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Lessons from the 1994 Puerto Rico oil spill

The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

In this edition, from the March 1994 issue of American Shipper (Virtual Page 81), FreightWaves Flashback spotlights the cleanup efforts following the Morris J. Berman oil spill in Puerto Rico.

No doubt, the training that an oil spill response team has been undergoing since passage of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act paid off after the barge Morris J. Berman struck a coral reef off the beach of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 7, 1994.

But even before the cleanup of more than 600,000 gallons of spilled oils was complete, those involved in the operation began asking: How can we do better when the next spill happens?

That those participating in the cleanup encountered some glitches could be expected; this was the first time that the response team faced an actual spill.

“We did an awful lot right,” said Commander Robert Ross of the U.S. Coast Guard, who oversees operations in Puerto Rico.

In fewer than 48 hours after the barge hit the reef, he noted, the Coast Guard and National Response Corp., the company contracted for the operation, had marshaled 1,000 response team personnel and 10 plane loads of salvage and cleanup equipment.

“I’m very proud of the way our field supervision functioned and of the actual cleanup. Generally, I think we, as an industry, got good grades,” said Brent Stienecker, president of Crowley Marine Services, one of 22 firms that National Response subcontracted for the salvage and cleanup.

Crowley Marine, a unit of Crowley Maritime Corp., provided some 700 employees in the effort.

The upshot of the review process is likely to be a series of recommendations not only on spill response but also on spill prevention, the latter involving tightening of regulation and enforcement, Stienecker speculated.

The incident

The Morris J. Berman, which is owned by New York-based New England Marine Services and operated by Bunker Group of Puerto Rico, was carrying 35,000 barrels of bunker C No. 6 oil when it struck the reef on January 7 at 3:47 a.m., spewing oil that fouled a mile-long stretch of prime beach land fronting a number of posh resort hotels.

Eight days later, after some 700,000 gallons of saltwater-diluted oil had been pumped into a salvage barge, a Crowley tug towed the Morris J. Berman 20 miles north from the Puerto Rico Shelf and, under Coast Guard supervision, sank the barge in 7,000 feet of water.

Richard Simpson, vice president of corporate communications for Crowley Maritime, explained that the water at that depth is extremely cold, so it would theoretically cause the barge’s remaining oil to gel, preventing it from spreading further.

As of early February, however, quite a bit of oil continued to come from the barge, Simpson said. 

And, according to Steinecker, oil from some other source was appearing on beaches along Puerto Rico’s eastern shore.

On the other hand, Ross noted that some beaches, which four weeks earlier had black oil four inches thick, were once again being used for recreational purposes.

Cleanup was still proceeding at a turtle nesting area on the northeast part of the island, Simpson said, and this had to be done manually and no more than four inches down into the sand, for fear of harming the eggs.

Both Ross and Stienecker acknowledged that some glitches occurred, though these were chiefly on the administrative and communications side.

“In terms of spill response management, we still need some development for determining the roles of the various parties, how we will work together, the information flow, the decision-making process and the use of equipment, so that things won’t be overlooked and there won’t be duplication of effort,” Ross said.

Stienecker pointed to a need for closer documentation by each party of its operation — specifically what it does, how many employees are involved, and the amount and type of equipment used.

“It takes several days for us to smooth out these lines of communication,” he noted. “It’s not easy when you bring people from all over the country,”

Indeed, Crowley brought personnel to Puerto Rico from all its major operation sites: Los Angeles/Long Beach, the San Francisco Bay Area, Puget Sound, Anchorage and Jacksonville.

Ross said he had recommended initiating a formal pollution-incident review to get input from the Puerto Rico spill cleanup participants on how to make future emergency response operations go more smoothly. 

The review is likely to focus on spill prevention as well.

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!