Boat spills diesel fuel at Birch Bay Village marina

Published on Wed, Aug 18, 2010 by Tara Nelson

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Officials were scrambling to clean up Birch Bay Village marina last week after a boat spilled more than 20 gallons of diesel fuel into the water there.


Washington State Department of Ecology spokesperson Katie Skipper said officials received a report of a half-mile long oil sheen at Birch Bay Village marina at about 9 p.m. Tuesday, August 9. When emergency response personnel arrived Wednesday morning, the sheen was about 300 feet by 300 feet wide and surrounded a 50-foot Bayliner recreational boat moored in the marina.


The boat and its owner and operator left Bellingham Tuesday and traveled to Birch Bay where he moored at Birch Bay Village marina.


To make matters worse, the water had been contaminated with a soap-like substance that caused the diesel to thin and spread quickly. Skipper said this is because detergents act like a dispersant, which aids in the spread of the fuel and pushes it beneath the water’s surface.


“It doesn’t take much,” Skipper said. “It’s bad enough to get diesel in the water but when it gets driven down into the lower water columns, it becomes harder to remove. It was bad timing.”


For example, when response crews put down diesel absorbing pads on the surface, they came back clear instead of picking up the red dye typically used in boat diesel.


“This was an indication the dye was sinking off the surface and going into the water,” she said.


Officials suspect the spill was caused by mechanical problems in the boat’s fuel system, which caused diesel to seep into the bilge, the lowest point in the boat that traps incoming water. When the bilge becomes full of water, most boats have a system that will pump the water over board.


Carl Anderson, an investigator with DOE who responded at the scene, said although they weren’t able to give an exact number they estimate the spill to be about 20 gallons. He added the boat had two tanks that each held 220 gallons and was about three-fourths full when the operator left Bellingham. Some of the fuel was recovered in the bilge and some remained in the fuel tanks.


“It’s way too early to say just how much fuel escaped,” Anderson said. “These things take quite a bit of calculating and investigation. It will be a little while before we know.”


BP Cherry Point refinery’s fire unit also assisted on the scene and provided boons to help contain the spill, Skipper said.
Skipper added that although the spill is relatively small, it still has a harmful impact on marine life – especially in protected areas such as marinas, where forage fish tend to hide.


“It’s that death by 1,000 cuts that we’re trying to avoid,” she said. “The greatest way to avoid environmental damage is to not let these things happen in the first place because they have an accumulative effect on the environment.”


She added that residents can help by reporting spills even if they appear insignificant. The department’s emergency response line is 800/258-5990 or 800/OILS-911.