Coast Guard works to stabilize derelict
Flooding vessel with water should allow for safer inspection
Originally published February 3, 2011 at 2:48 p.m., updated February 3, 2011 at 6:33 p.m.
CAMAS — At the rate of 4,000 gallons a minute, crews pumped water into the interior of the Davy Crockett to stabilize the beached barge Thursday.
The former Liberty ship is stranded along the Columbia River, near Camas. The 431-foot-long vessel had buckled in the middle during an attempt to cut it up, a Coast Guard official said, turning the hull into a V shape.
By pumping water into the stern, contractors are bringing the rear of the ship back down to the riverbed.
When the vessel is stabilized, divers will be able to inspect its hull.
“We were concerned about their safety,” said Coast Guard Capt. Doug Kaup, with the multiagency response team. “We had to make sure preparation work was done so it wouldn’t roll over.”
The pumping operation started at about 10 a.m., and things seemed to go smoothly.
“We haven’t heard any popping or crunching, and that’s good,” Coast Guard Lt. Patrick Marshall said two hours into the ballasting operation.
The ship has been beached for several years, but attracted attention on Jan. 27 when a 15-mile long oil sheen was traced to the derelict. That’s when the Davy Crockett became a federal project.
“It’s always amazing how big these are,” said Jim Sachet, with the state’s Department of Ecology. “The stern was sticking up 20 feet,”
The ship has at least 22 holds, tanks and compartments, Kaup said. That means it will take a while to see how much hazardous material is still contained within the former Liberty ship.
“This was not a troopship,” Kaup said. “It was built to haul stuff.”
While river water was being pumped into its aft compartments, other elements of the response effort were positioned around the vessel and downstream along the shoreline. Their assignment was to block and recover any oil that might be released when the hull shifted position.
“We got within a couple of hundred feet and didn’t see a sheen or smell any diesel,” Sachet said. “Any time oil gets into the river, it’s a concern.”
Particularly when it contains polychlorinated biphenyl. Samples of oil from the ship revealed traces of PCB, which is considered a health risk.
“Any amount of PCB is not acceptable,” Sachet said.
While an oil sheen dissipates quickly, PCB and other chemicals settle into the river sediment and can become part of the food chain.
After consulting with state and county health officials, it was determined that material leaking from the Davy Crockett doesn’t constitute a threat to human health, Sachet said.
But health officials continue to advise people not to eat shellfish from the Columbia River, a recommendation that was already in effect.
The Coast Guard has requested $3.5 million from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is financed by a tax of five cents per barrel of crude oil, to help with the cleanup.
Owners are liable for oil spills, but “the owner has bowed out of the operation,” Kaup said.
“It’s frustrating. Ownership should come with some responsibility,” he said.
Another team of Coast Guard and state officials is looking into criminal aspects of the incident, Kaup said.
As far as a schedule for salvage operations, authorities don’t have enough information to establish a timetable.
“There are so many unknowns,” Kaup said.