PORTLAND, Maine — On Sunday, June 26, a barge weighed down with fuel and riding low in the water slipped behind Fort Gorges to meet an anchored cargo ship. The cargo vessel was refueling, taking on heavy oil being pumped from the barge, according to retired ship Capt. Daniel Milligan, who had raced from his home on his motorcycle to observe the meeting from the shore through a pair of binoculars.

Ship-to-ship fuel transfers are normal but, presently, infrequent events in the waters of Casco Bay. But what bothers Milligan and others is that these at-sea refueling stops generally occur without the use of floating barriers meant to block the spread of oil in the case of a spill.

It is standard practice to set up one of these containment devices, known as a boom, when fueling a ship moored in a berth. But Maine law does not require their use when vessels are refueling in open water.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Casco baykeeper confirmed that ships have refueled in Casco Bay without a boom, but neither could say how common it is.

State officials say this is a regulatory tradeoff that balances the low probability of a spill against the high cost and difficulty of setting up a boom around anchored ships. But some water watchers, oil professionals and lawmakers argue that transferring oil in open water without the insurance of a containment device is an unnecessary and unacceptable risk.

Mike Herz, a Maine resident who served 20 years as the San Francisco baykeeper and worked on the Alaska Oil Spill Commission for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, emphasized the damage done by an oil spill and said booms serve as important protections against human error.

“I spent a lot of time paying attention to oil spills and the threat of oil spills and responding to incidents that occurred,” Herz said. “When you are moving large quantities of oil product under high pressure and you have a human making the decision about how to start and stop the flow of oil, there’s the threat of spills.”

While there has not been a major spill in Maine since 1996 — when a tanker slammed into the former Million Dollar Bridge, dumping 170,000 gallons of heating oil and bunker fuel into the harbor — spills do happen during fuel transfers.

Globally, between 1974 and 2015, ship-to-ship fuel transfers resulted in 607 spills, ranging in size from 2,225 gallons or less, up to 222,432 gallons or greater, according to statistics compiled by International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation. The industry lobbying group does not break these numbers down by year, though overall the number of spills has declined in the last half-century.

In Portland, which stakes much of its reputation on its harbor, a spill would be especially damaging to the economy and the quality of life in the city.

A deployed containment boom, which resembles a thick inflatable hose, sits partially submerged in the water around a ship, creating a ring that would hold in oil in the event of a spill. The barriers are meant to guard against oil polluting a shoreline and make it easier to skim or vacuum spilled fuel off the surface of the water.

“If you have a spill and have a boom, then the whole thing is contained,” said Milligan, the retired captain and pollution safety advisor with ExxonMobil, who observed the ships transferring fuel at the end of June. He said he first complained of the practice around five years ago with the former baykeeper, Joe Payne. “But without a boom, it [spilled oil] travels with the tide. … It’s unrestricted, and there’s no safety there without a boom.”

Maine law requires that a boom is deployed anytime a tanker ship is unloading oil, and most dock operators insist that one be used by refueling ships as a protective measure and way of limiting their liability. But out in the public waters of Casco Bay, fuel transfers are overseen by U.S. Coast Guard and MDEP.

Peter Blanchard, who heads oil spill contingency planning for the MDEP, says there are a couple of reasons ships transferring fuel while anchored are not required to use a boom by Maine law. First, he said, the volume of oil used to fuel a ship is much smaller than the load carried by a tanker. Second, the companies that refuel ships and sell the fuel — Sprague Energy and Global Partners LP — have an strong records transferring fuel, a process called bunkering, without incident. Finally, setting up a floating boom in the open, possible choppy, water is time consuming, logistically challenging and expensive.

“You have to weigh the time and the effort and the economic impact of requiring booming of vessels while they’re being bunkered against the risk of an oil spill,” Blanchard said. “We want to be reasonable as well as protective of the environment, and I think that is the balance that has been struck under the current regulation.”

This position was echoed by Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca, an environmental attorney, who said ships transferring oil in the bay without a protective barrier pose “no imminent threat.”

Frignoca and Blanchard also said the number of ships refueling in the bay has dropped as low oil prices have slowed tanker traffic in and out of Portland — but neither could offer precise figures.

The Coast Guard did not respond to questions about the frequency of ship-to-ship fuel transfers, nor did Sprague Energy nor Global Partners LP.

Other coastal states have different standards. In Washington state, for instance, ships transferring oil in bulk to other vessels are required to either use a containment boom as long as it is safe to do so or have a boom on hand and take other precautionary measures, depending on the rate at which fuel is being pumped.

Herz, the former San Francisco baykeeper, said Maine legislators should consider tightening regulation around booming ships. But he and Carolyn Latti, a maritime attorney based in Boston, said pushing through new legislation in this field is always a challenge.

“Generally in this industry, in the marine industry, until there’s a disaster like Deepwater Horizon, you won’t see regulatory change,” Latti said.

After Daniel Milligan voiced his concerns to her, Portland state Sen. Anne Haskell said she is considering sponsoring legislation around it.

“There’s a risk-reward ratio in almost everything we do, but when it comes to the health of the bay, I have to ask myself, ‘How much risk am I willing to take, and what would we lose if we required that what they have to do at the terminal dock?’” said Haskell, who is stepping down at the end of her term this year. “So when you say you’ve never had a spill so we don’t need to go through the expense, trouble, time, I still wonder how many people you have to have to wash the birds.”

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Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.