A heavy sea fog rolled in along the Strait of Juan de Fuca catching everyone, including the weathermen, by surprise. By early evening it covered the coastline from Port Angeles in the west, to Seattle and Tacoma in the east, and as far north as Anacortes. Traffic on the freeway slowed to a crawl. Planes were grounded, and ships were confined to port or instructed by the Coast Guard to keep station and wait for the fog to disperse.
Most residents of the Pacific Northwest were used to the fogbanks that settled over their cities in spring and autumn, but this fog was different. Thick and cloying, it hung heavily in the air, covering everything in a fine mist and reducing visibility to a matter of yards. Formed when a warm air mass moved over a colder area, the fog hung around for days, and resulted in a backlog of shipping. Ships’ masters, desperate to keep to schedule to avoid lost revenue and additional operating costs, often became frustrated, over self-confident and complacent.
Joe McCabe, head of the department of Fish and Wildlife, had just finished breakfast the following morning when his cell phone rang.
“Hi Joe, it’s Steve Jones from the Department of Ecology. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“I was just about to leave for the office. What gives, Steve?”
“Just thought I’d give you a heads up. A seine netter out of Anacortes has reported seeing an oil slick in the Rosario Strait. The skipper was about to put his nets out when he spotted it. He thought it was fairly well localized, but I’ve asked the Coast Guard send up a spotter plane to check it out. But this darned fog is making things difficult. In the meantime, I want you to take charge of any cleanup operation.”
Joe rubbed his bald head. “Why not use someone from your department?”
“Because all I have is Bryant, who only joined us a couple of months ago, and I need someone with experience.”
“I see. With any luck the slick will be small enough to disperse, but better ask the Coast Guard to fax me a list of vessels that went through the Strait in the last forty-eight hours. While we wait for news, I’ll contact the oil spill team and have them standby. Have… what’s his name? Oh, yeah, Bryant. Have him meet me in my office in an hour.”
“Her. Bryant is a woman.”
McCabe hung up without another word. The last thing he needed was some namby-pamby woman traipsing around him in a day-glow survival suit.
Thanks to a jack-knifed truck on the I-90, the drive from his home on Mercer Island to downtown Seattle took nearly forty minutes. While he waited for the cops to clear the freeway, McCabe thought about the last major oil spill he’d been involved with. Twenty five years before, the Exxon Valdez had dumped approximately ten million gallons—one fifth of her cargo of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. He’d been part of one of the many cleanup crews tasked to remove the clumps of oil from the shoreline. The memory of the devastation had lived with him ever since, which was why he’d been a driving force behind the state’s oil spill contingency plan. He just hoped he wouldn’t have to implement it now.
When he reached his office, a slim young woman with her hair up in a silky blonde ponytail stood as he entered.
“Mr McCabe?” She extended a hand. “Faith Bryant, Department of Ecology.”
McCabe paused before he shook her hand, then stepped back from the door and motioned her to take a seat. “You’d better come in. Steve Jones tells me this is your first spill investigation.”
“That’s right. I studied marine biology and wrote my thesis on the challenges facing Puget Sound. Steve thought it would be good experience for me to be part of the investigation and cleanup process.”
McCabe thought about his friend, Jedediah Walker, another marine biologist. They’d worked together on a number of investigations and projects over the years. Right now he could do with Walker’s expertise rather than this pretty young woman straight out of college. But Walker and his wife, Skye, were in China helping the Chinese Government investigate the reason why the Yangtze River Dolphin had become extinct.
“Well, listen carefully and learn. Any news on the slick or what vessel might have caused it?”
“Unfortunately, yes. The McMinnville, a tanker headed for the refinery at Cherry Point, failed to pick up a pilot at Port Angeles. At the time, the Coast Guard tried to raise her on the radio, but got no response. Around midnight, the third mate reported that the engine had failed and the vessel was drifting out of control in the Rosario Strait.”
McCabe knew that hundreds of ships and ferries passed through Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Rosario Strait every day. Add commercial fishing boats and pleasure craft into the mix, and the fishing lanes of Puget Sound were the busiest in the nation. In good conditions it could take a tanker more than a mile to stop. But with no means of propulsion, the McMinnville was at the mercy wind and tide.
“Did the third mate give any reason as to why they didn’t stop and take on a pilot?” he asked.
“No, but my guess is the crew was trying to make up time, and the dense fog put them even further behind schedule. According to the manager at Cherry Point Refinery, the McMinnville was due to dock around five this morning.”
“Does the Coast Guard have any idea where she is now?”
Faith shook her head. “They tried to raise her on the radio, but got no response. Other ships in the area have been instructed to keep a lookout and any report any sighting. But given the last reported location, I think the McMinnville is the most likely candidate.”
McCabe’s fist hit the desk. “I wish these oil companies would learn that sailing from Alaska to a refinery and back every eight days is too risky. The Rosario Strait the busiest and most dangerous tanker route in the State, it also contains the richest concentration of sea birds, marine mammals, and commercial fish farms.”
“So how are you going to handle this?”
“As soon as we receive confirmation from the spotter plane, I’ll dispatch two spill response barges to the scene from Anacortes. They’ll deploy booms to try and contain any oil. Teams are standing by on Lopez and Decatur Islands with dispersant in case any comes ashore. If need be, I’ll set up a forward command post in Anacortes.”
“Sounds like a plan. How about contacting the volunteers on the San Juans to let them know they might have an influx of oiled birds to deal with?”
“Good idea,” McCabe said, and pushed the phone towards her. “When you’re done, we’ll head over to the Coast Guard station; there’s a chopper waiting to fly us over the scene. I want to see firsthand what we’re dealing with.”
Within twenty minutes of leaving the office, McCabe and Bryant had climbed aboard the Coast Guard helicopter. A young airman handed them both headsets and made sure they were safely strapped in as the large machine lifted off and headed north toward the site of the slick. As he peered through the window at the retreating city, McCabe hoped that the low cloud and lingering patches of fog wouldn’t hinder their search.
As with any oil or chemical spill, time was of the essence. If Faith’s hunch was correct and the McMinnville was responsible, then oil had been seeping into the ocean for at least twelve hours—more than enough time for it to spread and endanger any wildlife it encountered.
As the helicopter approached the Rosario Strait, the pilot reduced height and dropped down through the cloud base until the aircraft was no more than two hundred feet above the waves.
McCabe keyed the send button on his mike and turned to Faith. “You know what to look for. I’ll take the port side, you check starboard. If you spot anything, let me know, and we’ll go in for a closer look.” He lifted a pair of binoculars to his eyes and started scanning the ocean.
For nearly an hour they scoured the ocean, but there was just mile upon mile of blue-green water. As they flew over Watmough Bay on Lopez Island, Faith suddenly called out.
“There! About one clock. Can you see it?”
McCabe crossed to her window and looked out. Sure enough, he could see the tell-tale black sheen of oil floating on the surface.
“Pilot,” McCabe shouted, “How far are we from the McMinnville’s last reported position?”
“Ten miles, sir.”
McCabe thought for a moment. “Pass the co-ordinates onto the spill response vessels. Tell them I want them on site ASAP and an advisory sent to all vessels to avoid the area until further notice.”
“Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“Can we maintain this height and follow that slick north?”
“Sure, although the ride might get a little bumpy.”
“We’ll cope,” replied McCabe.
Faith tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to face her.
“This isn’t right,” she said pointing down. “There’s too much oil. Couldn’t have come from a fishing boat.”
McCabe nodded gloomily. “Do we know how much crude the McMinnville was carrying?”
Faith consulted her notebook. “Approximately thirty-five million gallons.”
“Do we know when the McMinnville was built? And what about her hull construction?”
Faith consulted her notes once more. “First registered in 1989. Had several owners since then. Refitted two years ago. Single-hulled construction and only one power source for her single propeller. She spent six months in dry dock in Taiwan in 2003 after a crack in her hull was discovered.”
“Sounds like the current owners should have scrapped her years ago.”
The helicopter continued northwards. Beneath the fuselage, the oil spread out across the Strait like a dark ribbon. By the time they reached the tip of Cypress Island, McCabe knew he had a major incident on his hands. He just hoped he could prevent it from becoming a catastrophe.
They located the tanker beached on the Buckeye Shoal, a jagged reef hidden beneath forty-eight feet of water about halfway between Orcas and Sinclair islands. McCabe peered down at the stricken vessel and estimated she’d lost at least a third of her cargo. Listing heavily to starboard, oil spewed out of her tanks. Driven along by the strong current, it wouldn’t be long before it reached land.
“Okay. I’ve seen enough. Take us back,” McCabe instructed the pilot. He turned to Faith. “If you’ve got any plans for the next month, cancel them. You’ll be spending the next few weeks in Anacortes helping to monitor the cleanup operation.”
Early next morning, McCabe flew out to one of the response barges to see the effects of the spill for himself. Salvage experts had examined the McMinnville and reported that five of the eight tanks on board had ruptured. Nearly one fifth of her cargo was lost—approximately seven million gallons of crude oil.
The stench of oil drifted over the ocean. A thick film floated on the water, but the tourists clinging to the rails of a ferry bound for Orcas Island didn’t seem to notice. They were too busy talking about the football scores, to worry about the affects of the oil spill on the environment and wildlife.
Unable to bridle the anger in his voice, McCabe turned to Schultz, who was in charge of deploying the one-metre-high boom around the McMinnville.
“How long before you can get the skimmers in the water?”
“Another day—two at most. We’re transferring the remaining oil from the undamaged tanks to barges. Once that’s done, we can close the boom, activate the skimmers, and suck up the oil. I’ve got additional barges standing by ready to transfer it to the refinery.”
McCabe clapped the man on the shoulder. “Okay, but I want that boom completed and the skimmers operational within eighteen hours.”
“With respect, Mr McCabe, that’s an awfully tight schedule.”
The deck beneath McCabe’s feet pitched to port and then starboard as the vessel rolled with the current. “There’s a storm front moving in sometime in the next thirty-six hours. If it hits, and the oils turn to mousse, the booms and skimmers will be less effective, and not even dispersants will dissipate it then.”
Schultz followed McCabe onto the bridge. “We could always try a test burn. I read they did that when the Exxon Valdez ran aground.”
“We’d have to deploy a fire boom, and tow it behind two ships. Do you really think we could do it in the time?”
“It’s worth a try, Mr McCabe. A controlled burn might reduce several thousand gallons to a few hundred, and the residue would be easy to collect. We’ve got the boom; we just need two extra vessels.”
Minutes ticked away as McCabe considered the suggestion. It had worked in Alaska, so why not in Rosario Strait? “Okay, get on the radio to Bryant in Anacortes. Tell her to get in touch with the Northwest Fishing Association to see if any of the local fishing fleet can help. In the meantime, I’ll go ashore and check on the situation there.”
The scene that greeted McCabe when he arrived at Doe Bay on Orcas Island was one of devastation. Dark, patchy clumps of oil clung to every rock and boulder. Men in bright yellow bio-hazard suits shovelled it into plastic bags, while others sprayed dispersant.
Overhead a helicopter circled, no doubt filming the scene for the evening news. The local TV station, along with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, had criticised the state’s response to the incident and were calling for the resignation of those in charge, despite the fact his department had reacted promptly and was doing everything it could to contain the oil.
But the cleanup had come too late. Seabirds unable to fish because their plumage was clogged with the black, sticky substance, sat on rocks, trying in vain to clean their feathers. Volunteers from the Island Oil Spill Association and members of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network combed the beach and collected as many as they could. They would be transported to the nearest centre for treatment and eventual rehabilitation. But for others, it was too late. Heavily contaminated, they had lost their struggle for life.
It was a heart-breaking sight, and many volunteers wiped a tear from their eyes as they carried out their grim task.
Seals and sea otters were affected too, but it would be a while before their bodies were carried ashore by the tide.
McCabe glanced at his watch. The crew of the McMinnville would be questioned by the Coast Guard in less than two hours, and that was one meeting he wanted to sit in on. He made his way back up the beach to the waiting helicopter.
By the time he reached the Coast Guard station, Captain Rivera, the master of the McMinnville, was being questioned by John Davis of the US Coast Guard. McCabe slipped into an empty chair at the back of the room.
“Captain Rivera,” said Davis. “Care to explain why you failed to take on a pilot at Port Angeles?”
“I was off duty. When I realised what had happened, it was too late to turn back.”
“That doesn’t account for why you also failed to heed the weather advisory.”
“Never heard it. The radio set must have been playing up.”
“You’re supposed to carry a spare.”
“We don’t. And as to why, well, you’ll have to take that up with the owners.”
“The third mate tells me you were in your cabin when the McMinnville ran aground. Is that correct?”
“Yeah. I’d gone below to rest.”
Davis held the captain’s gaze. “He said you’d been drinking,”
“I… That’s a lie.”
“Captain Rivera, you’re facing criminal and civil charges. It would be better for all concerned if you told the truth.”
“All right, so I had a drink. I’d left the third mate in charge. It’s his fault, not mine.”
McCabe jumped to his feet. “Damn it man, as ships’ master you’re responsible for the safety of the vessel and everyone on board. Do you have any idea of the devastation you’ve caused?”
“So a few seabirds and some fish got killed. It’s no big deal.”
“It’s not just a few seabirds—it’s thousands. And common seals and sea otters, too. Then there’s the hundreds of miles of coastline contaminated with oil because you were below in your cabin having a drink! Do you have any idea how long it will take the environment to recover? Years! In the meantime, the communities around Puget Sound and the San Juan islands will lose millions of dollars in income.”
“Thank you, Mr McCabe. I think Captain Rivera understands the gravity of the situation,” said Davis.
McCabe pointed to the captain. “Look at him. He doesn’t care and neither do the McMinnville’s owners. If they did, they wouldn’t have left an incompetent drunk in charge of a twenty-year-old tanker that should have been scrapped years ago.”
“That’s enough, McCabe. You can tell it to the court at the appropriate time,” said Davis. He turned to Rivera. “I’m placing you and the third mate under arrest.”
Six months later, McCabe stood on a rise overlooking the beach at Doe Bay. While the environment and wildlife was slowly recovering, the impact of the spill would be felt for years to come. One good thing had come out of the disaster. The state had finally agreed with the Coast Guard’s recommendation that all tankers should be fitted with double hulls and walls and fitted bow thrusters to help with manoeuvrability. While such safety measures would cost a great deal of money and take years to implement, they were nothing compared to the cost of the cleanup.
The McMinnville’s owners, along with the Captain and third mate, had admitted liability. They would appear in court next month and could expect a hefty fine and jail sentence.
Below him, a member of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network stepped forward and released a pair of Thayer’s gulls; their distinctive pale gray, white and black plumage once more pristine. The gulls circled the beach, their raucous cries filling the air. McCabe waited until they disappeared from view then walked back to his car. His friend Walker was right; his generation could no longer afford to be complacent. They had to protect the environment for generations to come.