At roughly 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, July 4, Algobay had made its way past Singer Castle and began drifting out of the channel before running aground west-northwest of Light 165 off Chippewa Bay. The ship would collide that morning with Superior Shoal.
The 740’ vessel, which was built in 1978 and is operated by Seaway Marine Transport; a partnership between the Algoma and Upper Lakes shipping companies, had experienced some power troubles. “We’re not sure why it lost power at this point,” explained Seaway Marine Transport President and CEO Allister Paterson from his office in St. Catharines the following morning. “ Algobay ‘blacked out’ in a tight section of the Seaway, losing power for approximately 15 seconds, causing the ship to lose its handling as it drifted out of the channel.”
No sooner did the ship lose power, the Captain and his crew jumped into emergency mode and deployed the anchors in an attempt to stop the ship.
It is incidents like this that scare locals and bring flashbacks of 1976. The question ‘what if?’ lingers on the minds of many and the news of the July 4 grounding stirred many emotions.
“The grounding of the Algobay tells us, once again, what we already know - accidents happen,” Jennifer Caddick, Executive Director of Save The River, in Clayton NY, said the day after the grounding. “Despite the Seaway's platitudes about their safety record, the grounding solidifies more than ever that we need a world class response program and safety protocols for the world-class resource that is the St. Lawrence River.”
As people cruise through the Islands in their boats, rippling the crystal clear water, some tend to forget how close to disaster our beloved region could be.
Today, in the Gulf of Mexico, wildlife is struggling to survive, beautiful beaches are now lined with black goop and the ocean water is coated with a thick film. Some thirty-four years ago, a similar thick, black, tar-like substance floated down our majestic St. Lawrence River and became known as one of the largest inland disasters of our time, a disaster that many refer to as the Slick of ’76.
“The Gulf situation sits in the back of minds with the 34th anniversary of our own disaster,” said Caddick, . “It’s bound to happen again.”
PAST AND PREPARE
This past June marked the 34th anniversary since a tug pushing the loaded NEPCO 140 barge filled with crude oil struck bottom on the river causing tanks to rupture onboard while moving through the American Narrows. Running aground however wouldn’t happen just once that early summer morning, but the barge would strike again just four-miles upstream before being ordered to drop anchor by the Coast Guard. The accident took nearby communities by surprise and caused for locals to scramble in an effort to control the situation.
That early morning in 1976 sent an estimated 300,000 gallons of crude leaking into the river, though minimal compared to the barrels and barrels each day that continue to spew into the Gulf, and it still managed to effected an 80-mile stretch of our beloved water way, killing hundreds of local wildlife and leaving months of cleanup efforts. After more than four months, the official cleanup effort was halted and an estimated $8 million was spent, but the lagging effects remained for a number of years.
Just a few weeks ago, the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC) hosted a spill exercise in hopes of getting local and federal agencies prepared for a potential disaster. Twenty-seven agencies gathered in Massena, New York at the Eisenhower Lock to participate in a scenario drill. The drill was geared toward teaching accident responders with the information needed to evacuate the lock and vicinity should there be a hazardous cargo spill. The exercise also provided an opportunity to test the recently updated the SLSDC Evacuation Plan for the Lock and surrounding area. Following the nearly hour and a half tabletop discussion, a simulated oil spill above the locks and subsequent protection of the Massena Water Intake took place by deploying oil boom across the mouth of the inlet. Oil booms similar to the well-known ones in the Gulf and what was used 34 years prior. This exercise was a test of internal capabilities, communication strategies, and the deployment and training of new and existing personnel.
Administrator Terry Johnson of the SLSDC, who was not in attendance in Massena, said in a written statement, “The U.S. Seaway Corporation’s Emergency Response Plan is continuously reviewed and revised to incorporate the latest research and training protocols. Working in coordination with local, state, and regional emergency response teams, these exercises keep us prepared to immediately address any number of potential emergencies that may arise on the river.”
Caddick, who represented Save The River as a local response team, attended the drill and came away disappointed by the approach taken to such a serious matter. “The Seaway stood in front of the group with a PowerPoint presentation, which presented very little dialog. Pretty much it was explained as this is what the Seaway would do.”
In addition to what Caddick explained as ‘little interactive discussion’, there was some concern among those at the drill about the bright yellow containment boom. “There was some concern over the inventory of boom,” Caddick mentioned. The validity of the inventory list that was distributed made many question the last time a full inventory and inspection of each piece was actually done. Nearly 14,000-feet of boom owned by SLSDC or the U.S. Coast Guard is shown listed as being available on the river between Cape Vincent and Ogdensburg, not including boom that may be owned by Canadian agencies. Another 6,000-feet is owned by third parties and is anywhere from Plattsburgh to Syracuse.
However, the biggest concern of Caddick and others is “where is the boom should a 700-foot ship run aground and need to be contained quickly?” In Clayton there is just 800’ sitting in a metal storage box near Frink Park, which wouldn’t be enough to even encompass a ship. The next allotment would likely come from Keewaydin State Park, but by the time it is taken from storage, loaded onto boats and moved to the scene, oil would already be washing up against island shores and making its way toward Alexandria Bay. “When a worst case happens you want to be a step ahead of the game,” Caddick says, but a worst case scenario with a ship aground in front of the village could end up leading to a disaster, much like the spill in 1976. “It’s (the river) is the area’s economic backbone and the Seaway has a responsibility to do everything they can to be as prepared as possible in case an accident happens.”
Drills, which began annually in 1989 by the SLSDC, hopefully continue to prepare agencies along the river, though no more are planned for 2010 in the wake of the Gulf situation. However, the message remains the same, “if you’re going to use the system, be as protective as possible,” because no one wants to be in the same situation as ’76.
RECENT CLOSE CALLS
Perhaps more drills should be planned or then again, maybe everything worked out just right.
A little after the Algobay became entangled on the shoal, the USCG and SLSDC quickly responded to the scene, putting their recent drill experiences to work. The USCG Marine Safety Detachment out of Massena arrived on the scene and performed soundings and draft checks to ensure the integrity of the ship remained sound. The response crew also found the vessel's fuel tanks to be above the water line and that they had not been punctured. Containment booms, which just a month prior were concerned over, were deployed to the scene as a precautionary measure as well, however not needed. There were no signs of pollution from the crash and no injuries reported on board. This would prove to be a close call with a lucky outcome this time around.
The professional response of the USCG and SLSDC turned some heads and even made believers in the system out of some. “It does appear as though the Seaway and Coast Guard did do some things right in this current situation” Caddick shared when asked about her thoughts on the response.
The last time a ship ran aground on the St. Lawrence River came on November 17, 2009 when CSL Assiniboine drifted out of the channel near Cardinal, Ontario after losing engine power and suffered major hull damage. That too was a close call and through continued drill exercises hopefully every close call will continue to have positive outcomes, unlike the Slick of ’76.
Note: As we go to press on July 15, we learned of another 2010 grounding on July 12. The CSL vessel Richelieu ran aground near Cote Sainte Catherine, just west of Montreal, after losing engine power. The ship suffered a punctured bunker fuel tank, spilling a large amount of fuel into the Seaway. This disaster is already being called the largest of it's kind near Montreal in the 50 years of the Seaway system and will take a number of days to clean up. Until the area is cleared of loose fuel, shipping will remain halted in this region of the Seaway, causing for thousand of dollars to be lost daily by shipping companies and the people they serve. This accident proves that they are bound to happen and solidifies the need for readiness.
That too was a close call and through continued drill exercises hopefully every close call will continue to have positive outcomes, unlike the Slick of ’76.
By Michael Folsom/theshipwatcher.blogspot.com/
Michael Folsom is a regular contributor to TI Life. He regularly covers the Seaway News on his popular web site, theshipwatcher.blogspot.com, as well as a twitter site: http://twitter.com/theshipwatcher. His work has been featured in the Thousand Islands Sun, as well as on boatnerd.com and northcountrynow.com.
When the Algobay went aground, Mike's site was the first outlet along the St. Lawrence River to break the news. His in-depth coverage dubbed him as a source by area news media throughout the north country, helping to put The Ship Watcher on the map as a credited shipping news source.