Samples from a mystery oil spill that soiled miles of beach along Maury and Vashon islands in October match oil carried by a ConocoPhillips oil tanker, Coast Guard officials announced...
Samples from a mystery oil spill that soiled miles of beach along Maury and Vashon islands in October match oil carried by a ConocoPhillips oil tanker, Coast Guard officials announced yesterday.
Detailed comparisons of the oil’s chemical fingerprint by federal and state laboratories confirmed for the Coast Guard that the roughly 1,500 gallons first discovered near Dalco Passage on Oct. 14 came from the tanker Polar Texas, owned by Conoco subsidiary Polar Tankers, Coast Guard Capt. Myles Boothe said yesterday.
While the Coast Guard initially boarded several cargo carriers and container ships and took more than 100 samples to compare to the spill, Booth said yesterday tests confirmed the spilled substance was crude oil, such as that carried by oil tankers, and not fuel.
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Shortly before the spill, “the Polar Texas was carrying Alaska North Slope crude oil, and they delivered a load of oil to Ferndale [in Whatcom County], and then they followed on with a transfer of oil to U.S. Oil refinery in Tacoma,” Boothe said.
Yesterday, ConocoPhillips, the largest oil producer in Alaska, repeated its contention that the Texas, a single-hulled tanker built in 1978 and retired after the spill, could not have been the culprit.
The company also filed a Superior Court motion — the equivalent of a public-records request — to try to force investigators to share details of the oil-sample testing.
“We do not believe we are the responsible party based on all the information we have to date,” the company said in a written statement. “Repeated requests to government investigators for any information that would indicate our involvement have been denied. ConocoPhillips has repeatedly assured the investigators that if they share their information and if it shows we are the responsible party, we will do the right thing.”
The Dalco Passage spill was discovered and reported in early-morning darkness and fog by a tugboat captain, who could see an oily sheen that stretched for a mile or more.
It took six hours or more before state, Coast Guard and private contractors were able to launch vessels to respond to the spill, which eventually seeped into Quartermaster Harbor and up roughly 21 miles of shoreline.
The cleanup recovered 59 tons of oily debris, removed 6,842 gallons of oily water and cost nearly $2 million.
Only one bird was known to have been affected — a Western grebe, treated and released back into the wild. A slightly oiled seal pup died, but federal biologists believed the death was unrelated to the spill.
The Seattle Times reported in early November that initial tests of oil samples were leading investigators to focus on the Polar Texas as the most likely source of the spill.
Coast Guard officials yesterday said the investigation was continuing, and they declined to comment on the company’s assertion it was not to blame.
The Coast Guard also would not offer a scenario that could help explain how investigators think the oil got into the water.
“We’re a long way from having a settlement, if you will, of the investigation,” Boothe said.
Michael Underhill, a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney in the torts branch of the admiralty division in San Francisco, would not say whether the federal government is looking at both a criminal and a civil case. He said his office has had discussions with ConocoPhillips, and that “the DOJ, and all its arms, are involved.”
ConocoPhillips, in e-mails responding to questions from The Seattle Times, said yesterday it had cooperated with investigators, including offering access to the crew of the Polar Texas and the company’s staff, and allowing five visits to the ship.
“ConocoPhillips has completely and thoroughly looked at everything and talked to everyone we can think of,” the company wrote. “Nothing we have learned from that leads us to believe we are responsible for this spill.”
The company said it had not conducted its own comparative analysis of samples because it never obtained a sample of oil from the spill itself, unlike other companies that initially were part of the investigation. And while the Coast Guard repeatedly has said the methods used to compare samples give it great confidence in the result, ConocoPhillips already was raising questions.
“There are a wide variety of tests and a wide variety of accuracies,” the company said. “Until we are made aware of the tests that the government conducted, we are unable to comment on the accuracy.”
The Coast Guard’s Boothe said the company had been told about the test results, but a complete report by federal and state laboratories isn’t yet final.
A task force Gov. Gary Locke set up to assess the slow response to the spill issued its final report earlier this week, calling for better equipment to track oil at night and a detailed study of how much spill-response equipment is needed around Puget Sound.
But “because the group was charged with reviewing only response, the one area where we really need substantially increased investment and oversight — prevention — was unfortunately not addressed,” said Naki Stevens, People For Puget Sound director of programs, in a written statement.
Stan Jones, spokesman for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, a watchdog group that monitors the transport of oil from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in Valdez, Alaska, said his group is still not sure how to interpret what happened.
ConocoPhillips has a relatively good track record in Alaska but has been under investigation for a handful of spills in just the last year.
Seattle Times reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report. Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or email@example.com