Marin County Grounding Response Winds Down Without Wreck Removal

cal spill watch
American Challenger aground (Cal Spill Watch)

Published Mar 14, 2021 8:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

The pollution prevention response effort for the grounded fishing vessel American Challenger is now over, but the fate of the wreck herself is uncertain. According to the local Press Democrat, the source of financing for a wreck removal project is unclear, and the boat might end up abandoned where she sits on the shore of Bodega Bay, California. 

On March 5, Coast Guard Sector San Francisco received a report that the decommissioned fishing vessel American Challenger was adrift after the tug that was towing her lost propulsion. The cutter Hawksbill diverted to the scene to monitor both vessels. In deteriorating sea conditions and visibility, an emergency tow proved to be impossible. At about 0100 hours the following morning, the crew of the Hawksbill reported that the Challenger had gone aground on a rocky shore south of Estero de San Antonio (about 40 nm to the northwest of San Francisco). 

Light sheening was observed near the vessel, and as a precautionary measure, first responders deployed thousands of feet of containment boom to protect environmentally sensitive areas to the south. Over the course of the following week, marine surveyors used a helicopter service to board the wreck several times to conduct tank soundings and damage assessments. 

On Sunday, the response command reported that the wreck had rolled onto its side, and further boardings have been discontinued for safety. No sheening near the vessel has been reported since Wednesday, and the command believes that the risk of oil pollution appears to be minimal. After a net environmental benefit analysis, NOAA and the California Department of Wildlife recommended removing the containment booms, and pollution control teams are scheduled to begin reeling them back in on Monday. 

The command tapped the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to pay for the initial response, and it has spent about $1.5 million so far. However, that funding does not cover wreck removal. Any salvage operation would be logistically challenging: the wreck sits on an isolated rock outcropping in a remote location, with no easy access from the water or from land. 

Tom Cullen, an administrator for California's Office of Spill Prevention and Response, told the Press Democrat that the boat and the tug that had been towing it did not have insurance coverage that would cover the cost. The source of funding for a wreck removal effort remains unclear, and the response operation will (at least for now) stand down.