New Carissa Oil Spill on the Oregon Coast

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March, 1999

Coos Bay, Oregon

On February 4, 1999, amid pounding waves and heavy winds, the most serious oil spill in Oregon's recent history began, slowly, to take shape. The Japanese-owned tanker ship New Carissa was bound for Coos Bay to pick up wood chips destined to be made into paper pulp. The New Carissa anchored just offshore, but in the stormy winter weather the ship began to drag its anchor toward the beach. Thus began an accident that would evolve slowly over more than a month, until parts of the ship, still loaded with oil, were finally sunk in the deep ocean offshore.

The saga of the New Carissa's oil spill involved a long series of mishaps. Miscalculations on the ships charts may have caused the crew to fail to notice that the 600-foot bulk freighter was dragging its two heavy anchors. By the time the crew took notice, it was too late to prevent the ship being grounded on the beach by the 20-25 knot winds and 20-foot waves. Salvage tugs were immediately sent to try to pull the ship back out to sea, but four days later, with the ship still aground, heavy fuel oil began to leak from two of the five fuel tanks. Together these tanks held over 400,000 gallons of fuel oil. As leaking continued, oil-soaked birds began to show up on oil-stained beaches. As much as 70,000 gallons may have spilled into the water and onto the beaches. About 400 birds died, along with unknown numbers of marine creatures.

To prevent further damage to the coast, the coast guard and clean-up crew decided to burn the fuel in the tanks. For almost a week they worked to ignite the heavy fuel, using explosives and finally napalm. The ship burned for a while, and then its stern section separated from the bow, but the fires would not stay lit. Further attempts to tow the bow out to sea were interspersed with efforts to pump the fuel from the tanks. Both efforts were foiled by continued stormy weather, with gale-force winds. Ultimately 100,000 gallons were pumped into tanks on shore, but much of that volume was rainwater that had flooded the fuel tanks.

After almost two weeks of efforts, salvage tugs floated the bow section of the New Carissa and headed out to sea to sink it in deep water. Just 40 miles out, the wreck broke loose, and once again drifted in to ground itself in the shallows near shore, where once again it began to leak fuel oil. On March 9 the bow was once again afloat and this time was headed to its final destination 248 miles west of Waldport, Oregon. There the bow section and its remaining load of oil were finally sunk on March 14 in about 10,000 feet of water. The stern section, still holding 1,000 gallons of oil, remained on the Oregon beach, awaiting dismantling and cleanup at the end of March.

Although the beaches will probably sustain substantial damage, the organization and efforts of clean up crews may be a positive note on this event. Volunteers gave enormous amounts of time and labor to the effort, partly because this part of the Oregon coast is a beautiful stretch of dunes, bays, and cliffs that is popular destination. The success of volunteer efforts in this cleanup demonstrate that the work of individuals can make a huge difference in the outcome of environmental disasters.

For further information, see these related web sites:

New Carissa information center and photo gallery

News on the New Carissa from the Portland Oregonian

Graphics showing events, from the Portland Oregonian

To read more, see

Environmental Science, A Global Concern, Cunningham and Saigo, 5th ed.
Map of oil spills worldwide: p. 450
Ocean pollution: pp. 449-50

Environmental Science, Enger and Smith, 6th ed.
Marine oil pollution: pp. 302-02
Energy consumption patterns: pp. 138-42

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