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One aircraft carrier, one motor vessel, leaking oil and no one responsible . . . a recipe for disaster or an opportunity for cooperation?
In the true spirit of a unified command, with leadership from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Emergency Response Division, these agencies worked together to clean up and address potential threats to water quality when State and federal agencies successfully recovered the Motor Vessel Sea Witch and its 120,000 gallons of oil and 75 tons of oily sludge.
The saga began in August 2003, when the Maryland Port Administration requested MDE’s assistance to mitigate an ongoing oil release from a shell of a container ship.
The original MV Sea Witch was a 700 ft. container ship constructed at the Bath works in Maine. In 1973, she was involved in a collision with the tanker Brussels in New York harbor that resulted in the loss of 14 lives.
Kurt Iron and Metal, a salvage yard in the Fairfield section of Baltimore City, was charged with scrapping the USS Coral Sea, a World War II era aircraft carrier. Scrapping the carrier required the removal and proper disposal and treatment of oil and oil sludge. Kurt Iron and Metal acquired the bow half of the Sea Witch to use it as a vehicle to separate the oil on the Coral Sea from the water. Kurt Iron and Metal did not follow proper disposal guidelines under the Clean Water Act, and the owner served time in Federal prison for violations. When the owner died in prison, his property was inherited by his son who sold it to the Maryland Port Administration. However, there was no clear record of the ownership of the MV Sea Witch.
During 2003’s Tropical Storm Isabel, the MV Sea Witch took on water and sank in the Patapsco River, where it discharged an unknown quantity of oil The U.S. Coast Guard and MDE took responsibility and created a unified command to jointly make decisions on the best options to clean-up and mitigate pollution from the MV Sea Witch. The Coast Guard agreed to use funds from the National Pollution Fund Center for the clean-up. A contractor was hired, the ship was cleaned. Once divers from the U.S. Navy Salvage Team declared that the bottom of the ship was clean, the U.S. Coast Guard recommended that the vessel be kept in place.
In 2008, when the ship was once again reported leaking, a unified command was again established with the U.S. Coast Guard as the federal on-scene coordinator and MDE’s Emergency Response Division as the state on-scene coordinator. An investigation revealed a double bottom, between which oil had begun leaking. It was unknown how much potential oil was present and recoverable. To further complicate matters, the MV Sea Witch was resting in the middle of the future Masonville Dredge Containment facility. Again the Coast Guard agreed to pay for the clean-up through the National Pollution Fund Center. Resolve Marine was contracted for the salvage operation and Miller Environmental for the oil clean up portion.
After much patching and welding, the Sea Witch was refloated in September 2008. Once the ship was refloated, oil, oily water, and oily sludge removal began. The total oil recovery was 120,000 gallons. Over 75 tons of oily sludge was also recovered. Once the clean up was 90 percent complete, the vessel was towed to Sparrows Point graving dock, where it is now out of the water and final clean up is underway. Once clean, the vessel will be cut up and recycled. The total cost of the second clean-up and removal is in excess of $16 million, the largest monetary outlay by the National Pollution Fund Center for the entire year.
This project is a remarkable example of a successful Federal and State cooperation to contain a large oil spill and prevent further pollution to Maryland’s waterways and wildlife.