The Coast Guard began chipping away Monday at a dilapidated pier that likely holds the source of an oil sheen on the Columbia River.
After the first of what will likely be a multiday effort, officials offered more detail about what may have caused the spill.
The sheen was first reported Jan. 18 near the Cannery Pier Hotel. It has been concentrated near the hotel but was visible about 5 miles along the river at its peak.
Other affected areas — including the Hammond Mooring Basin — have been cleaned up, while a containment boom has been placed near the hotel. Oil has also been spotted on boats in the area.
A Coast Guard diver discovered the tank a couple of days after the sheen was reported. The pier is located on the same property as the hotel, though hotel management maintains it did not have prior knowledge of the tank until the sheen appeared.
Coast Guard crews on Monday cut a hole in the tank — located on the south side of the pier and encapsulated by concrete — to survey it. The tank likely has a capacity of 10,000 gallons — a larger size than previously believed — and contains about 2,000 gallons of heavy, sludge-like oil, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Madjeska. A storm earlier in the month may have shifted the pier and the tank, which already had holes on its side.
“That does explain why we’re seeing product in the water,” Madjeska said. “It probably shifted once the river was able to make contact and come in through those holes and then exit with the tide.”
The exact amount of oil discharged is still unknown, but the Coast Guard considers the spill minor. Wildlife has not been affected.
Tide cycles of up to 9 feet, inclement weather, crumbling concrete surrounding the tank and the risk of disrupting the containment boom have presented challenges for crews hoping to excavate the tank. A crane barge was placed in the area Friday before work began Monday.
Madjeska said crews hope to fully access the tank by the end of the week. Crews will then be able to determine how heavy it is and how, if possible, to lift it from the pier — oil and all.
Oil from the tank was likely used for boilers at the Union Fishermen’s Cooperative, which was located at the pier and closed down more than 70 years ago, Madjeska said. Since then, the pier has had a handful of owners, and knowledge of the tank likely was lost somewhere in the turnover.
“Did people know years ago that this tank was there? Possibly. Maybe not,” hotel spokeswoman Donna Quinn said. “We wish it had been disclosed, but it wasn’t. We don’t know who knew or who didn’t know.”
Quinn said the hotel is researching options for how to pay for the cleanup and equipment, which Madjeska estimates will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The sheen has prompted questions about other piers in Astoria. Companies that moved out of the town, which once hosted a booming cannery industry, left behind dilapidated docks.
“This generated some excellent conversation among stakeholders and partners about canneries in general, but at this time there is no information of additional tanks,” Madjeska said.
Large environmental and economic ramifications appear to have been avoided in this spill. “But I would say it’s a big event in a small city,” Coast Guard Capt. William Timmons said.