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Penn Cove environment assessed prior to salvage operation
The Washington departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife, with help from other agencies and organizations, have prepared an assessment of environmental resources in Penn Cove.
The 140-foot fishing vessel Deep Sea, which sank in the cove near Coupeville on May 13, continues to leak small amounts of diesel fuel, motor oil and other petroleum products. Ecology has established a website for the incident at: www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/spills/incidents/FVdeepsea/index.html.
Ecology currently is working in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard and Washington Department of Natural Resources on plans to raise and remove the sunken vessel to stop the ongoing pollution to the cove.
Information in the assessment – assembled as a normal part of any oil spill response – will help state and federal responders take measures to protect water quality, nearby shellfish operations, public beaches and important habitat areas during the upcoming removal operations.
According to the assessment:
* Shallow waters fringing Penn Cove support large populations of mussels and hardshell clams. Mussel spawning is currently at its peak and larvae are particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of oil. The Penn Cove Shellfish Co. operates shellfish growing rafts roughly 100 yards from the sunken vessel.
* The cove is a major seabird concentration area – including a pigeon guillemot breeding colony as well as scoter, gulls, cormorants, terns and other species.
* Marbled murrelets, a federally listed endangered species, are found in Penn Cove and surrounding areas year round. The cove also is home to bald eagle and peregrine falcon – and great blue heron nest throughout the region. In addition, there are harbor seal haulouts in the vicinity and the southern resident killer whales periodically visit the cove.
* Area salt marshes support juvenile salmon. This is a peak time for young fish from several salmon and sea-going trout species to forage in the waters near the shoreline. The fish are migrating to the ocean from the Skagit River and numerous smaller streams on Whidbey Island.
* Observers noted forage fish – small fish eaten by salmon and other larger fish – in the area. Penn Cove shorelines and eelgrass beds can support extensive forage fish spawning, but beach sediment samples indicate that spawning is not occurring at this time.
A Washington Department of Health commercial and recreational shellfish harvesting closure, issued May 15, 2012, remains in effect until further notice, according to a news release.
Operations to raise and remove the sunken vessel will involve a variety of measures to protect these resources.
Unfortunately, divers could not access two 5,000-gallon fuel tanks during underwater efforts from May 14 to May 18, to seek and remove fuel and hazardous materials. That effort recovered at least 3,600 gallons.
As a conservative precaution, preparations will assume that the Deep Sea may still contain thousands of gallons of fuel. Spill responders under Ecology’s direction will deploy multiple rings of oil-spill containment boom and cleanup materials on the water surface around the sunken ship as well as the barges and cranes involved in the lifting operation. Responders also will place boom and cleanup materials in a protective line between the Deep Sea site and the shellfish rafts.
At least one oil-skimming vessel will be ready to assist in recovering oil released into the water. Beach cleanup and recovery teams and equipment will stand ready for quick deployment. As the Deep Sea is set upright, tentatively on Wednesday, divers will attempt to locate and remove any remaining fuel or hazardous materials.
State and federal planners and salvage company experts caution that some release of oil likely will occur during the recovery. They add that the recovery plan seeks to minimize oil releases, contain those that do occur and ensure full readiness for any contingency.