WEST SEATTLE – A petroleum sheen on Puget Sound left behind by a sunken construction work boat poses a serious threat to marine wildlife, said biologists, though the full impact may not be known for weeks.
The Washington state Department of Ecology said they were not contacted immediately after the boat was discovered sinking off the shore of West Seattle Friday morning.
Workers for the boat owners, Waterfront Construction, arrived at 7:30 a.m. and noticed the boat appeared to be sitting low in the water, about 200 yards off the 5400 block of Beach Drive SW, said coast guard officials. It didn't take long for them to realize the boat was sinking.
Nobody was on board when the boat sank.
"Justin, the operator, just got here and he noticed it was going down and he tried to get out there before it went down but he couldn't make it," said welder Kelly Roth.
"Half of the boat was sticking up out of the water and bubbles coming up and it took about 10 minutes for it to sink. After it was halfway down, it went down pretty fast," said Carpenter Randy Short.
Waterfront Construction did, however, contact the U.S. Coast Guard about the accident right away. Nevertheless, state ecology officials who coordinate the deployment of the boom and other protective measures did not get that notification until later.
"We have to know about these things, we have to know about them immediately," said Curt Hart with the Washington DOE. "If you don't, you see what happens."
State ecologists estimate about 300 gallons of fuel and 50 gallons of motor oil on board, although it's still not clear how much of that ended up in the water. DOE says the spill will dissipate as it's exposed to the elements and waves, but that spills of any size damage the environment.
"And there are literally thousands of species of marine invertebrates in that location," said Mark Plunkett, conservation curator for the Seattle Aquarium, "then if you add in the fact that we've got about 200 species of fish in Puget Sound waters, then you've got the birds, then you've got the mammals on top of that, it's a very rich area."
While the sheen appeared to be quite large from the air, KING 5 Environmental Specialist Gary Chittim said it does not take very much to create a widespread sheen.
While the spill is on the small side, it's too soon to tell just how widespread the impact is, marine experts said, especially with light diesel fuel, which evaporates quicker but is also more toxic than heavier fuels.
"Anything that's in the water is going to be directly affecting these animals, on the outside and internally as well," said aquarium marine educator Jenn Whitsett.
"This is another wake up call to state legislators, policy makers, and the rest of us that are concerned that these little ones could happen, but they could have big consequences," said Plunkett
The barge was equipped with a boom kit, which was deployed after the workers realized the problem. The company said it is bringing in more vessels, booms and divers to attack the spill aggressively.
The sunken vessel is a landing craft called an LCM-8, similar to those craft from World War II used to land troops on beaches. It was being used to haul rocks and other materials to the barge from a bulkhead at a home construction project.
There was no immediate word on what caused the boat to sink.