Oil Spill

The morning after Tropical Storm Bonnie pummeled Beaufort, we woke to find oil in the water around Sunshine.

taking a sample from oil spill
Taking a sample of the thick, tarry oil.

Thick, shiny, black, it lay trapped between the finger piers in a 1/4 inch deep pool. The marsh grasses that always float on the water and collect between boat and dock, captured a lot of the slick. But oil also oozed between the floats of the docks. A sheen of oil swept by on the tide. Swathes of tarry oil were splashed up along the hulls of the boats. We were involved in an actual oil spill.

oil splashed on boat hulls by waves after oil spill
Wave action splashed the oil against boat hulls.

A Twist in the Sailor’s Gut

OMG. Were we leaking diesel? This is every sailor’s worst nightmare.

Frantic, I checked our bilge – nothing there. Our fuel tank – clean and intact. Our fuel lines, intake and vent – spic and span. We did not spill this oil. That was a relief. Neither did any of the boats around us.

Trying to Be Responsible

Terry, on the next dock over, called the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). I called the dock master. We both knew the first thing to do in an oil spill was to report the problem to officials. Then we started looking for the source. Our own boats were cleared of blame, maybe one of the anchored boats had sunk in the storm. Or perhaps rainwater seeped into one of their fuel tanks, causing it to overflow. But now that we were getting a bigger picture, this looked like a lot of oil, more than any of the anchored sailboats would have aboard. The one power boat at anchor looked fine. Also, the type of oil was wrong, very thick and viscous. Marine diesel is light. So where did all this oil come from?

I heard from Mike and Devon that someone from the DNR came out to the public boat ramp, which lay up wind of the marina. They found an oil stain on the edge of the floating dock there and therefore determined that the cause was someone dumping oil from the dock.

oil spill on public boat launch
Oil splashed, dripped, or spilled on the public boat launch dock.

I looked at the stain and didn’t think it proved much. I thought it just as likely someone dipped a hand in to see what the stuff floating in the water was and then dripped it on the dock, perhaps scraped it off on the cleat. Or perhaps the tide changed and waves hitting the piling splashed the oil on the dock.

The explanation did not seem plausible. To dump that much oil from the dock would mean rolling a 50 gallon drum down there, on purpose. Who would do that? In the middle of the night? During a tropical storm? I guess it’s not impossible. If you’re breaking bad you don’t care about a little rain, right? And the middle of the night is when you sneak around and carry out your nefarious acts. We see it on TV all the time. If that’s what happened, we’d certainly like to know, and we’d like to see the culprits get their hands slapped.

I had to be to work early, so didn’t have time for much involvement that day. I mentioned it to co-workers, none of them – even one who lives at another nearby marina – had heard of a boat sinking, or seen any oil in the water.

Memorial Day, More Oil, a Possible Source

More oil had collected on the next morning’s tide. So either there was still a source out there, or more escaped oil was floating around and now finding it’s way to the marina. At work a coworker told me of a heating oil spill at the local hospital. His S.O. works there and had been sent home due to the situation. That hospital is roughly two miles, by water, from our marina.

While I was at work, my marina neighbors also heard the story of the hospital accident. They got busy. Suzy called Governor Haley’s office, Senator Sanford’s office, the TV station, and her nephew – an attorney who worked on the Deepwater Horizon cleanup. Don called the Beaufort Gazette. Barry shot video, which circulated via email and Facebook. Captain Mark studied wind, tide and currents.

On my phone, I read the news report of the heating oil spill at the hospital. Though that spill had been into a basement room on May 23rd, and, according to the story, had been contained there, a neighbor of the hospital saw oil in the Beaufort River Sunday morning, the 29th. We had seen the oil in Factory Creek that same Sunday morning. What a coincidence.

Who You Gonna Call?

No one who had made a call felt like they’d received a satisfactory answer, or even that they’d reported to the correct agency. We still didn’t know what to do. In the news story, the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) was mentioned as the organization in charge of cleaning up the hospital spill, so I figured they’d like to know that they hadn’t got it all. I looked at the DHEC website and found a number for reporting an oil spill. After work I gave them a call and left a message with the answering service.

Bless his heart, the poor young man who called me back was not authorized to say anything at all about the spill, other than to state that the hospital oil was completely contained and therefore the oil we were dealing with was from another source. I asked him what we should do. He told me that others had called asking how to clean their boats and that we should use Simple Green. I’m afraid I shouted at him.

“I don’t care about the boat, I don’t care about anyone whining about oil on their boat. I want to know what to do about getting the oil out of the water. What is it doing to the wildlife? How do we protect the marine organisms?”

An oily crab sits on oily reeds after oil spill.
An oily crab sits on oily reeds at Lady’s Island Marina.

Given this was Memorial Day, he said, there was no one around to answer those questions. He said we should find out who was responsible for the spill, and get them to clean it up. I shouted some more – my frustration showing. It had been a long couple of days.

“Okay, so what if this were a big spill, something devastating, what should we do?”

“Ma’am, DHEC is not responsible for oil spills.”

“Then who should we call?”

He told me to call the Coast Guard Tuesday morning, they were the ones in charge of the water.

oil on reeds along creek after oil spill
Is that oil on the reeds along the creek?

After All My Training and Research, I Still Don’t Know What to Do in an Oil Spill

At this point I felt like a very bad environmentalist. I’ve been involved with Beach Watchers and Sea Grant. I’ve done inter-tidal surveys. I’m trained as a volunteer firefighter. I’ve interviewed many marine scientists and officials. I’ve written about the marine environment for years. Why didn’t I know who to call? Why didn’t I know what to do?

How were we supposed to investigate the source? Should we try to remove the oil ourselves? Where should we put the oil soaked materials? In the dumpster? Or did we need to leave the oil in place so that officials – when they finished with Memorial Day festivities, and rescuing storm victims – would have something to work with?

Taking Action

Some boat owners pulled out the oil soaked reeds that collected around their hulls. Some tried scrubbing the oil off their boats and found nothing short of solvents worked. But solvents are not good around the water, and they further damage paint and gel-coat, the protective coatings over fiberglass. Another issue for many was water intakes. Boat air conditioning systems run off heat pumps. They take in water. At least one air conditioning unit sucked up oil and failed.

By now the oil had been in the water and getting worse for two days. Tempers boiled over and theories ran amok. And … social media. The storm disabled the marina wi-fi, but many boats have their own hot spots or other places to go to get online. Facebook lit up.

Monday evening I visited Gary and Diane, who live on the dock closest to both the hospital and the public boat ramp. We sat in their cockpit with glasses of wine. Things were far worse on their dock than on mine. The smell of oil came in with every breath. It stung our eyes, noses and throats, and made the wine taste of petroleum. What a first world problem. I thought of those who lived through the Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, and other huge spills. Every aspect of their lives broken and coated with oil.

Thirty Seconds of YouTube Fame

Tuesday morning I came out on deck just as a photographer came down the dock carrying a camera and tripod. She was there to interview my neighbor, Don. But he was stuck in traffic, so I talked with her and the reporter who joined us a few minutes later. Long story short, I ended up in front of the camera, even though I hadn’t brushed my teeth or hair. I don’t like being on camera. I didn’t want to be a spokesperson. Oh boy. The whole thing was a mess.

When I got home from work Tuesday night I found a fleet of hazmat workers crawling all over the dock, pulling out and bagging oily reeds, laying down oil absorbent booms. The Coast Guard had stepped in and taken charge. The oil seemed to have stopped accumulating. Everyone was glad to see things going in a better direction. The workers said the job will take about three days.

oil spill cleanup crew starts work on oil spill at Lady's Island Marina
Oil cleanup crew at work
oil absorbent boom in the water after Beaufort SC oil spill
An oil absorbent boom starts to work.

Questions Remain

We still don’t know where the oil came from. A Coast Guard officer told me this looked like the kind of oil typically used by 700 foot ships, or very old fuel oil, bunker crude is another term that’s been bandied about. He has no idea how it got here, as the ICW can’t accommodate a 700 foot vessel. He said a lab is testing the oil.

We also don’t know for sure why the oil landed here in our marina, and seemingly nowhere else – probably some unlucky combination of storm, wind, tides and currents.

Hope Lingers Too

We hope the spill was an accidental artifact of the storm and not someone purposely dumping their garbage oil off the public dock.

We hope the oil covered crabs, the dolphins, the sting rays and the various fish they all feed on come through this okay. We hope the egrets and herons, as they return to the shores of our creek, can get a healthy meal. We hope all our boats come clean.

coast guard officer watches egret fishing after an oil spill
A Coast Guard officer watches an egret fish along the shore.

Preparing for Next Time

We all hope we’ll never see a next time, but unfortunately, this size oil spill is not uncommon. Accidents happen.

For the record – and for anyone who might face such a spill in the future and doesn’t want to flounder the way we did – the proper number to call to report an oil spill is the Coast Guard National Response Center 1-800-424-8802.

Please make a note of it. I’ve programmed it into my phone.

oil spill cleanup crew boats at sunset
Finished for the day, oil spill cleanup boats sail into the sunset.

Island Packet story on spill and cleanup.

Coast Guard Oversees Cleanup at Lady’s Island Marina

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