Editors Note: This story has been updated to include information regarding recovering the tug Feb. 22.
A 45’ tugboat partially sank off the Lopez ferry terminal Wednesday morning, Feb. 22, with an estimated 400 gallons of diesel fuel onboard. Initial reports indicated the semi-submerged tug sank in the vicinity of a larger barge operation that was onsite to repair the Lopez ferry dock.
According to Elaina Thompson, the new Executive Director of Islands’ Oil Spill Association, the vessel sinking was reported by American Construction Company, owner of the tug and barge. “We got a call [Wednesday] morning at 8:45 a.m. that this was happening,” says Thompson. “We sent a responder out on Lopez Island who got eyes on the scene and took some photographs and assessed the weather.”
“We reported that to the Department of Ecology and the US Coast Guard,” adds Thompson. “We confirmed that all the proper channels were notified and responders were en route, and now due to the weather and other factors are taking command from DOE and US Coast Guard and waiting as this unfolds.”
Early Wednesday morning photos taken at the scene showed the vessel’s flybridge was visible above the surface, and a diesel sheen visible drifting towards shore. According to Ty Keltner, Public Information Officer for the Department of Ecology, responders were enroute with air quality monitors to assess any diesel vapors. In addition, the response contractor that had been hired was Global Diving and Salvage, the same group that recovered the Aleutian Isle back in 2022.
By nightfall Wednesday evening much had been accomplished.
According to the Department of Ecology, Wednesday afternoon “responders secured rigging to the sunken tugboat Tulalip so that the crane already on scene could move the vessel alongside the barge in preparation to be lifted. Once secured, divers began inspecting the vessel for damage and plugging vents and any holes in the hull. Boom was deployed around the vessel as a precaution and will remain in place until the vessel is dewatered, lifted, and ready for transit to Tacoma.”
According to Keltner lift operations began Wednesday evening and the vessel was safely removed from the water late that very night. “No pollution was released when they lifted the tug onto the barge,” adds Keltner. “It makes a big difference when you have an accident and there’s a crane sitting next to you.” The tug was transported by barge to Tacoma once weather conditions improved.
In addition to recovery efforts, DOE reported air monitoring began Wednesday afternoon, continued during the lift operations, and that no air pollutants had been detected. DOE also says they would be looking at impacts to nearby shorelines over the next several days, along with investigating the cause of the sinking.
IOSA Director Thompson began her job in January, making this her first on-the-ground response.
“While you never want to have an incident in the San Juan Islands, if you have an incident, this is the way you want it to go,” She said. “I don’t think any incident response is ever perfect. And I don’t think that it’s realistic to think that we can make it perfect, but I think from start to finish there was a lot of communicating, there was a lot of all hands on deck. There were a lot of resources that were immediately dispatched, and I think that it all paid off and it all worked out despite the weather. And I’m thankful because that’s what you want.”
Aleutian Isle Incident Fresh In Everyone’s Minds
This incident follows another recent situation when a vessel sank. That vessel was the Aleutian Isle, a 58-foot-long steel purse seine fishing vessel built in the 1970s, weighing 56 gross tons with a 70-ton displacement. The Aleutian Isle sank just over six months ago, Aug. 13, along the west side of San Juan Island near Sunset Point. The fishing vessel was carrying over 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel as it plummeted within seconds to a depth of nearly 250 feet below the surface, making the eventual recovery incredibly difficult.
The challenging environment, strong currents and tides, the deep depths, rugged undersea terrain, and entangled fishing nets made her recovery a monumental task that took forty days and millions of dollars to accomplish.
According to David Byers, Department of Ecology Response Section Manager who played a key role in the Aleutian Isle recovery operation, “We conducted a series of debriefs each focusing on different aspects of the response. Some of the agencies held their own internal debriefs, the Environmental Unit met (US and Canada), the international Canadian/US air operations and whale deterrence coordination team debriefed, and the response organizations represented in the Unified Command conducted one also. All that input is being distilled by the USCG.”
“The final summary will also include recommendations for the response community as a whole – to individual organizations, but also, particularly to the Northwest Area Committee (NWAC). The NWAC is the regional steering group responsible for response planning and coordination – and they have the authority from representative agencies to commit the time and funding to make coordinated regional improvements to response planning and preparedness.”
“This is a big deal for us,” adds Byers. “Each agency will have to authorize the funding commitment for the recommended improvements, as well as being realistic on what we as a response community can reasonably take on and be successful.”
Following the Aleutian Isle incident many lessons were learned, strengths and weaknesses were identified, new ideas and partnerships were implemented and established, and an after-action report is forthcoming. To that end the County Council is set to hear from leadership of many of the participating response agencies during a special session of Council Thursday, March 2, beginning at 10:30 am in the Council Hearing Room.
The County Council Special Meeting presentations will include: Introduction, Tim Lupher (USCG); Overall response operations, CWO Johnston (USCG); Shoreline protection and SCAT, Allison Meyers (DOE); Wildlife response, Don Noviello (WDFW) and CDR Knighton (NOAA); Air Monitoring, Geoff Baran (DOE); Public outreach/ Liaison, Jase Brooks (DOE); and Overall response by Federal On-Scene Coordinator CDR Ladyga (USCG), State On-Scene Coordinator Dave Beyers (DOE), and Local On-Scene Coordinator Brendan Cowan (SJC).
To attend the meeting: by phone call 360-726-3293, conference ID: 891 968 338#; livestream at https://www.sanjuanco.com/773/Council-Hearing-Room-Live-Stream; or attend the meeting in person at the Council Hearing Room, 55 Second Street Friday Harbor.