As the Port of Los Angeles was fully reopened to shipping traffic Tuesday, preliminary damage estimates from last week’s 12,000-gallon oil spill revealed that four oceangoing vessels, hundreds of pleasure boats, as many as 200 sea birds and more than a dozen barges and commercial fishing boats have been tarred with the thick, sticky fuel.
The cleanup effort, which is expected to last for weeks, was complicated by an early miscalculation of the size of the spill, which was originally estimated to be about 1,500 gallons and now is being set at about 12,300 gallons.
“That hampered our effort tremendously,” said Sid Kanazawa, representative for the Sammi Superstar, a freighter involved in the mishap.
The spill occurred the evening of Jan. 8 as a barge, the Olympic L, was transferring fuel to the freighter at Berth 176 near the port’s East Basin.
While the Coast Guard continued to investigate the cause of the spill, participants offered varying explanations.
They agreed that the ship’s fuel tanks overflowed, sending oil shooting through vents 10 feet into the air and cascading down onto the decks and overboard.
But from there, the accounts diverge. Kanazawa said the overflow was caused by the barge operators, who pumped the fuel nearly twice as fast as the ship’s crew had expected.
Jeff Mudgett, president of Links Marine Inc., which owns and operates the barge, said the freighter ordered more fuel than it needed. He said the tanks overflowed after the barge had transferred “a little more than half of what they asked for.”
“Our tanker man did a good job and didn’t do anything wrong,” Mudgett said. “Our tanker man is the one who noticed the spill and he shut down himself.
“It was dark. He thought they were washing the deck down with water and then he smelled the oil.”
Mudgett conceded, however, that “one of my people was involved” in the early understatement of the spill’s size. “There was oil all over. People were tired and nervous,” he said.
The spill was initially classified as “minor” by the Coast Guard and was later described as a “medium” spill.
The freighter’s owners, Pan Ocean Inc., based in Seoul, South Korea, assumed responsibility for the cleanup.
By the next morning, Pan Ocean, the Coast Guard and port officials thought the oil was gone. The plastic booms, which contain slicks, were removed and traffic in the port, which had slowed, resumed its normal pace.
But then a vessel left the Matson Container Terminal near the port’s East Basin, Kanazawa said, and its wake sucked the unseen oil from under piers and pilings. The fuel streamed through the harbor. “If we had known (how much oil had actually spilled), we would have looked for it and sealed it off,” Kanazawa said.
No specific cost figures were available, but Kanazawa said the cleanup bill will be “in the millions.”
Terminal operators in the East Basin said delays were minimal.
But at marinas in and around the port, commercial fishermen and small-boat owners were furious.
Tom Nuttman, for example, inspected a trap off his lobster boat moored near the Ports o’ Call complex in San Pedro and found “200 pounds of dead lobster that would have brought in $7 a pound.”