Oil-Spill Barge Causes Small Spills Of Its Own In Bellingham

Aug 15, 2012

More problems for the oil-spill containment barge being built on the Bellingham waterfront. Coast Guard officials say Shell Oil's Arctic Challenger has caused several small spills of its own in the past few weeks. KUOW's John Ryan reports.

Three separate spills sent about a quart each of hydraulic fluid into the Whatcom Waterway on Bellingham Bay. The Coast Guard issued warnings for the first two and a $250 fine for the third. Then, last week, a skiff involved in the construction spilled five gallons of diesel into the bay.

The spills are very small as far as oil spills go. The Coast Guard says they were contained within a floating boom that surrounds the Arctic Challenger. Then again, the Washington Department of Ecology says just a quart of spilled oil can foul 100,000 gallons of water.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith says spills of any size are unacceptable. The spills are the latest problems for the overdue construction project. Bellingham Police had to escort one worker off the job site after he was caught using heroin. Project officials say they run a drug-free workplace with rigorous drug testing and a spotless safety record.

Shell can't begin its drilling in the Arctic Ocean until the Challenger is in place. The company can only drill for oil in the brief window of ice-free conditions off the north coast of Alaska. That means time is quickly running out for Shell's plans to drill for oil this year. In a conference call with reporters, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said neither ice nor government is to blame. 

Salazar: "The cause for any delay here is that Shell construction of its vessel, simply, they have not been able to get it done. If they had got it done, they may already be up there today because the waters of the Chukchi are, in fact, already open."

Shell officials declined to estimate when construction of the Arctic Challenger would wrap up.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio