Oil barge is freed after running aground

A routine tow up the Oregon coast from Coos Bay to Portland almost turned into an environmental disaster when a Sause Brothers oil barge broke free from a Foss Maritime tug while entering the Columbia River on March 19.

Millicoma aground near the North Head Lighthouse. Below, a member of the salvage team being lowered onto the barge.

A southwest gale with gusts to 70 mph produced a severe sea state on the Columbia Bar and broke the towline connecting the tug Howard Olsen and the barge Millicoma at about 2030. The crew conducted a search throughout the night but were unable to find the barge.

Early the next morning the pilot of a helicopter used by the Columbia River Bar Pilots spotted the 329-by-76-foot barge north of the river’s entrance.

It had drifted 3.5 miles northeast and jammed its bow into a cleft in the rocks below the scenic North Head Lighthouse. The short trail to North Head attracts many visitors. It is also part of the route Lewis and Clark followed while exploring the peninsula in 1805.

The 20-year-old barge was not carrying any cargo at the time. Because the barge was on its way to a dry-docking in Portland, its cargo tanks — with a capacity of 2.6 million gallons — were empty and clean. However, the barge’s double-hulled fuel tank contained 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of diesel.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel from the Cape Disappointment station two miles away were soon on the scene, as a full-scale response took shape. Wind and waves continued to drive the barge onto the rocks throughout the day, but no fuel appeared to be leaking.

Officials from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Washington State Department of Ecology, Foss Maritime and Sause Brothers began planning the salvage operation from a base at the local fire station. Federal and state on-scene commanders were appointed. National Response Corp., Marine Spill Response Corp. and Fred Devine Diving & Salvage Co. were engaged to provide services.

The weather moderated on March 21, allowing a helicopter to lower a survey crew from Sause Brothers. They reported that five of the 15 tanks were damaged. They were able to close all the deck valves and vents, then prepared to receive six compressor units, also lowered by the helicopter. These were set up on top of the pump house and hoses connected to the deck valves. Fuel was obtained from the barge’s own tank. By this time, a large amount of equipment had been staged along the shore, including beach cleanup gear, skimmers and a wildlife rescue trailer.

On the morning of March 22, the weather was calm and clear. Devine’s 202-foot Salvage Chief was anchored a half mile off the cove in over 20 feet of water. Two 1.75-inch steel lines were secured to a 10-inch-circumference synthetic-rope bridle on the barge. With the compressors pumping air into the flooded tanks, Salvage Chief began winching in just before high tide, and Millicoma came free. The 5,700-hp Sause oceangoing tug Navajo took over for the 13-mile tow to Astoria with two smaller Foss tugs standing by.

By Professional Mariner Staff