A 1999 grounding that provided many lessons to be learned
The wood-chip carrier New Carissa grounded just north of Coos Bay, Oregon on 4 February 1999. While there were no injuries to the crew of 22, the environmental and financial consequences were severe. In addition, efforts to address the potential discharge of approximately 400,000 gallons of bunker fuel and to remove the wreck were unprecedented. The incident reinforced some old lessons and taught us some new ones. It reminded us to not anchor a vessel near a lee shore during heavy weather – certainly not with a single anchor. It reminded us to keep a vigilant navigation watch and to keep the engines on standby when anchored off a lee shore. Hopefully, it has taught prosecutors to not announce the opening of a criminal investigation against the ship master at the same time that the US Coast Guard is opening its marine casualty investigation. The master promptly refused to answer any questions at the USCG hearing, which eventually ended with no relevant finding as to causation. The prosecutor never did file charges, but got a lot of press coverage. The incident showed the lengths to which federal and state authorities are willing to go to address potential oil spills and to remove wrecks. After the ship became firmly grounded and threatened to spill large quantities of oil, efforts were made to burn the fuel. Initially, napalm and incendiary devices were ignited in the fuel tanks. When this proved largely ineffective, shaped charges were used to open the fuel tanks and then napalm and plastic explosives were used, this time to greater effect. As a result of these efforts, a significant amount of fuel was burned, but the hull broke into two large sections. Working under an arrangement clearly recognizing that the process consisted of mechanical removal for purposes of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), salvors were able to pull the bow section off the beach. Plans called for towing it well out to sea and then sinking it in deep water. Fate had different plans. The towline broke and the bow drifted ashore about 80 miles further north. The bow section was towed to sea a second time. When about 250 miles off shore and in 10,000 feet of water, high explosives were placed in the hull and detonated. The bow continued to float. A US Navy destroyer then fired 69 rounds from its five-inch gun mount. The bow continued to float. Finally, it was sunk by a torpedo fired from a nuclear attack submarine. The stern section proved even tougher to get rid of. Towing it was impossible as it had sunk more than 20 feet into the sand. Dismantling was made difficult by the weather and surf conditions and by the need to not inflict more damage on the local ecosystem. After the expenditure of more than $16 million, the dismantling of the stern section was completed in November 2008, almost ten years subsequent to the grounding. The incident cost the owners and insurers in excess of $26 million.