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Oil spill damages marine estuary at Suquamish

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PORT MADISON, Wash. - An estimated 4,800 gallons of heavy fuel oil overflowed from a barge on Dec. 30 while it was being loaded and has damaged a pristine area on the Suquamish Indian Reservation just across Puget Sound about 30 miles west of Seattle.

The oil damaged area, estimated at 400 acres by tribal officials, is regarded as a prime cultural and environmental site for the tribe. Among the areas affected are a salt-water marsh, old growth timber areas, a tribal beach and a clam bed used by tribal members.

The area is also part of the tribal fishery in an area rich with shellfish including soft shell clams, geoducks and Dungeness crabs, all of which are expected to be impacted by the spill. The extent of damage is still unknown however until biologists can finish tests.

Tribal officials said that though adult fish species like salmon and seafowl were not likely to incur major damage, young fish and eggs which use the protected waters of the estuary could be affected for years to come.

Apparently a barge owned by Foss Martime was loading oil that was left over after it was processed into gas and diesel onto a barge. Foss was contracted by ChevronTexaco to load the fuel at one of their oil transfer points approximately five miles from the affected area.

It is still unclear as to why workers at the loading point failed to notice the overflow, though the Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that the operator had gone to fill out paperwork after loading began.

"That's under investigation," said Foss spokesman Joe Langjahr.

After setting off an alarm, Foss sent containment ships out onto the sound and tried to protect the beach and estuary with a protective boom. Unfortunately high tides combined with stiff winds forced the oil over the boom and it blackened the area.

Since the spill happened shortly after midnight it was almost impossible to spot the oil in the water and the extent of the spill was not known until the following morning.

The weather compounded the problem as it was relatively warm when the spill took place and was followed by unusually cold temperatures, dipping as low as the teens overnight after the oil made landfall thus hardening it and hampering cleanup efforts.

Rob Purser, director of tribal fisheries for Suquamish reported that cleanup efforts are under way and include three separate environmental cleanup companies. Langjahr reported that the companies were hired by Foss.

Purser said the area is important to tribal members for "subsistence gathering." Washington state allows tribes certain fishing rights and allows tribal members within the effected area to gather shellfish to eat. He also reports that the damaged area is also a center of tribal ceremonies and gatherings.

"(The effected area) is a sanctuary for the tribe and its value is immense," Purser said.

Though it is still too early to assess, tribal officials said beyond the devastation, the pollution will cause to the tribe and the environment, early dollar estimates are thought to be in the hundreds of thousands range.

Purser said the tribe will wait until the initial cleanup is finished in the next few weeks before making an assessment of whether or not to take legal action. Right now, Purser said the tribe is laying the foundation for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Natural Resources Damage Assessment to make a final determination on the extent of the damage.

"The response is still under way and we're monitoring the situation as closely as we can," said Leonard Forsman, the public relations officer for the tribe.

Additionally Forsman said that the tribe has had a few furtive talks with Foss but did not elaborate. The tribe will meet with representatives from the Washington State Department of Ecology and Foss sometime in the third week of January.

According to the Seattle Times, Washington state lawmakers questioned why the filling device was not equipped with an automatic shut off system.

Foss spokesman Langjahr explained there is not a shut-off valve for equipment of this size and for the amount of flow that is required he contended that it would be impossible to have a shut-off device.

Larry Altose, who works with the Washington State Dept of Ecology who is coordinating communications to the press along with representatives of Foss said there are pre-arranged plans to place oil booms in sensitive areas in Puget Sound. Apparently the booms were effective in preventing the spread to a wider area, but unable to stop the spread into Suquamish. Apparently protective booms are not required during fuel transfers.