueline Storm of Quinault Natural Resources, Theresa Willeford of the weekly Willapa Harbor Herald and William R. (Randy) Thomas writing for Monday Magazine, Victoria, B.C. The efforts of reporters depend also on the labor of editors such as John Hughes of the Daily World, who has been generously helpful.

Holcomb's bound Summary of Events, News Coverage of the 1988/1989 Grays Harbor Oil Spill, was my starting point, along with the Nestucca Oil Spill On-Scene Coordinator's Report, both from State Ecology. An important contribution came through the Washington State Attorney General, specifically Assistant AG Bill Frymire, who obtained a copy of the 1,200 pages of court depositions by crewmen of the tug and Sause officials. This was matched by the U.S. Coast Guard in providing the report by Lt. Mike L. Emge, investigating officer in the collision between the tug and her barge. With a similar report from Coast Guard Canada and other publications and reports, the remainder of this story has been constructed. There was also the liability trial before Judge James A. Reddin in U.S. District Court, Portland, Ore.

Numerous other people have contributed, some identified but most not, such as the helpful folk at Thirteenth Coast Guard District headquarters in Seattle. Others include Larry Workman, Quinault tribal forester; Don Kane, formerly with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and Ulrich Wilson of the USF&WS coastal refuges office in Port Angeles; Vincent E. Cooke, hazardous-materials coordinator for the Makah Tribal Council, Neah Bay (now in a similar capacity for the Quilleute Tribe), and Carson Boysen of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Willie Grindstaff of Olympia, retired master cartographer, prepared maps and diagrams from my preliminary drawings and tracings. More could be named, and there was the cooperation of individuals in Port Alberni, Victoria and Vancouver, B.C., and even Toronto, Canada.

On a family basis, there is the loving support of my wife, Mary, through years when completing this project seemed as distant as setting foot on the moon. Our son John, opinion page editor for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, gave providential help to this computer novice. Still another Webster, my brother Dan, of Hanover, Indiana, ornitholigist and retired biology professor, provided important technical assistance. Without the help of these and many others, you would not have this book in hand. May you learn as much reading it as I have gained in the research and writing.

Dave Webster


Nestucca


Chapter 1

Nurtured beside the sea, one harbors a lifelong interest in things maritime and sealife, including its birds. As a youngster I remember lying transfixed by the marine life in a tidepool trapped in a rocky pocket perhaps 300 feet from our front door in Sitka, Alaska.

There were days we boys spent rowing the family skiff to explore the nearby--and not-so-near--islands during the 1930s. That was more than 15 years before Rachel Carson's book "Edge of the Sea" made tidepools better known, and 25 years before "Silent Spring."

We fished and dug clams during those depression days when free food from the sea was an important extension to limited income. Watching a greenling take your baited hook in waving kelp 15 or 20 feet below the boat sticks in memory, as does the recollection of using a herring dipnet on a long pole to gather sea urchins from rocky bottom offshore. I boiled out the urchin shells for sale to tourists from ships that visited Sitka during the summer. Rowing home in the evening from a family berry-picking trip to a channel island, every dip of the oars stirred a pool of light in dark water, and even falling drops were sparkling diamonds of bioluminescence. Who needs fireflies?

And there was the soap-barrel crowsnest hoisted with the help of my buddy, Bob Yaw, into the upper branches of a tall hemlock where we built a treehouse. Some 75 feet or more high, we lashed that barrel into place. From it we could see St. Lazaria Island more than 20 miles west beside the open ocean, near Cape Edgecumbe. Later, my two brothers and I rowed out to "Bird

Island," so called because of its status as a wildlife refuge. There my finger was nipped by a guillemot when I reached into its nest beneath a boulder. And we learned to wear rainhats walking under wheeling swarms of gulls, murres and puffins.

Memories return with a rush when one goes back years later, as I did with my wife Mary in 1982, only to find that it's never the same. Certainly the beach was not lively with a variety of shellfish, crabs and bullheads--presumably little sculpin--or even an occasional eel hiding in the wet beneath rocks and seaweed. Thanks to many years of untreated chemical discharges from the pulp mill a few miles south, with a nod also to the adjacent small boat harbor, that beach of half a century past had become a wet wasteland, almost devoid of life.

But positive thanks go also to our parents who instilled love and respect for nature's heritage. One result was that my eldest brother started a career as an ornithologist, and used me as assistant oarsman for the family skiff and as "walk-awayster." Birds can't count, so if two people enter a photography blind and only one departs--the walk-awayster--they think nobody is left inside. Dan was photographing black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani, a crow-size black shorebird with bright red beak) for his master's thesis.

Those childhood experiences created an enduring interest that responded powerfully to the call for volunteers to help at Ocean Shores caring for thousands of oiled seabirds collected following the Nestucca spill at Christmastime, 1988. The thought of beaches blackened with oil was bad enough, and helpless murres and scoters fouled as a result of society's dependence on oil provided an even stronger pull.

Other ties to the Washington State coastal area had grown during the interval. I'd worked more than 14 years as a reporter and then city editor for the Aberdeen World (now simply The Daily World) before leaving to take a state job in Olympia. Covering the news of the Twin Harbors area--Grays Harbor and Willapa Harbor--involved in large measure the two major aspects of the local economy, harvesting the sea and the forests.

Retired now from regular jobs, Mary and I could easily drive the 75 miles to Ocean Shores and get involved in the effort to rehabilitate oiled birds for return to the wild. Our part was small in the overall project, but the thousands of volunteers working together made possible rehabilitation of 30 percent of those bedraggled birds. That was a new high for oil spills, in which 10-20 percent had been the norm.

Now a few items of the unfortunate history that periodically has blackened portions of Washington's beaches.

Winter along the Pacific coast of North America has earned its reputation as a wet and unpleasant season. Normal weather from October to March is a succession of rainy storm fronts moving through, sometimes with scarcely a break between. Winds are from the southwest, occasionally northwest, rarely from the north or east. Weather fronts move to the east or southeast, driving across the Gulf of Alaska to slosh over either the Alaskan Panhandle and British Columbia or further south across Washington and Oregon. Snowstorms, I should mention, are seldom even in winter--more often further north, less so further south along the coast.

It's usually gray day after gray day, with rain accompanied by wind, sometimes fog, and only an occasional sun break. Nobody considers it unusual for the sun to hide for a week or more, and rain is so normal that a day or two without becomes notable. Such dismal weather can bring on cabin fever, but is interrupted by moments of brilliant sunshine that brighten the gray mood with visions of spectacular mountains and ocean.

Rainfall west of the Cascade Mountains varies from 40 inches inland to more than 100 inches along the coast. Mountain areas can get 150-200 inches a year.

Most of us living in the Pacific Northwest learn to cope, enduring rain for the most part by avoiding it, staying indoors at home or at work and going from one to the other using our "four-wheeled motorized umbrellas". Standing in the rain waiting for a bus is for the person without a car, and outdoor work the choice of a different lifestyle.

During the 1930s in Sitka, that rainy town in Southeast Alaska 850 miles northwest from Seattle, we walked to school wearing black rubberized cloth raincoats and sou'wester rainhats. That was B.S., before schoolbuses. But things haven't changed much. Children in Astoria, Aberdeen, Tofino or Ketchikan dress much the same, except today's raincoats may be plastic in bright colors.

For business people, particularly those whose jobs involve water transport, winter is for maintenance and vacations. Doing business in competition with the parade of North Pacific storm fronts can be a losing proposition--but not for everyone.

There are businesses that operate in spite of adverse weather: for instance, Sause Brothers Ocean Towing, of Coos Bay, Oregon. Dale Sause, 42, president of the company, gave a brief history of the company at his deposition hearing before a battery of attorneys October 3, 1990, in Portland. That hearing was a consequence of events recounted in this book.

"My grandfather was in the (log) rafting and towing business in Tillamook, Oregon, in the 1930s. The...company...started as a corporation in 1946. The brothers were...Curt and Henry, partners in Henry Sause & Sons Rafting & Towing. In the late '40s they were towing logs and developing a business along the West Coast primarily in forest products. They developed the self-dumping log barge system. They modernized the towing and delivery of logs out of the Tillamook Burn area to Grays Harbor (and) Puget Sound.

"And that...developed...into the coastwise towing business in the early '50s. At that point...there were three brothers involved,...Henry Sause Jr., Curt Sause and Paul Sause. In the '50s, our primary business was the delivery of packaged lumber into Southern California. In the '60s we began to diversify, and our business expanded into...Hawaii and Alaska. In the '70s we continued...into the petroleum and chemical business. At the end of the '70s we developed a shipyard and repair facility. Now our business is basically comprised of our ocean towing division, our stevedoring division which takes care of...loading and discharg-

ing...vessels, and our shipyard division."

Question by Michael Haglund, attorney representing the State of Washington: "You mentioned a self-dumping barge. Was that an invention of Sause Brothers during the '40s?"

A--"That is correct, we developed that system. And then it has been copied by the Canadians and several other companies."

Q--"This was a barge that could automatically dump logs or loads of logs that were aboard the barge during...transit?"

A--"Yes. ...And (when) we purchased the Ocean Service...we added the stern roller and (retractable) tow pin arrangement, ...something our company developed in the late '70s."

Q--"How many...are employed by Sause Brothers Ocean Towing and its affiliates?"

A--"Approximately 450."

Q--"Now you mentioned that you diversified.... Are those divisions separately incorporated...?"

A--"Yes, they are separate corporations.... (There is) Crescent City Marine Ways & Dry Dock Company, headquartered in Portland, which operates stevedoring activities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Coos Bay, Longview and Seattle.

"Southern Oregon Marine,...headquartered in Portland, has ...one shipyard in Coos Bay, Oregon. We specialize in tug and barge repair and...building petroleum barges. We have built five barges since 1980.

"We (also) have a...company, Willamette Leasing, and a company that's based in Honolulu,...Sause Brothers, Incorporated.

Q--"And what is its business?"

A--"Inter-island towing and towage in the South Pacific."

Q--"How many tugboats...and barges...does Sause Brothers own?"

A--"Thirty tugboats...and approximately thirty...barges.

Mr. Sause estimated, in the course of his questioning by attorneys preparing for the United States District Court trial, that Sause handles about 80 percent of the winter towing business along the Pacific Coast.

"Every October l...we start wintertime procedures,...go through extensive inspections. We review all (towing) wires, review maintenance, winches, brakes, fairleads, all the rollers. We review, on the barges, all the shackles, the flounder plates, pigtails, surge gear, bridle legs, towing padeyes. We go through and winterize all equipment, antifreeze, those types of things. We make sure that the barge lashings, (their) hatches, and all hatches on the tugs, everything is ready for wintertime."

In regard to personnel for winter ocean towing, and specifically for the trip to Grays Harbor, Sause explained that the company had a prime skipper and chief engineer operating a prime boat, the tug Ocean Service under the command of Charles E. May III (whose father also had been a tug captain) with Jack Wilson as chief engineer. At that time, December of 1988, he said the company had six prime boats and 12 prime skippers, all of whom Sause himself had designated for their skill, experience and dependability.

But, as we all learn eventually, nobody's perfect; and events can conspire against even the most skilled to threaten disaster. Those same skills sometimes can prevent the worst from happening, as was the case with the Ocean Service and its barge, the Nestucca.

Not that this was the first such oil spill on our coast. The earliest major spill I've been able to identify was in 1964. A 200-foot fuel barge towed by the Seattle tug Neptune, carrying 56,000 barrels (2,352,000 gallons) of gasoline, diesel and stove oil, went adrift March ll, 1964, off Grays Harbor.

Since I was involved as city editor of The Aberdeen World, let's flesh out the bare bones of the story as it unfolded.

The newsroom of The World at that time was on the second floor of a brick building in downtown Aberdeen, on Grays Harbor about halfway along the Washington coast between the Olympic Peninsula and the Columbia River. About 30 by 40 feet, the newsroom had one corner partitioned off with a window wall as the "wire room" for a battery of clattering teletype machines that delivered news from elsewhere in the larger world.

Four desks were positioned in line by large windows over- looking the street. Closest to the backshop composing room door and farthest from the entrance at the top of the stairs leading from the street was the desk of the managing editor, Edwin Van Syckle. Next were a pair of desks occupied by Ade Frederickson, news editor, and Irv Seath, wire editor. Then, turned 90 degrees so as to face across the newsroom, was the desk where I worked, handling local news copy generated by the three reporters at desks across the room, plus a pair of field reporters, one on Willapa Harbor and the other at Montesano to cover Eastern Grays Harbor County. I had worked on the city desk at the time for some five years.

One reporter desk was staffed by Barbara Elliott, city hall and schools specialist. Next to her worked Wendell Keene, the Hoquiam and north beaches reporter. A third was for the general assignment reporter, and a fourth for the sports editor, Robbie Peltola.

Van Syckle--and perhaps one or more of the others--has since died, but on that day in 1964 all were on the job, a normal day in the life of a typical small newspaper. But no day in newswork is ever routine. That's one attraction of the work.

Actually it was March 12, 1964, because the accident happened during the night, when a telephone call advised that a fuel barge had drifted ashore between Pacific Beach and Moclips, on the ocean beach some 15 crowfly miles west and almost an equal distance north. Phone calls to Coast Guard Group Grays Harbor at Westport and to others who could provide information helped us develop a story for that day's front page. It was not the top story, however. The conviction of Jimmy Hoffa on conspiracy charges rated that spot. Wendell Keene, with help from others of us on the staff, put together the following account (Endnote 1-1):

"PACIFIC BEACH--Bound for Oregon and California, a 200-foot barge carrying 56,000 barrels of gasoline and diesel oil in its tanks broke adrift yesterday, snapped a salvage hawser last night and drifted onto a sandy shoal between Pacific Beach and Moclips.

"Pounding surf, 8 to 10 feet high and breaking, prevented the Coast Guard from getting lines aboard the barge at high tide today, and salvage attempts had to be called off to await calmer conditions.

"The danger is that the barge might break up and loose her cargo, creating not only the possibility of fire but of extensive damage to clams and other marine life in the area.

BURIED IN SURF

"Surf was breaking over the barge this morning as she rested on the sandbar about 300 to 400 yards offshore at high tide. She had grounded at about a 45-degree angle, according to CWO J.S. Breschini, Group Grays Harbor Coast Guard commander, but later swung broadside to the beach. Occasionally the bow seemed to lift slightly, he said.

"There was a noticeable odor of gasoline, presumably from the tank vents, but no indication of leakage, according to Breschini.

"The $600,000 barge is owned by United Transportation Co. of San Francisco and was loaded at Anacortes and Ferndale refineries for delivery at Coos Bay, Ore., Crescent City and Eureka, Calif.

SNAPS TOWLINE

"Under tow of the Seattle tug Neptune, the barge snapped its hawser (sic., see later report from the Coast Guard hearing) in the storm Tuesday night. Located by a Coast Guard plane yesterday, it was taken in tow by the USCG Cutter Modoc from Astoria. But the line parted again and the barge drifted into the surf.

"In addition to the cutter, the Coast Guard had a 36-footer (motor rescue boat) from Westport standing offshore this morning, a helicopter from Pt. Angeles to assist in transfering lines, and beach crews from the Pt. Grenville Loran station and Westport.

"When the salvage attempt was prevented by the rough surf conditions, the Coast Guard recalled its units. Two cranes were reported to be on the beach early this afternoon, and it was possible that attempts to get lines aboard from shore might be tried at low tide."

The story continued a few more paragraphs, quoting J.E., Lasater, assistant state fisheries director at Olympia, expressing concern over the possibility of extensive damage to fish and shellfish in case the barges' cargo spilled.

Keene went to the scene to keep close track of events, and we also sent Bill Jones, Aberdeen photographer, on special assignment. He brought back good photographs of the barge in the surf, which were on the front page the next day. "Turks threaten Cyprus intervention" was the banner headline that afternoon; but the second story, at the top left of page 1, was Wendell's report.

"MOCLIPS--North Beach clams still appeared to be safe as salvage preparations went forward this afternoon to pull a 260-foot barge loaded with fuel from (its) parallel perch along the Moclips beach.

"State Pollution Control Commission and Fisheries Department personnel were at the scene, anxiously hopeful the barge's 2 million gallons of gasoline and oil would not be released to kill coastal marine life, especially clams.

"Though a petroleum odor is detected by those arriving on the beach, Al Daugherty, Aberdeen enforcement officer for the Fisheries Department, said the big barge doesn't appear to be leaking.

"The Puget Sound Tug & Barge Co. tug Sea Witch was at the Port Dock (between Aberdeen and Hoquiam in Grays Harbor) at noon today to take on 18,000 feet of heavy line. Salvage Master George Mitchell of United Transportation Co., San Francisco, owner of the barge, said the tug would sail at 4 o'clock this afternoon for Moclips.

WORK THROUGH NIGHT

"'We'll work to pull the barge off the sand just as soon as we get there,' Mitchell said. 'We'll work through the night.' He said at least one other tug would help.

"Salvage efforts this morning began by shuttling of three men to the barge with a chartered helicopter operated by a former Hoquiamite, Budd Darling of Chehalis. Their inspection was brief but they reported only slight damage to the pumphouse at the stern and no evidence of holes or cracks."

The story continued, reviewing information from the previous day, and adding that a minor spill from the barge had killed crabs, surf perch and razor clams in the immediate area.

It may have been that day we received a telephone call from a person at the scene who was not involved in the salvage effort. On condition of anonymity, this person said that the barge was indeed leaking large quantities of fuel.

That day's banner headline concerned the conviction of Jack Ruby in Texas for killing Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy.

Monday evening, March 16, the tug was reported still pulling in a continuing effort to get the grounded barge refloated. The next day's paper finally gave the situation a banner head: "NORTH BEACH SHELLFISH WIPED OUT" and a deck head below, "Clam oil-kill ends digging; barge freed."

"Total kill of all beach and inshore marine life for more than 10 miles along the North Beach was revealed this afternoon by State Fisheries Department experts.

"Ruination of one of Washington State's finest razor clam digging areas followed the salvage early today of a stranded fuel barge from the beach near Moclips with what remained of its cargo

of more than 1 million gallons of gasoline and diesel and stove oil.

"'Everything is dying,' said J.E. Lasater, deputy director of fisheries, who termed the situation a major marine disaster. Lasater said the kill included sea birds, fish ducks, tube worms and moon snails."

Extensive damage on beaches of the Quinault Indian Reservation further north also was reported.

The offending fuel barge was pulled from the beach at 1:16 a.m. by a 9-inch hawser from the tug Sea Witch standing offshore.

"The World learned," continued the story, "that a total of 500,000 gallons of diesel and stove oil was pumped from the

stranded barge between 2 p.m. and 11 p.m. yesterday, and that 750,000 gallons, about half of the gasoline aboard (actually 53 percent), had leaked out while the barge was on the beach.

"Earl Coe (Washington Secretary of State), as chairman of the State Pollution Control Commission, said this morning he gave permission yesterday to 'pump out water and oil from the barge bilges' to lighten it enough so it could be pulled free.

"'It was a method of saving the ship as against having it entirely destroyed and all the oil dumped on the beach,' he said."

Mr. Coe died only a month or so later.

Charles Roe, retired from state service as an assistant attorney general, confirmed the accuracy of accounts published by The Daily World. Roe said he participated in a three-way phone conversation with Coe and Stanley Knox of the Pollution Control staff. Coe was in Portland, Ore., and Knox on the scene at Moclips, while Roe was in Olympia. He explained that Coe did not know the barge lacked bilges, and nothing separated the oil from the ocean water except a single layer of steel plate. Mr. Coe approved pumping out the fuel "by not turning it down" when it was proposed, and took personal responsibility for the decision when objections were raised later on, said Roe.

It is still true that most fuel barges and tankers in the world are of single hull construction.

The commercial clam digging season was closed immediately, as was sports digging north of the Copalis River, and March 20 fisheries agent Daugherty reported dead clams the full length of the beach south of the spill, along with dead or dying birds that included grebes, scoters and sea pigeons (pigeon guillemots). He could see an oil slick offshore. A north beach businessman, William Anable, said however that he had found no dead clams on the beach except those that had washed ashore.

At the ensuing Coast Guard hearing it developed that the tug Neptune's 1,400-foot towing cable had run off the winch drum. Capt. Fritzjof Berge testified that he had 1,200 feet of cable out and 200 feet remaining on the drum when he turned the watch over to the mate at midnight. An hour later he was awakened by a surge as the tug lost her tow. No explanation was reported as to why the cable ran off the drum.

In another followup story, George Starlund, state director of fisheries, said an estimated 32,000 pounds of razor clams had been killed (1-2). But the clams were not wiped out, and eventually recovered.

State Attorney General John J. O'Connell later that year agreed to an $8,000 payment by United Transportation Company as an out-of-court settlement for damages caused by the spill (1-3).

Another oil spill along the Washington coast, noted only briefly at the time and mostly forgotten since, was the wreck of the unmanned military troop transport Gen. M.C. Meigs in January of 1972 (1-4). The General Meigs had been moored with the U.S. Maritime Service reserve fleet in Budd Inlet near Olympia at the south end of Puget Sound. When the Olympia reserve fleet was closed out, the Meigs was determined to be worth saving rather than being dismantled for scrap. So she was being towed under Navy contract from Olympia to intended mooring with the USMS reserve fleet in San Francisco bay.

Contending with gale-force winds and 30-foot seas, a tug operated by Murphy Pacific Marine Salvage Co. reported that its towing cable snapped about 2 a.m. January 9, 1972, some 9 1/2 (nine and a half) miles off the Olympic Peninsula. The Meigs drifted ashore at the southwest corner of the Makah Indian Reservation, about 7 1/2 road and hiking miles south of Neah Bay, between Portage Head and Shi Shi Beach. That's about 8 miles southeast from Cape Flattery as the seagull might fly.

After grounding on a rock ledge less than 200 yards out and parallel to the shoreline, the Meigs broke apart. Her forward two thirds listed to port, with the bow heading southeast, while the aft section swung more to the north. Eventually the fantail broke away and was swept closer to the beach among the seastack rocks. A large seastack separated the two main sections of the hulk in aerial photos taken by the Seattle Times and also photos five years later when the stern section was underwater except for the after mast (1-5).

Commissioned during the 1940s and reactivated during the Korean war, the Meigs was decommissioned in 1958 and had been in the reserve fleet since. Navy records indicated the 622-foot, 12,000-ton ship carried 116,690 gallons of fuel oil in 19 tanks ranging from 8,000 to 22,000 gallons capacity. Whether these tanks all were full is doubtful, and in fact the second-day story in the Seattle Times said the vessel carried 2,200 barrels of oil, or 92,400 gallons. The latter figure may have been the quantity actually measured in her tanks during storage, as that was routine practice, according to Archie Townsend of Olympia, a former reserve fleet worker.

The bunker fuel (Navy special) burned by such steam-powered ships will flow through a pump only when heated, and at the temperature of seawater is but semiliquid. Even so, a major single oil spill occurred the first two days after the Meigs went ashore, and oil continued to appear in the area for five years. Researchers found the heavy oil affected only the vicinity of the rocky cove protected by the wreck and seastacks (op.cit. 1-5).

The largest marine spill in Washington State history--thus far--was December 21, 1985, when the tanker Arco Anchorage, 120,000 deadweight tons, 883 feet long by 138 feet wide, made a bad turn into Port Angeles harbor on the south shore of Juan de Fuca Strait. She cut too close to Ediz Hook, then went too far south and into water too shallow for her 51-foot draft. A rock punctured the inch-and-a-half-thick steel on the bottom of her number five center and portside tanks, releasing 231,000 gallons of Alaskan crude oil. It was comparable in quantity with the later Nestucca spill of 227,304 (plus or minus 4,200) gallons (1-6).

Lewey Kittle, former on-scene coordinator for the Washington State Department of Ecology, added some explanatory information. The accident occurred, he recalled, because the pilot put on too much speed so that the deep-laden tanker ran onto the shallower bottom. Then he reversed engines and turned, trying to back the ship into deeper water. The maneuver shoved the vessel over a large buried rock, ripping a gash from near the stern forward through the bottom of tanks from which the crude oil flowed.

Port Angeles harbor was transformed into a pool of oil, and the tide carried some of it eastward 14 miles to Dungeness Spit and its National Wildlife Refuge. The final toll was about 4,000 birds and 11,000 pounds of clams killed. Atlantic Richfield (Arco) spent $13 million to clean the spill and settle damage claims, winning praise for its fast action and generally good response.

Port Angeles Fire Chief Larry Glenn, recalling the spill, said "The first thing we noticed was all of a sudden it became very silent." Glenn was in a fire department utility boat as it approached the scene that evening. The boat's wake vanished as it moved into the oil slick, and the water was flat as a floor, Glenn said. Any doubts about the magnitude of the spill were erased the next morning, according to a recollection story five years after (1-7). "It was total disbelief," Glenn said. "It was going bloop, bloop on the shore. That's when I realized what a horrible catastrophe it was."

"Arco decided that protecting Dungeness Spit was the top priority, and concentrated efforts there," said the AP story. "The cost was to let the oil have its way on Ediz Hook, which juts out and around the Port Angeles harbor. But Dungeness Spit remained generally clear of oil, and scientists agree the environmental legacy of the spill would have been much different if the entire spit were (to have been) coated. Bob Levine, Arco's spill coordinator, now calls protecting (Dungeness) spit the best decision he ever made. On Ediz Hook, the oil hit the beach so quickly that little could be done to prevent damage.... It took until April (more than three months) to clean the beach. "June Siva, Arco's manager of environmental sciences, said the company conducted tests of sediment samples on the hook for three years. In the first two years, she said, 'hot spots' of oil could be found, but marine life in the inner tidal areas was recovering. 'We saw juvenile clams coming back...' she said, and ...now clams are m ost likely at pre-spill levels."

There have been other spills over the years. One non-spill is worthy of mention, especially in contrast to the Arco Anchorage, because the two events occurred in such proximity with differing results. The Japanese tanker Matsukaze was inbound to Puget Sound in 1988, but according to Kittle of DOE someone laying out the course to Tacoma forgot about the Olympic Peninsula. The plot was established as a line southeasterly from the point where the Matsukaze turned into Juan de Fuca Strait. On automatic pilot, she ran onto the beach at her full 14-knot cruising speed some 17 miles west of Port Angeles.

As the bow of the tanker plowed to a stop only 50 feet or so short of high tide line, a man who had parked his motorhome on the beach heard the prolonged "cru-u-u-unch" and looked out to see the ship. He switched on his CB radio, intending to report the grounding to the Coast Guard, but found he was in a radio "dead spot" between headlands, and could raise only someone in a nearby home. The resident didn't believe his report of a ship on the beach, so he had to find a payphone to notify the Coast Guard. The ship's grounding was so violent that a Volkswagon-size boulder from the beach was shoved through the steel hull to the inside of the tanker, according to Kittle, and yet not a drop of oil was spilled. As you may have guessed, the reason was that the tanker had a double hull. Even that big boulder was not enough to rupture the oil tanks inside.

The difference between the Arco Anchorage and Matsukaze events, as Eric Nalder observed in a Seattle Times series on oil tankers, was $13 million for cleanup of the Port Angeles spill, plus another half million dollars to repair the ship. For the Matsukaze, repairs cost $213,000 (1-8).

There now are finally requirements under the federal oil pollution act of 1990 that tankers have double hulls, although it delays the date for total compliance until the year 2015, a variable deadline depending upon the age and size of a vessel. A tanker with a single hull may not operate in U.S. waters after January l, 2010, except for unloading at a licensed deepwater port or offloading in a lightering zone more than 60 miles offshore (1-9). The growing costs of oil spills have begun to make double hulls look better and better, however, and may bring earlier compliance.

One other spill needs mention, because it involved an oil barge on Puget Sound operating under a lack of proper regulation. In January, 1988, almost a year before Nestucca, the MCN-5, leased by Olympic Tug & Barge of Seattle, overturned and sank in Guemes Channel only a few hundred yards from the Washington State ferry dock west of Anacortes. It released 67,368 gallons of bunker fuel after sinking before it was carefully raised with the remainder of its 414,708-gallon cargo. Most of the heavy oil that escaped the overloaded barge was swept away by tidal currents, but beaches in the vicinity were affected.

The barge formerly had been licensed for ocean hauling, but was reinspected by the Coast Guard and relicensed for inside waters carrying oil in two end tanks previously reserved for buoyancy. As a result the barge was unstable when deeply loaded, but not in violation of non-existent regulations for protected waters. Substantial financial assessments were lodged against the responsible parties by state and federal authorities (1-10).

Now let's move on to our primary case.


Chapter 2

email the Author, Dave Webster