Responding to environmental threats

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Post written by Lt. j.g. Stephanie Young and Petty Officer 3rd Class Pamela J. Manns

Beached fishing vessel
When a 65-foot commercial fishing vessel grounded at Francis State Beach, pollution investigators joined local and state officials to prevent any environmental hazards. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Pamela J. Manns.

The reunion of a rescued mariner and their family is an image that often comes to mind when you think of the end of a search and rescue mission. But, as the family embraces and the rescue is complete, only half of the Coast Guard mission is accomplished. While saving lives is the primary goal of search and rescue, what often remains is a sinking vessel or aircraft that can pose a threat to the environment.

Earlier this month, responders from Sector San Francisco were faced with just such a case. After it was determined that three fishermen aboard a grounded vessel were safe, what remained was a vessel with a 2,000-gallon capacity fuel tank beached ominously in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Home to sea otters, elephant seals and rare birds such as the Western Snowy Plover, this had all the makings of an environmental disaster.

That is when Coast Guard pollution investigators converged on scene to prevent oil and other hazardous materials from impacting the marine environment. As assistant chief of the Incident Management Division at Sector San Francisco, Lt. Renee McKinnon was one of the first to be alerted of the pollution hazard resting on the beach. She went directly into response mode.

Salvaged vessel
Once the pollution threat was minimized, priorities turned toward salvage. A front loader, typical of a construction site, was brought to the beach to move the sand that had bedded down around the grounded vessel. Unable to tow the vessel out to sea because of the depth, it was cut into pieces and successfully hauled off the beach. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Lt. Renee McKinnon.

“I wanted to know how much fuel was on board, has any pollution been detected yet, and have our partners been notified,” said McKinnon.

Partnerships are indispensable when responding to potential environmental threats. McKinnon and her IMD team were joined by the California Department of Fish and Game, California State Parks, the Monterey Bay National Marine Fisheries and a dive contractor. Together, they worked with the boat owner, who was ultimately responsible for the pollution clean up, to ensure what started as a typical search and rescue case didn’t escalate into damage to the environment.

The 65-foot crabber was on its side, and the fuel hatch was inaccessible as it faced the crashing waves of the incoming surf. The pollution responders would have to wait until the tide subsided before they could remove the pollution threat. When the tide ebbed and dusk neared, more than 2,000 gallons of marine diesel and hydraulic oil were removed, as were four batteries, preventing any threat of pollution to this pristine area. A crisis was averted.

As a search and rescue mission ends, a pollution responder’s work is often just beginning. Pollution investigators are faced with transitioning from the safety of life to the safety of the environment, where the stakes remain high. The training and ability of responders to make this transition is a testament to their ability to respond to all threats and all hazards.

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