Ship involved in major oil spill leaves San Francisco Bay for good


Without fanfare and few people realize it, an infamous chapter in Bay Area environmental history has come to an end. Or rather, walked away.

The Cape Mohican, an 873-foot-long military freighter that was involved in one of the largest oil spills in San Francisco Bay in the past half-century, was towed from its long-standing berth date in Oakland Harbor and under the Golden Gate Bridge. Friday.

By Wednesday it had reached Mexico, tied to a tug with a steel cable as thick as a beer bottle and speeding at 7 mph en route to the Panama Canal, then Beaumont, Texas, August 1, and possibly not. long after, to a final date with the Brownsville Shipyard to be broken down and recycled.

The imposing 50-year-old ship, a gray barge that extended as long as the Transamerica vessel lay on its side, served in the Persian Gulf War.

But his claim to fame – or infamy – came on October 28, 1996, when a worker in a dry dock in San Francisco near Pier 70, just south of the current Giants stadium, opened. mistakenly a valve on the ship thinking it was releasing water. Instead, 96,000 gallons of heavy black bunker oil was spilled. About 40,000 gallons of oil sank in San Francisco Bay.

Windy weather and torrential rain at the start of the season quickly spread it. The spill blackened miles of shoreline on Alcatraz and Angel Islands, drifted as far north as the Richmond San Rafael Bridge and washed up on the beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore in Half Moon Bay.

“It was a horrible feeling to witness the pollution,” said Mary Jane Schramm, a volunteer at the time at the Farallones Gulf National Marine Sanctuary. “You would be walking in an area of ​​the beach that looked clean and there would be a pool of oil. Your shoes were damaged. There was so much barely under the sand.

Even though the spill was modest in size compared to massive spills such as the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, which spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska, the damage was significant.

Nearly 600 birds, including grebes, gulls, loons and brown pelicans, were found dead and covered in oil. Thousands more were recovered but could not be captured or recovered.

The spill polluted eelgrass beds in the bay, where herring spawn each year. At least a dozen harbor seals were seen covered in oil. Oil spilled into marinas, piers and sea walls along the San Francisco waterfront. In total, investigators reported that 120 miles of shoreline were polluted with oil slicks and tarballs.

Oil spilled from Cape Mohican to Pier 70 in San Francisco in October 1996 (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

The spill was the largest in the San Francisco Bay since 1988, when 432,000 gallons of crude oil escaped from a faulty storage tank at the Shell refinery in Martinez into a creek and swamp, then into the bay. It will be 11 years before another such large spill hit the bay in 2007 when the cargo ship Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge in fog, dumping 53,569 gallons of bunker fuel into its waters.

“You rarely come across something so big and so immediate. It was a little shocking, ”said Michael Lozeau, an Oakland lawyer who was executive director of the environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper during the 1996 oil spill.

The ship is now near the end of its life.

Technically, the United States Marine Administration, a branch of the Department of Transportation, which owns the vessel, says its status has been degraded. For years, the Cape Mohican was part of the country’s Ready Reserve Force, a group of cargo ships that could be put into service during wars. Now it is “in retention,” a type of retreat for older ships in which they are sealed and moored without a crew, often waiting to be recycled.

“It’s about to be scrapped. It’s too expensive to maintain, ”said Sal Mercogliano, naval historian and professor of history at Campbell University in North Carolina.

Steamships like the Cape Mohican have been replaced by diesel ships, he noted. The ship was designed to carry barges that could be loaded with ammunition or artillery shells. But that technology has been replaced by container ships, he said.

Some congressional leaders, including Representative John Garamendi, D-Davis, have pressured the Defense Department to replace the old freighters more quickly.

“There is concern that in the event of a conflict, how would we get military equipment and supplies – beans, bullets, gasoline – to the troops? Said Mercogliano.

After the oil spill damage tally, the Marine Administration and San Francisco Dry Dock Inc. settled the case in 1998 for $ 8 million. About $ 4.3 million went to reimburse state and federal agencies for the oil cleanup.

An additional $ 3.6 million was invested in a fund, overseen by the National Park Service and other agencies, for environmental restoration.

Coast Guard members place oil-absorbing booms during the 1996 Cape Mohican oil spill in San Francisco Bay. (United States Coast Guard)

Over the next decade, that money helped fund a dozen major projects in the Bay Area, from removing litter and invasive plants at Crissy Field in San Francisco to restoring nesting habitat. from stariques, petrels and other birds of the Farallon Islands to the construction of new stairs and trails for hikers on Angel Island.

With stricter laws requiring double hulls for tankers and more training for crews, the number of oil spills from ships in California has declined in recent decades. But there is always a risk, experts say.

“People have forgotten how serious this can be,” said Ed Ueber, former superintendent of the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. “These big ships are run by humans. I was an officer in the merchant navy. I know people make mistakes.

OAKLAND, CA – JULY 9: The Cape Mohican, which caused a major oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1996, is towed past the Bay Bridge as seen from the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif. On Friday, July 9, 2021. (Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)

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