This story was updated to include the fact that Global provides notice of fuel transfers. The Coast Guard initially provided incorrect information.
Portland, MAINE — The agencies responsible for overseeing the refueling of ships off the coast of Maine don’t track how often heavy oil is transferred between vessels anchored in Casco Bay, a practice that has drawn scrutiny from waterfront advocates in Portland.
Neither the Maine Department of Environmental Protection nor the United States Coast Guard’s Northern New England sector, which are responsible for overseeing the refueling of ships off Maine’s coast, keep records of the ship-to-ship fueling.
Nor do these agencies require prior notice before barges begin pumping the syrupy oil that fuels many large ships — although the Coast Guard has the explicit power by federal law to do so if it chooses. That choice is a standard practice in other parts of the country.
“Sector NNE does not keep records on the number of routine bunkering operations in Casco Bay,” Matt Capon, who heads the Coast Guard’s inspection division in the region, told BDN Portland. “If a spill would happen to occur, the Coast Guard must be notified immediately and an activity would be created in the Coast Guard database documenting the details of the incident, response actions, and any potential enforcement actions the Coast Guard took.”
Global, an oil company operating in Portland, provides the Coast Guard with notice of fuel transfers, although there is no law requiring it.
Capon said Coast Guard records dating back to 2010 do not show any spills from bunkering in Casco Bay and that fuel transfers are covered by “extensive federal regulations,” which include having equipment on site to clean up a spill and doing checks of the hoses, valves and various other parts of the machinery used to pump oil.
But even with the federal protocols, which have been in place for decades, spills do occur.
In October 2009, more than 400 gallons of oil spilled into San Francisco bay from the Dubai Star, a Panamanian tanker ship that was taking on fuel from a barge without having deployed a floating barrier, known as a boom. The spill created a two-mile long oil slick in the bay eventually polluted 6 miles of California shoreline, contaminating more than 200 acres of beaches, saltmarsh and tidal flats, killing seabirds and forcing the temporary closure of local sport fisheries, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.
The spill was caused by the failure of a valve that crew members tried to shut off unsuccessfully, two Dubai Star crew members who did not notice oil pooling on the deck, and overflow alarms that did not sound, state investigators found. The ship’s captain took 28 minutes to report the spill, eventually telling authorities that a “little bit” oil had spilled and that “nothing is going overboard,” investigators said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
As with the Dubai Star, ships taking on fuel from a barge while anchored in Casco Bay generally don’t use containment booms, although they are required by law when a tanker is unloading its cargo and are generally used when a docked ship is fueling. But after the 2009 spill, California authorities began closely scrutinizing the process, San Francisco Baykeeper Sejal Choksi-Chugh said in an interview.
Due to the strong currents and tides of San Francisco Bay, she said, deploying containment booms everytime ships transfer fuel is not feasible. But along with a slew of precautions passed after the spill, California regulation requires ships transferring fuel in San Francisco Bay must inform the local Coast Guard “of the time and place of each transfer operation at least 4 hours before the transfer begins.”
“I think that the notification requirement is good for San Francisco Bay. I’m not sure why it wouldn’t make sense for other waterways,” said Choksi-Chugh, although she also stressed that she was unfamiliar with vessel traffic patterns in Casco Bay. “It would make sense that we should know how frequently it happens on our waterways and that is one way to help prevent small spills, by knowing how frequently it’s happening, being more aware of when it’s happening, what conditions it’s happening in.”
Federal law gives Coast Guard divisions throughout the country discretion over whether or not to require ships to provide notice before bunkering. For instance, the Upper Mississippi Sector began asking for notice in 2009. On the other hand, the New York Coast Guard does not.
“We do not require notice before routine bunkering operations but it is common practice in this port for commercial mariners to notify us,” U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe said.
The Casco Baykeeper, Ivy Frignoca, was not previously familiar with the San Francisco Coast Guard’s different approach to bunkering. But said that she is continuing to look into the issue and that during her seven months in the job, the Coast Guard has show itself “to be pretty vigilant about oil spills” and have a “good environmental ethic.”
In a previous interview Frignoca also said that overall tanker traffic around Portland is down, likely due to low global oil prices, and that cases of bunkering have likewise dropped.
Neither of the companies that run refueling operations out of Portland — Sprague Energy and Global Partners LP — responded to repeated questions about how common the practice is.
Capon, the regional inspections chief for the Coast Guard in Northern New England, did not say why the Coast Guard does not require notice before ships transfer fuel in Maine waters. He did say the branch is continuously staffed and would be ready in case of a spill.
“If there were an issue with a bunkering operation in Casco Bay, we would respond immediately,” he said.