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Sunken Vessel Emits Oil Slick 10 Miles Long

September 23, 1987|MILES CORWIN and LARRY B. STAMMER | Times Staff Writers

SANTA BARBARA — A 10-mile-long crescent-shaped oil slick, carrying the potential for serious environmental damage, has bubbled up from the freighter that sank after a collision with another ship 15 miles off Point Conception, federal officials said Tuesday.

Boats using large devices intended to skim the oil off the surface were unsuccessful Tuesday, said John Robinson, manager of hazardous materials response for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Coast Guard later used planes to drop an oil-dispersing agent onto the leading edge of the slick when it was about six miles offshore, Coast Guard spokesman Brad Smith reported.

The cleanup effort is being carried out by a private firm under contract to the owner of the freighter. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is providing technical advice on the cleanup.

Headed Out to Sea

Philip Oshida, an oceanographer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said late Tuesday that the oil slick was headed out to sea, which could minimize its damage.

However, the extensive oil spill could destroy fish eggs and larvae, poison fish and make them unmarketable and prevent trawling in the area because of damage to fishing gear, said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. Endangered birds and mammals at sea and on the nearby Channel Islands could also be harmed if the oil washes up on island shores.

Craig Fusaro of the privately funded Joint Oil/Fisheries Committee, based in Santa Barbara, said Tuesday that it is too early to tell what impact, if any, the accident will have on fishing.

But, he said, the ship came to rest in "the deepest extent of the hook-and-line fishery," where many varieties of rock cod are caught. He said it was also possible that fishing for thresher shark with drifting gill nets and trawling for rock cod, sole and possibly shrimp also occurs in the area.

The cause of collision between the freighter Pac Baroness and the automobile-carrying ship Atlantic Wing early Monday is still officially undetermined, but heavy fog probably contributed to the accident, said Coast Guard spokesman Leo Kay.

The freighter, after being towed several miles Monday to avoid shipping lanes, sank about 10 miles off the coast of Point Conception. No one was injured. The Pac Baroness had 386,000 gallons of fuel oil on board when it sank.

While environmental scientists agreed that oil pollution could pose a serious hazard, there was division over the danger posed by the sunken ship's cargo: 23,000 tons of powdered copper, iron and sulfur concentrates.

The ore is in the ship's hold and it is not clear whether it has leaked so far. But because the ship sank in such deep water--1,800 feet--salvage operations are highly unlikely and the ore eventually will seep out, according to the Coast Guard.

The powdered copper is the most toxic of the materials, said Alfred Ebeling, former director of the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Copper is so toxic, he said, that it is used to destroy algae and aquatic plants that clog waterways and reservoirs.

Although the copper would be highly diluted, Ebeling said "researchers have shown that even parts per trillion of toxins can seriously disturb organisms."

Although the copper could be absorbed by fish, it would pose no danger to people eating the fish, according to Kenneth Jenkins, an environmental toxicologist at California State University, Long Beach, who has been studying metal toxicity in the marine environment.

Not in the Muscles

"When a fish takes up copper it doesn't end up in the filet or the muscle flesh," Jenkins said. "It ends up in the liver. In addition, fish will avoid a very hot spot if they have a choice. Again, I would expect any effect here to be very localized--perhaps long-term, but very local."

However, James Case, a marine biology professor at UC Santa Barbara and associate chancellor for research, said: "Frankly, I worry about the slow leak of copper from the hulk creating a more or less permanent zone of toxicity. And depending on the currents, you don't know how big an area would be affected."

But because the oil spill is a more immediate and visible problem, more resources have been devoted to it during the last two days. Robinson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said oil could be seeping out of the ship for months.

"We're watching the winds and currents carefully. But wherever it goes--except out to sea--will be a concern."

The Channel Islands are a national marine sanctuary, the habitat for a number of rare birds. In addition, September is the pupping season for sea otters and seals, he said. Oil is very dangerous for marine mammals and birds, Robinson said, and when "absorbed into their feathers or fur it can . . . kill them."

The 494-foot Atlantic Wing, registered in Panama, had a cargo of 3,451 Hondas and was en route to Long Beach for fuel when its bow crashed into the side of the Pac Baroness in thick fog.

The hull of the Pac Baroness was slashed open below the waterline. It sank 11 hours later. There were no injuries and the crew of 25 was immediately taken on board the Atlantic Wing.

Miles Corwin reported from Santa Barbara and Larry B. Stammer from Los Angeles.

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