oil spill mystery solved
- Note that we are continuing to investigate linkages to past mystery
spill events, such as one in 1990 that resulted in a kill of hundreds
(possibly thousands) of seabirds.
Unified Command News Release
San Mateo Mystery Oil Spill
Date: February 8, 2002 Time: 11:30 a.m.
Oily seabirds mystery solved
The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office - San Francisco and
California Department of Fish and Game Office of Spill Prevention and
Response (OSPR) have identified the source of oil that has incapacitated
or killed over 1,541 seabirds off the northern California coast since
November 24. It is the SS Jacob Luckenbach, a 468-foot freight ship
that sank approximately 17 miles Southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, on
July 14, 1953 as the result of a collision.
In a statement released today, Governor Gray Davis said, " I would
like to thank the Department of Fish and Game's Office of Spill
Prevention and Response and the U.S. Coast Guard for their tireless
efforts in spearheading the search for the source of the oil spill that
has depleted California's offshore bird populations over the last ten
years. The comprehensive, team approach with the State Lands
Commission, the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration,
U.S. Navy Salvage personnel, and the National Marine Sanctuaries, along
with the response industry, brought together experts in oiled wildlife
treatment and rehabilitation, satellite imagery, vessel operations,
ocean currents, resource economics, wildlife behavior, and oil
On Tuesday, a submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV), owned by
Vortex Diving Co. of Alameda, was lowered to the Luckenbach. The ROV's
video camera did not show any direct evidence of oil coming from the
ship, but the ORV did observe minor amounts of oil moving about in one
of the vessel's cargo holds, and USCG and OSPR personnel in surface
vessels observed small amounts of oil on the surface above it. In
addition, the ROV support vessel Eaglet observed oil stains on its
anchor chain when the anchor was pulled up. The ROV collected oil
samples from the surface above the wreck and from the support vessel's
anchor chain. Coast guard personnel were also able to obtain samples of
the surfaced oil.
Those oil samples were immediately sent to both OSPR's Petroleum
Chemistry Laboratory near Sacramento and the Coast Guard's Marine Safety
Laboratory in Groton, Connecticut. Both labs independently analyzed the
oil's chemical make-up, then compared the resulting "fingerprint" with
those taken from oiled birds' feathers, tar balls, and oil sheen
observed and sampled on December 8, 2001. They matched.
"This is very exciting. We've been trying to find the sources of
mystery spills for years, so this discovery is truly gratifying." said
Bill Castle, Supervising Chemist at the State lab. "There's a real
sense of relief, because these spills create a big problem for us and
for our wildlife."
The Unified Command (USCG and OSPR) now has the significant challenge
of identifying the best way to remove the threat of further discharges
from the oil source into the environment. The U.S. Navy Supervisor of
Salvage (SupSalv) has been called in to provide technical expertise to
the unified command in developing plans for any salvage efforts.
The Jacob Luckenbach is one of several sunken vessels in Gulf of the
Farallones National Marine Sanctuary that was being investigated as a
possible source of numerous "mystery" oil spills. Details on the
vessels and collision are on the Internet, at
"The investigation to identify the source of the mystery spill has
been a scientific process of elimination," said Scott Schaefer, OSPR
Deputy Administrator. Shortly after the oiled birds were discovered,
both OSPR's and the Coast Guard's labs were able to determine that the
samples were from the same source and that the source was not consistent
with natural oil seeps from the Monterey Formation or with Alaskan North
Slope crude oil. Both labs identified the oil as either a heavy fuel
oil or an unidentified crude oil.
In early January, six weeks into the current incident, birds coated
with fresh oil were still being recovered along a 220-mile stretch of
California's coast. This led investigators to suspect either multiple
releases from the same vessel or from a submerged vessel. According to
OSPR Administrator Harlan Henderson, "A diverse group of experts was
assembled from federal, state and local agencies, as well as
representatives of the maritime industry. We operated under a Unified
Command @ consistent with the State Oil Spill Contingency Plan @ which
brought all the key players together as a team and allowed us to openly
share all information. This validates the old saying that 'none of us
are as smart as all of us.' We used all available technologies,
including satellites, trajectory modeling, seismic data, and petroleum
Investigators from the Coast Guard, OSPR, and the State Lands
Commission searched vessel traffic records and identified several oil
tankers as potential spill suspects because of their routes and cargo.
Law enforcement personnel obtained oil samples taken from these vessels
by commercial laboratories. OSPR's Petroleum Chemistry Lab discovered
that the samples from these oil tankers were not consistent with the oil
from the feathers on the oiled birds.
As the investigation proceeded, the theory that a sunken vessel off
shore was the source became more credible. 23 samples of oiled bird
feathers and three samples of tarballs collected from November 25, 2001
through January 4, 2002 matched a slick sampled on December 8, 2001,
which matched samples taken from tarballs and birds' feathers. In
addition, the December 8 slick matched historical samples taken from
similar mystery incidents in 1992-93, 1997-98, 1999, and February 2001.
Since November 24, 2001, the date of the initial report of sea birds
being impacted by oil, the U.S. Coast Guard and OSPR have been working
together in a unified effort to locate the source of the oil. In
addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and
California State Lands Commission joined the investigative team to solve
The multi-agency investigative team utilized numerous methods and
technologies to assist them in their search. Sightings from Coast Guard
aircraft and patrol boats, Department of Fish and Game wildlife
observation aircraft, and commercial contract helicopters identified oil
sheens and some tarballs southeast of the Farallon Islands. Commercial
satellite photos also indicated the presence of oil sheens in the area.
Even a seismic study was employed. Local outreach that targeted
commercial and fishing vessels that operate in the area was used. A
marine radio broadcast was transmitted that asked these operators to
keep an eye out for oil and to immediately contact the Coast Guard if
any was observed.
Investigators searched available databases and identified several
sunken vessels in the vicinity of the Farallon Islands. These included
the Chemical Tanker Puerto Rican, which exploded and sank in 1984, the
aircraft carrier USS Independence, which was intentionally sunk in the
1950's, two Navy oilers that sank in heavy seas in 1945, and a couple of
other commercial vessels, including the Jacob Luckenbach.
"Now that the source of the oil has been identified and the team
prepares for the oil recovery operation," Governor Davis said, "I
reaffirm my continuing support, and look forward to the day when this
threat is finally eliminated."
As of February 7, 2002, 1,541 oiled birds have been brought to the
Wildlife Care Center in Cordelia. Six-hundred and twenty-seven were
captured alive, and 914 were dead on arrival. Of the 627 live birds,
206 have been cleaned, rehabilitated and released; 8 are still receiving
care, and 413 have died in captivity.
The Wildlife Care Center no longer needs new volunteers, at this time.
However, people interested in volunteering too help in future oil spill
incidents may register on the OSPR web-site -
http://www.dfg.ca.gov/Ospr/volunteer/volunteer.html, or visit the
IBRRC website, http://www.ibrrc.org
"Thanks to all the volunteers who worked on this incident," said Oiled
Wildlife Care Network Veterinarian Scott Newman. "Only with the help of
the volunteers were we able to get through this. We appreciate the time
and energy they've given."
Photos, past news releases, and background information are available
at the Internet web sites listed below.
Lt. Tim Callister, U.S. Coast Guard: 510-437-3143 -
Dana Michaels, OSPR: 916-327-9948 - dmichael@...
Robert Hughes, OSPR: 916-323-6286 - rhughes@...
Dept. of Fish & Game - OSPR - http://www.dfg.ca.gov/Ospr/index.html
U.S. Coast Guard - http://www.uscg.mil/D11/index.htm
Oiled Wildlife Care Network -
International Bird Rescue Research Center - http://www.ibrrc.org
Steve Hampton, Ph.D.
Office of Spill Prevention and Response
California Dept of Fish and Game
PO Box 944209
Sacramento, CA 94244-2090
(916) 323-4724 phone
(916) 324-8829 fax
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]