The 3,000 recreational boaters and commercial fishermen at Channel Islands Harbor were left high and dry last week when they tried to gas up at the only fueling facility at the county-run harbor.
The fuel dock closed abruptly March 3 when the county's 25-year lease with Arco expired. Arco spokesmen said they held a series of meetings with harbor officials to keep them informed about the impending closure. However, the county did not inform boaters until the day of the closure, when a one-page notice was posted throughout the harbor.
Harbor Manager Frank Anderson called the action unavoidable and said the tanks, which have leaked diesel fuel into the soil, must be replaced and the contamination cleaned up. County officials said they plan to reopen the fuel facility April 10 under their own management, but Arco, which is conducting and paying for the cleanup, said that date may be overly optimistic.
The shutdown of their only fuel dock has infuriated a number of recreational boaters and commercial fishermen at Channel Islands Harbor. They said that the county has known for a long time about the expiring lease and that it should have made alternative plans to supply fuel. To them, the issue is just one more example of what they call the county's mismanagement of the harbor.
"These types of things have been going on for years, and it's going to have to come to a head," said Lloyd McAfee of Monterey Fish Co., a wholesale seafood dealer at Channel Islands Harbor.
McAfee said the lack of gas has prevented him from going out to fish.
"Something definitely could have been worked out, and the part that burns me is that they knew this was going to happen two years ago," he said.
Recreational boaters also were caught by surprise.
Ian Janis of Oxnard said he was forced to cancel a long-planned trip on his 27-foot sailboat this week because he could not get gas.
"I had no indication that this was going to happen. It's a real total drag," Janis said.
The notice posted at the harbor March 3 listed Port Hueneme and Ventura Harbor as two alternate fueling places.
But boaters say that the detour can take up to half a day and that if they are already low on gas, they must load their boats on trailers and haul them to other fueling locations.
"It's a very big inconvenience. I've already lost three days, and it's not just a matter of me losing income, it's my crew losing income and my processor not getting fish," commercial fisherman Richard Kroener said.
Marc Herman, another commercial fisherman, said most boats would have loaded a two-week supply of fuel on board if they had known ahead of time that the pumps would be closed.
Harbor manager Anderson said he has tried unsuccessfully to find an operator who could provide fuel until the pumps are repaired. He added that while he knew Arco's 25-year lease was ending, he did not know what day it had planned to close and that Arco's decision to pull out last week caught him by surprise.
"We knew the tanking was going to take place, but we didn't know when. We learned of it one morning when they left," Anderson said.
Arco disputes that.
"That's absolutely untrue. The specific date is absolutely no secret. It's been known for a long time," Arco regional manager Tom Murphy said.
C. T. Fulkerson, Arco's manager of retail facilities for the Los Angeles region, said he suggested early last week that Anderson post signs about the impending closure.
"Frank Anderson was totally aware that we were leaving on March 2, and it should not have come as any surprise to him," Fulkerson said.
In addition, Fulkerson said that he had offered to sell Anderson the remaining 900 or more gallons of diesel fuel and gasoline that remained in the underground tanks as of March 2 but that Anderson declined the offer.
Anderson, in an interview, said he discovered last week that the remaining fuel had become contaminated with water, a claim that Arco disputes also.
"Arco has no reports of water in the tanks," Fulkerson said.
The closure of the fuel tanks is the latest issue in a long-simmering dispute involving Channel Islands Harbor, many of its commercial fishermen and some recreational boaters.
In the past month, fishermen have gathered 200 signatures on a petition that asks Ventura County to relax rules that prevent many commercial operators from qualifying for boat slips at Channel Islands Harbor.
They have also asked for the removal of Harbor Patrol Capt. Pete Costello, whom they say imposes arbitrary and capricious regulations on their operations.
Although the harbor has a 66-slip commercial dock, it allocated only 13 of those slips to working fishermen.
County officials deny that they discriminate against commercial fisherman. In fact, they point to a $350,000 commercial fishing dock that they are building as evidence of their commitment to the industry.