Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hooray for Oil Spill Response

Monday afternoon I was tinkering in the workshop and chatting with my father when his cellphone rang.  The caller told him that there had been an oil spill on the river and that there was a sheen that stretched from the Marina all the way up to the Turning Basin downtown.

We were pretty confident that it wasn't coming from the marina, but it still seemed like it'd be interesting to go and check it out.  So I finished a few things that were brewing in the workshop and we hopped in the car to head to the river.

When we arrived at marina, he got another call.  This time it was the Fire Department asking him to assist with deploying oil containment booms downriver.  Whenever something interesting happens with emergency response on the river they always call him.  It probably has something to do with the fact that the Petaluma Fire Department's Marine Unit is pretty much limited to this thing:
Petaluma Fireboat

The plan was to deploy containment booms across the inlets to the sensitive wetland habitats downriver to prevent them from becoming contaminated with oil.  These inlets are either creeks or breaks in the levees and none of them are more than a hundred feet wide.  This should be a piece of cake.

A few minutes after we'd brought one of the Sea Scout utility boats over to the boat ramp, a handful of firemen loaded it up with three hundred-foot sections of oil containment boom.  Then they all piled into the boat and said they were ready to go.

DAD: Where are your anchors?
FIREMAN: What do we need anchors for?
DAD: You'll need something to tie the ends of the booms to so they don't float away.
FIREMAN: We'll just tie them to trees on the shore.
DAD: You're going to need a lot more rope then.

For those of you who haven't been there, this is a typical section of the riverbank along the Petaluma River:
Petaluma River Bank

While the Petaluma Fire Department is great at what they do, clearly they don't have much excuse to go down the river.  Once they're on the water, these guys are a bit out of their element.

So once they'd found the anchors in their oil spill response kit, we headed down river and started deploying sections of boom:
Hauling boom

Unfortunately, their little toy rubber boat didn't quite have enough horsepower to pull the boom across the current in the outgoing tide.  Then they managed to get it stuck on top of the boom:Boat stuck

It was time to start coming up with another plan.  I ended up hopping onto the bank and helping them out.  Once one end of the boom was securely anchored, stretching it across to the opposite side of the opening was actually pretty simple.

We ended up rigging three containment booms about like so: 
Boom placed

With the booms in place (protecting the local marsh mouse population or whatever) it was time to head back to the Marina and drop off the firemen.  Then we went upriver to check out the source of the crisis.

When we got there, here's what we found:Broken up tug
This is an inlet next to an empty yard where they used to make pre-stressed concrete construction components.  The orange and white booms you see in the foreground above were deployed in response to the spill.  The bigger, heavier one you see on the shore around the hull was put in place as a preventative measure by the workers who were cutting up this old steel tugboat prior to the spill.

They'd been hacking apart the old tug and dragging it further and further up the bank as they were cutting.  Looking over the scene, it seems clear that they just failed to plan for the tide.  When high tide came in, the water got just high enough to float oil out of the hull.  Then when the tide went out, the containment boom settled on the mud and eventually fell over, spilling its contents into the river.

All of this happened in the wee hours of the morning on Labor Day.  By the time anyone had noticed the spill, the tide was coming back in and, with no wind to blow it downriver, the slick had reached the Turning Basin downtown bringing with it the distinct odor of used motor oil and diesel fuel.

By the time we got there most of it had dissipated.  Still, there was a noticeable sheen on the water at the Washington Boulevard bridge:
Oily Sheen

Since then cleaning crews have been working nonstop to sponge up every last drop of oil.  Workers have steam-cleaned what's left of the hulk, bagging and removing the fouled water, and officials have been trying to find those responsible for the mess.  Meanwhile, fishing has been suspended on the river until further notice and wildlife experts have been searching for any signs of animals injured by the spill:Impacted wildlife

I took that picture less than 100 yards from the source of the spill, and less than fourteen hours after it happened, so I kinda doubt they'll find any goo-covered shorebirds.  The closest we could find was a hint of black at the high-tide mark on some of the tule grass.

Estimates put the total volume of oil spilled somewhere between 200 and 600 gallons.  I'm no expert, but I'd lean heavily toward the lower end of that range. 

Still, the overreaction continues apace...


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