By Carroll E. Cox and Joseph N.A.Ryan Jr.,
January 31, 2001, started out like any other average, beautiful day in Hawaii. I was in my usual mode of poking around the waterfront and chatting with longliners. I pulled up alongside a boat in the vicinity of pier 35 and saw workers aboard the vessel Clean Islands busily washing down their boat and equipment. A milky white substance was flowing off the stern of the boat and it immediately caught my eye. It was spreading across the water in a plume that was at some points fifty feet wide and at least one to two hundred feet long. I wasn't paying much attention to what was going on when it suddenly hit me. "Wait a minute! That's the "CLEAN ISLANDS" Hawaii, the vessel that was used to clean up the recent Tesoro oil spill! If they are washing down their boat and equipment maybe some of the residue from the oil spill and the chemicals used to contain the spill are being washed into the water.
I walk over to take a closer look and get some pictures. Apparently my picture taking was a bit much for one of the workers to swallow. He asked if I thought the Clean Islands would be doing anything illegal. He claimed a biodegradable cleaner was being used to clean the vessel and identified the product as "Zep citrus all-purpose cleaner". Knowing what I know about the United States Coast Guard's aggressive, ZERO tolerance of illegal dumping or placement of chemicals and other harmful substances into the water, I really started wondering what was going on.
Also, knowing that the average fisherman or boater lives in fear of being severely fined or incarcerated by the Coast Guard even if they have an accidental spill, such as a bilge pump failure, I gave the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Division a call. I reported what I witnessed and was told that they would respond to the scene to issue "papers".
WAITING TO EXHALE
I waited a while but the Coast Guard did not show up. I phoned again and was promptly informed the Coast Guard was on its way. They also told me to keep the pictures I was taking because they would be needed for the case.
In the meantime I thought about Zep Citrus All-Purpose Cleaner. Although the name "Citrus" makes it sound like a natural cleaner, this is misleading. In fact, it is identified as a hazardous waste by the manufacturer's Material Safety Data Sheet. The product can be purchased anywhere, and is probably a good cleaner when used in small amounts such as in the kitchen. But, is it an appropriate use when such a large amount of the product and what it is picking up off the boat is being washed into the harbor? I wonder if there are products and procedures that can be recommended for all boaters who clean there boats when they return to harbor?
I continued waiting but the Coast Guard still did not show up. Finally, the State Harbor Police came by and boarded the vessel. One of the officers started an investigation but was immediately telephoned by the Honolulu Harbor Master, Mr. Bill Davis. Davis ordered the officer to "take no official action and issue a verbal warning".
FRIENDSThe day after the incident I spoke with Lt. Chris Curaltilo of the United States Coast Guard. I informed him that the Marine Safety Office failed to respond to my complaint and just passed it on to the Harbor Master, Bill Davis, which is not consistent with normal practice. I told him the Harbor Master ordered the harbor patrol officer to "take no official action and issue a verbal warning". This was confirmed by Mr. Davis who told me he had never been involved in a call like this before.
I then raised a concern to Curalito that I believed the case was being covered up because the Coast Guard and the CLEAN ISLANDS are part of the Oil Spill Emergency Response Plan and they would not dare prosecute one of their own. The Lieutenant denied this and informed me that the Coast Guard was not working with or had any close affiliation with the CLEAN ISLANDS. He also claimed he was offended by my even suggesting such a thing! The fact of the matter is, the United States Coast Guard and the CLEAN ISLANDS have a very close relationship. On the Clean Islands Council Web page, www.cleanislands .com, the United States Coast Guard is listed in the category "Our Friends". The Council includes Chevron, Tesoro, Tosco, EQUILON, Hawaiian Electric Company and Smith Maritime.
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
In a letter in response to my call Lt. Curatilo claimed to have been offended by my statements. However, the Marine Safety Office did not follow known USCG protocol; both by failing to respond to the scene of the offense (as the reporting party was twice informed me they would), and by not notifying the State Department of Health Clean Water Branch. Because they only contacted the Honolulu Harbor Master, an oil spill responder/contractor was given effective immunity to discharge a hazardous waste and petroleum emulsion into waters of the United States.
The following day I telephoned Harbor Master Davis and he confirmed that he did tell the officer to "take no official action and issue a verbal warning". Davis told me he was paged by Chief Petty Officer Palmer of the United States Coast Guard and was informed of the report I made. Davis said he told the Coast Guard not to respond and that he would "take care" of the incident. When asked why he gave the order to the officer, Davis explained he gave the officer the order because he was told the pollutant was only a "citric cleaner". Davis then stated "it was not normal" for him to be notified by the Coast Guard. To make matters worse he explained that he had no training or experience with Clean Water Act violations.
During my conversation with Davis I asked why would the Clean Islands Council be allowed to return to the harbor from a clean up site and wash down it's boats and equipment after being contaminated with a variety of pollutants and agents used to recover spilled materials. He answered, "We never gave it any consideration and there are no plans to change the current practice". I suggested that the State Department of Transportation Harbors Division consider placing the Clean Islands Council vessels in an area designated for such vessels and develop procedures to prevent any incidents such as the one with Zep.
SQUEAKY WHEELS GET GREASE
After I spoke with Davis and pointed out that something was fishy about the manner in which the incident was being handled, especially when nothing was placed in writing, Mr. Patrick Torres, another Harbor Master, wrote a letter to Mr. Kim Beasley, Clean Islands Council, warning him that the discharge of pollutants "would not be tolerated". Keep in mind, however, the letter was not a notice of violation, nor was it an advisement that introducing pollutants into the water is a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act. They didn't even bother to send it certified, a practice normally done to document that the violator received the letter of advisement. I guess they thought the letter would quiet us down.
The Coast Guard's Inspector General's office has yet to respond to a complaint about the procedure filed by Mr. Joseph Ryan, Vice President of EnviroWatch, Inc. I telephoned the Washington National Emergency Number and informed them about the conduct of the local Marine Safety Office and asked to have the commander contact me. I have not received a return call.
The United States Coast Guard is a federal agency empowered with enforcement capabilities regarding felony violations of the Clean Water Act. The response by USCG was inappropriate and insufficient. Further, the actions of the USCG in not contacting the Hawaii Department of Health, the authorized administrator and agency responsible for the Clean Water Act, and instead contacting the State Harbor Master, while at the same time failing to respond to the scene, gives rise to the appearance of impropriety and special treatment. This incident reflects poorly on the reputation of the Coast Guard as an environmental protection and enforcement agency.
After seeing how the Coast Guard handled the incident with the vessel Clean Islands, I can't help but think about the many comments and complaints from fishermen and boaters here in Hawaii that claim the United States Coast Guard is harassing them by boarding their boats at sea two to three times a month. Maybe there is some truth to the boaters stories after all, seeing how the Coast Guard put it's relationship with the Clean Island Council first before the environment and public safety. If we can't trust the Coast Guard to do it's job free of politics and favor, who do we trust. I'm hoping I only met the proverbial "few bad apples".
Let's take this as a wake up call for all of us to look at how we clean our own boats and equipment, and the products we use in and around the water. Every little bit hurts!
Carroll and Joe can be reached at www.enviroatch.org, or 625-2175.