Penn Cove canoe races OK as diesel mopped up

Divers from Ballard Diving & Salvage prepare to head out to the sunken Deep Sea Thursday after the day’s shift change. Twenty-four-hour operations ceased this week and the Penn Cove Water Festival will go ahead as planned. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Divers from Ballard Diving & Salvage prepare to head out to the sunken Deep Sea Thursday after the day’s shift change. Twenty-four-hour operations ceased this week and the Penn Cove Water Festival will go ahead as planned.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Despite the Sunday sinking of a 128-foot fishing boat and at least 2,000 gallons of leaked diesel fuel, about 300 canoe racers will hit the water in Coupeville today for the 21st annual Penn Cove Water Festival.

Organizers announced Thursday morning that they had received the official green light to proceed with the historic water races, settling earlier fears that the sinking of the Deep Sea might interfere with the yearly event.

The derelict crab boat, which had been illegally anchored in Penn Cove for months, caught fire late Saturday evening. Most of the top-side fires were extinguished early on but the vessel continued to steam through Sunday until it sank at about 6 p.m.

According to Kyle Waterman, a member of the festival’s board, the leaked fuel was a concern, but it turned out that the bigger obstacle was expected competition for access to the water.

“It wasn’t necessarily about contamination, though it was a concern,” Waterman said. “It was more about the boat launch.”

Since the vessel sank, the area has been abuzz with boats from private, state and federal agencies working to mitigate the impacts of the leaking fuel. As a result, the Coupeville boat launch has been a busy place.

However, Waterman said there will be enough room this weekend for the 35 to 40 canoes expected to participate in the 11 featured races.

Wrapping up

On Friday morning, U.S. Coast Guard officials confirmed that containment efforts were beginning to wind down. Diving had to be shut down late Thursday and divers had three more tanks to investigate, but 24-hour diving operations have ceased.

Lt. Cmdr. Wade Gough, chief of the Coast Guard’s incident management division at Sector Puget Sound in Seattle, reported that diving would be suspended for the weekend, resuming on Monday, but that floating oil booms will remain in place as a precautionary measure.

While some of the numbers are still a little shaky, he said up to 5,200 gallons of diesel fuel had been recovered in all. About 3,200 gallons had been directly “stung” or siphoned from the ship’s tanks and on the surface with specially designed “skimming boats” while another 2,000 gallons was soaked up from the surface with absorbent pads.

Wade said the total is probably inflated as some of what has been recovered is a mix of seawater and diesel.

“So, maybe 75 percent of that is actual fuel,” Gough said.

It was initially believed that only 50 to 100 gallons of fuel were aboard the boat, which has an overall fuel capacity of 30,000 gallons. At one point, it was estimated that about 3 gallons of diesel was leaking every minute from a vent.

Very lucky

Environmental experts from the state have been monitoring the situation closely and so far have reported no serious impacts. On Monday, a sheen on the water stretched past the wharf and a thin coating of fuel was found on the shoreline but that had disappeared entirely by Wednesday.

Carl Anderson, a hazardous materials specialist with the state Department of Ecology’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness & Response Program, said Thursday that they had not found any afflicted fish, seabirds or mammals in the area.

“I think we’ve been very, very lucky that we’ve seen minimal effect to wildlife and shorelines,” Anderson said.

Part of that he attributed to a week of sunshine and light wind and wave action, all of which helps diesel fuel evaporate and dissipate more quickly, he said.

“Mother Nature does her job,” he said.

The response and coordination of the many local, state and federal agencies involved was also a likely factor as efforts to contain and manage the potential ecological disaster began right away.

The Coast Guard hired private contractors for diving and spill response; the Department of Ecology has been on the scene since day one and conducted environmental assessments; the state Department of Health has been taking water samples; local fire departments worked to contain the initial fire; and town and county governments are coordinating with state and federal partners.

Costs mount up

All the effort is coming at a price. Gough said the cost of its spill response and diving contractors alone is ranging from $30,000 to $55,000 a day. Funding is coming from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a special pot filled with money levied from oil imports, and Gough said he believed the Coast Guard would need to increase its current cost cap of $300,000 to cover the final bill.

And that’s only the price of hired contractors. It does not include the cost of Coast Guard assets on the scene --- boats and helicopters --- and the expense being incurred by all the other agencies involved.

“Once you add that all up, it’s quite expensive,” Gough said.

The state Department of Natural Resources is moving ahead with plans to raise and remove the vessel and ballpark figures are in the neighborhood of $500,000, according to Toni Droscher, an agency spokeswoman.

“That’s a rough estimate,” she said. “It’s hard to say until we know more about what we’re looking at.”

Droscher said the department is still waiting for finalized reports from divers on the vessel’s condition. She said the plan is to put the project of removing the boat from the water out to bid soon, but she doesn’t know yet when it will actually be raised.

All of the costs are expected to be reimbursed by the vessel’s owner, Rory Westmoreland.

Talk of the town

The burning and subsequent sinking of the Deep Sea may not have resulted in ecological disaster but that hasn’t stopped it from being the talk of Coupeville.

“It’s certainly become the local topic of conversation,” said William Bell, owner of Local Grown coffee shop at the end of the wharf. “A lot of people are scratching their heads about why it wasn’t removed sooner, why it wasn’t cared for better, why it wasn’t taken away from the (mussel) rafts; it goes on and on.”

It’s also sparked more than a few theories about how the fire started. Rumors range from spontaneous combustion and an onboard meth lab to a person living aboard the derelict vessel.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said he’s also heard a variety of rumors but couldn’t substantiate anything as it’s an ongoing investigation that’s being led by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The Coast Guard and various state agencies are also involved, he said.

The sinking and diesel spill has had an impact on several local businesses. According to Delia Curt, a bartender at Toby’s Tavern on Front Street, many people have been a little more cautious when it comes to the restaurant’s signature mussel dishes.

“We’ve had a lot of calls about whether we’re serving contaminated mussels,” she said. “We’re not.”

Toby’s is supplied by Coupeville-based Penn Cove Shellfish, a mussel farm with rafts on the front lines of the sunken fishing boat. The firm voluntarily suspended harvesting on Sunday, but began harvesting at the next day at their other farm on the Olympic Peninsula.

“We’re still harvesting in Quilcene so we’ve really only lost one day,” said owner Ian Jefferds, estimating the financial impact of the day’s lost sales at over $40,000.

Since then, the state Department of Health has closed shellfish harvesting in Penn Cove completely. It’s unclear how long it will be in effect but it’s expected to run into next week at the very least.

Due to the high media exposure of the event, Jefferds said the farm’s reputation may also have suffered a hit. He worries about customer concerns such as those being seen at Toby’s and wonders how long they will last what the cumulative impact will be.

“Time will tell,” he said.


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