Book Excerpt: Constant Chaos, PART II The Devil’s Excrement

Chapter 6 Oil & Dead Birds on the Coast

Part 1 of 2

By Ron Holcomb

Editor’s Note: Author Ron Holcomb is sharing a chapter from his recently released book Constant Chaos. You can also read previously published chapters here. We’ll feature other chapters in the coming months. Click here for more information on how to get his book.

AROUND 11:15 P.M. on Dec. 22, 1988, the tug Ocean Service was towing the oil barge Nestucca south along the Washington coast near the entrance to Grays Harbor. The barge was loaded with nearly 3 million gallons of Bunker C oil. The tug captain began reeling in the tow line to shorten the distance between the 120-foot tug and the 300-foot barge as he prepared to enter Grays Harbor. The steel line suddenly snapped and the Nestucca became adrift. The wind picked up and pushed the barge toward the north jetty. The barge was not equipped with a trailing emergency tow wire, but the tug carried a barge retrieval system called an Orville Hook. The device was invented and patented by Sause Brothers Ocean Towing, the owner and operator of the Ocean Service and the Nestucca. Unfortunately, the captain was the only person on the tug that night who knew how to assemble and deploy the device.

As the barge drifted closer toward shallower water and the rock jetty, the captain didn’t believe there was enough time to deploy the Orville Hook with his untrained crew. Instead, he backed the Ocean Service at an angle alongside the barge as a last resort. He made this dangerous maneuver so two crew members could jump onto the barge and throw an emergency tow line back to the tug. Swells were 14 feet with occasional 16-foot breaking waves in 10-knot winds. A wave hit just as the crew members prepared to jump and the two vessels collided. On the second try, the two crewmen, who did not have time to put on survival suits, were able to jump across to the Nestucca.

The collision damaged the rudder, preventing the Ocean Service from safely maneuvering close enough to the barge to retrieve the emergency tow line or bring the men back to the tug. They remained stuck on the Nestucca overnight in the cold, wet and windy conditions without communication because their handheld radio shorted out from waves washing over them.

Also Read: Researchers Testing Better Way to Remove Oil From Seawater

Even more ominously, the collision punctured a cargo tank on the barge, creating a gash about 7 feet long and 18 inches wide. The damaged compartment held 252,000 gallons of the heavy and sticky oil. As the barge heaved up and down in the swells, oil poured into the sea. Due to darkness and the stormy conditions, the crew on the tug wasn’t aware of the gash in the Nestucca and the oil spilling out.

Despite the heavy seas and wind, the barge stopped drifting when it became anchored by its heavy towing bridle and chain dragging on the bottom in the shallow water. The captain decided to deploy the Orville Hook with the two remaining crew members, and they successfully retrieved the barge with a 600-foot emergency tow line. Because of the tug’s limited maneuverability, the captain radioed for help. The tug Janet R was nearby and came to assist. The approaching crew saw oil in the water and informed the Ocean Service captain, who then notified the U.S. Coast Guard about the spill. The captain told the Coast Guard that he wouldn’t try to cross the bar into Grays Harbor. He cited the heavy seas and stormy conditions, the limitations of the emergency tow line and his tug’s damaged rudder. He said his plan was to head out to sea in a southwesterly direction off the Columbia River.

The State and Federal Response

The Coast Guard notified the Department of Ecology and discussed the situation. The Coast Guard and Ecology agreed the decision by the captain to tow the Nestucca out to sea was the right move. It would also protect the sensitive environmental areas in the harbor including Bowerman Basin, an important migratory bird refuge.

The next morning, the seas calmed down and the Janet R retrieved the two crew members from the Nestucca. A Coast Guard helicopter out of Astoria, Oregon, lowered a patch kit to the Janet R but the weather and sea conditions were too rough for them to plug the hole in the side of the Nestucca. The Janet R crew was finally able to pound wooden plugs into the gash around 1:00 a.m. on Dec. 24.

There was initial confusion about the amount of oil spilled. Somehow the barge’s 70,000-barrel capacity, which is 2.94 million gallons, was initially recorded as 70,000 gallons spilled. The full extent of the spill — 231,000 gallons — wasn’t determined until the following week when the remaining oil was pumped out of the damaged cargo compartment.

Seabirds at Risk

There are few things that trigger more human emotion and outrage than injured and dying wildlife. And Bunker C oil is devastating to seabirds. It is heavy, sticky and readily coats birds’ feathers, damaging their ability to float and keep warm. Birds instinctively try to remove the foreign substance by preening, which poisons them when they ingest the toxic material.

Early on, a bird search and rescue effort got underway. Washington Conservation Corps members, including some who had been trained in oiled-bird handling and cleaning, were a valuable pool of skilled workers. The search and rescue operation eventually expanded to cover beaches from the mouth of the Columbia River to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

A makeshift bird-cleaning center was set up in the Hoquiam Middle School gymnasium where local volunteers with carpentry skills built holding pens. Feeding tubes and Pedialyte were donated from local hospitals along with boxes, rags, sheets, netting, smelt and other items from all over town. The first live oiled birds captured were washed in the gym’s shower room.

There is debate about whether any effort should be made to save oiled birds because many don’t survive rehabilitation efforts. Others argue that people caused the problem and that it is our ethical duty to help even if the outcome is uncertain. A strong argument for the effort to save oiled wildlife is that lessons and techniques learned while cleaning them can be used when endangered species are affected by an oil spill.

The Cleanup Gets Underway

Sause Brothers out of Coos Bay, Oregon, took responsibility for the spill cleanup and coordinated with the Coast Guard, Ecology and other agencies working within the Unified Command System. Global Diving & Salvage (Global) out of Seattle was hired to conduct shoreline cleanup. Sause Brothers also brought in Alice Berkner, who founded the International Bird Rescue Research Center in California. Berkner was the country’s leading expert on oiled-bird cleaning and rehabilitation techniques.

By Christmas Day, 550 oiled-coated birds had been captured and taken to the middle school bird center where 50 volunteers were helping. To prevent scavengers such as eagles from becoming contaminated, dead birds were collected from local beaches.

It quickly became clear that the command post and bird center would need to be moved. The command post was moved on Tuesday and the bird center on Wednesday, a major undertaking, to the Ocean Shores Convention Center. At the time of the move, 900 live oiled birds had been captured, mostly Common Murres, grebes and scoters. About 250 had been successfully stabilized and washed and were in recovery water pools.

No oil was collected from the open ocean as it spread quickly in the rough winter sea. There were no oil-skimming vessels capable of working in those conditions. The oil cleanup effort focused on sand and gravel beaches, oiled seaweed and oiled logs. Cleanup progressed quickly on the sand beaches in the Ocean Shores area where vehicles had easy access. The labor-intensive operation involved Global workers shoveling black oil patties and contaminated sand into plastic bags. Ecology and Coast Guard personnel monitored the work.

About the Author

Ron Holcomb worked as a spill responder for the Washington State Department of Ecology before retiring in 2020 after a 40-year public service career dedicated to protecting the environment. He was the Spill Team Lead for Ecology’s Southwest Region and personally handled more than 6,000 oil and hazardous material spill incidents. Prior to being a spill responder, he was a public information officer for Ecology and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He received a Master of Science in Environmental Communications from the University of Wisconsin after graduating with a degree in Journalism, Biology and Natural Resources from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. He developed his love of the outdoors and concern for the environment during childhood experiences in national parks and forests, and as a member of The Mountaineers. In retirement he still enjoys climbing peaks in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains.

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