Swollen seas and strong winds combined to push the New Carissa onto the Oregon Coast near Coos Bay in winter 1999, starting an epic cleanup and removal saga for the large beached boat.
Twenty-one years later the New Carissa remains one of the biggest environmental disasters in Oregon history. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials will never forget their experiences during the initial eventful response in 1999 and final removal in 2008.
“I remember the day I got the call, because I was on an emergency response training exercise in the same area preparing for responses to potential coastal spills,” said Michael Szerlog, who became DEQ’s on-scene coordinator for the incident. Now a manager in the wetlands and oceans section at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 10, Szerlog said, “I didn’t expect to be away from home for three months, but it was the highlight of my career in emergency response work where you strip your job titles and help wherever you’re needed.”
The objective was to protect the environment from fuel released by the New Carissa and response activities, said Bryn Thoms, a DEQ cleanup project manager in Eugene.
“The New Carissa was the Exxon Valdez of Oregon,” he said. “It didn’t impact the environment as much as it could have, but it was one of the biggest spills DEQ has responded to.”
In all, 70,000 gallons spilled. But if it wasn’t for the response of DEQ and its partners, the situation likely would have turned out much worse. The ship carried 400,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil, also known as bunker fuel, and diesel.
“Ships carry a lot of fuel,” said Don Hanson, a hydrogeologist in DEQ’s cleanup program in Eugene. “They are designed to go for a long way.”
DEQ played three key roles in responding to the New Carissa – representing the state, leading the environmental unit and heading up communications. The U.S. Coast Guard and Green Atlas Shipping of Japan, the owner of the ship, were the other two members of the unified command that oversaw the response.
“It was one of the largest Incident Command Teams ever assembled in Oregon,” said Mike Zollitsch, DEQ’s emergency response manager who, at the time, was a liaison for DEQ working out of the state’s emergency response operations center in Salem.
“You could say it’s the poster child of why we require oil spill contingency plans for non-tank vessels,” he said.
In DEQ offices around the state employees still display patches at their desk that say “New Carissa Spill Team Member.”
Western Region Administrator Keith Andersen has one of the patches on his wall at DEQ’s Eugene office. When the New Carissa came ashore he was a member of the department’s cleanup team and helped clean up the shoreline.
The wayward ship had the full attention of top DEQ managers and on-the-ground crews.
“Ultimately, a lot of people worked very hard to get that thing taken care of,” Andersen said.
The New Carissa, a 640-foot wood-chip freighter, arrived empty of cargo off the shore of Coos Bay on Feb. 3, 1999, but worsening weather stopped it from pulling into the harbor. Instead, its crew dropped anchor not far from the beach, an error that contributed to the ship’s grounding the following day.
Once stuck, the New Carissa and its fuel posed a risk to delicate coastal environment. And clearing the ship from the shore proved to be a monumental challenge.
When the New Carissa began leaking fuel within a week, the team leading the response decided to burn the fuel that was on board. The ensuing fireball rising up from the ship is an unforgettable memory for many Oregonians and DEQ employees.
And so is the sight of the ship breaking into two pieces soon after.
That’s not where the tale of the New Carissa ends. As February faded in 1999, the response team focused on removing the bow. The plan was to sink the ship far out at sea.
A tug boat began pulling the bulk of the New Carissa westward on March 1, but a day later encountered a severe storm with 100 mph winds. The tow rope snapped during the storm and the bow washed up near Waldport.
Hanson, the DEQ hydrogeologist in Eugene, served in the Coast Guard and was selected to be DEQ’s representative during the first attempt to sink the New Carissa.
He wasn’t in the tug boat, but instead aboard the Oregon Responder, a 70-foot oil spill response ship that followed the New Carissa. “Basically we got caught in this really strong storm,” Hanson said. “There was hurricane force winds and really big, heavy seas. (It was a) strong enough storm that the equipment that wasn’t bolted down was coming loose off the deck of the ship.” A second attempt to tow the New Carissa’s bow to sea was successful. The section of ship still was determined to float so it took Navy destroyer big gun fire and a torpedo to finally sink it on March 11, sending it down into 10,000 feet of water about 280 miles west of Waldport.
Damage to Seabirds and Shorebirds
Fuel from the New Carissa was dangerous and deadly for wildlife, particularly birds.
According to Oregon Fish and Wildlife, 2,453 seabirds, including 262 marbled murrelets, and 672 shorebirds were injured or killed.
“A lot of us on the cleanup crew are avid birdwatchers, so the loss of wildlife hit us harder than people might expect,” said Szerlog.
The stern of the New Carissa stood as a rusted monument in the sand for nine years, until a salvage contractor cut it up and hauled it away.
DEQ oversaw the three-month salvage that, like so much with the New Carissa was a stunning sight to see. A suspended cable car carried workers to and from a large rig next to the wreck.
It’s been more than a decade since the New Carissa finally left the Oregon Coast. But lessons last, said Dave Belyea, a manager in DEQ’s Western Region. He oversaw the final removal.
“The lessons learned include a requirement for ships passing through waters off the Oregon Coast to have salvage plans and improved pumping techniques to remove bunker fuel from stranded ships,” he said.
Future of DEQ’s Emergency Response and Cleanup Program
The program’s responsibilities have grown significantly in the 21 years since the New Carissa oil spill.
DEQ has a small team of people who are available around the clock to respond to about 1,300 spills around the state each year, and mobilize to respond to an average of 75 incidents.
“These numbers are sobering, and it is a testament to the dedication and commitment of our team that incidents are effectively and reliably managed regardless of the conditions they enter,” said Lydia Emer, DEQ’s land quality administrator. “I have the deepest gratitude and respect for their expertise and energy as we strive to build our response capabilities,” she said.
– Dylan Darling and Jennifer Flynt, public affairs specialists