Weather causes spate of oil spills, harbor sinkings

High winds, freezing and thawing lead to oil tank problems

Posted: Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Juneau's recent spate of harsh weather has caused havoc at harbors and kept experts busy dealing with oil spills at homes and businesses.

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At least three boats have sunk in Juneau's harbors in the past month, the most recent one occurring in Aurora Harbor on Dec. 4. A 40-foot wooden Chinook was found submerged at 9 a.m.

Harbormaster Lou McCall said the sinking was likely due to the vessel's load of snow. The boat had essentially been abandoned, and McCall said he has not seen the boat owner in at least two to three months.

Just one hour before the Chinook was discovered, a 34-foot fiberglass hull was found sunk at DeHart's Marine in Auke Bay. This boat likely also sank because of snow buildup, officials said.

Scot Tiernan, environmental program specialist at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the boats probably went down in darkness, although the exact times were uncertain.

"If it sinks and nobody notices, it probably happened during the night. They sink whenever they feel like it," he said.

The third boat sank at Aurora Harbor the day before Thanksgiving. Outside Juneau, a boat was reportedly sunk in Petersburg as well.

Boat sinkings mean huge expenses for owners, who not only must dole out $5,000 to $6,000 to recover the vessel, but will also likely pay hundreds, if not thousands more in repair costs.

The sinkings are also harbor hazards and must be reported to the state because of potential oil leaks.

Boats like the Chinook are particularly dangerous because they are "laden with junk and you can tell that nobody is really using the boat," Tiernan said.

Tips to prevent spills

• Secure small fuel containers, fuel tanks, and barrels so they don't float away.

• Above-ground tanks, including propane tanks, may shift or fall, causing fuel lines to kink, weaken or break, or fittings may be loosened or damaged.

• If you have a buried fuel tank, water may have seeped into the tank and contaminated the fuel.

• If you have any questions on the integrity of your tank, fuel lines, or the fuel itself, or need help moving or returning the tank to service, contact your fuel supplier.

• If the flooding has caused a fuel spill, report it to the Department of Environmental Conservation at 269-3063; outside normal business hours, call (800) 478-9300.

"It just becomes more and more distressed and it gets old, it gets ugly, and you might have leaking fuel tanks. Then it eventually sinks if you don't get it out of there on time."

The department has been busy responding to business and home heating oil tank spills as well. Linda Giguere, department spokesperson, said that 750 gallons of heating fuel spilled during one recent 24-hour period.

"We've got the spill hotline, and it has been going pretty steadily since," she said.

On Dec. 6, three separate spills were reported - all a result of adverse weather conditions.

At 2 p.m. a spill was found from a fuel tank on the back side of a building on the 400 block of South Franklin Street. The tank leaked between 200 and 250 gallons of fuel, Tiernan said. He said a piece of ice had fallen and severed the fuel hose.

At 10:38 p.m., homeowners of a Mendenhall Valley home discovered oil spilling from their heating oil tank. Roughly 220 gallons was estimated to have spilled. Tiernan said high winds had caused the lid of a barbecue grill to fly off, hit the tank and snapped the fuel line.

The fuel went into the back yard and into a culvert, he said.

At 10 a.m. Dec. 7, a spill was discovered at the Federal Aviation Administration facility. Another 250 gallons of fuel was estimated to have been lost before anyone noticed. A piece of ice reportedly fell and hit the tank line.

Tiernan and McCall warned that snow and ice could still cause spills despite warmer weather.

People should make sure that fuel companies are filling their tanks properly, and should also ensure the tank has a good foundation, Tiernan said.

McCall said boat owners should check their vessels to see whether they have spring leaks.

"Most of the problems occur when it warms up when the thawing occurs," he said. "It is not just a matter of thinking 'my boat made it through the freeze,'" he said.

"They need to pay attention to their vessels," McCall said.

Web links

To learn more, visit the Department of Environmental Conservation's Web site at

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at Read her natural resources blog, The Muskegger, at

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