By Chantilly Higbee
In early July, our team was getting ready to patrol Lake Pend Oreille from our pontoon boat. As I started the motor, I knew right away something was wrong. Thick, blue smoke was billowing from the stern. After turning off the engine, I looked overboard to investigate. A distinct rainbow-patterned, oily sheen was quickly forming on the water around our boat prop. We had a problem.
Our team hurriedly sought to fix the issue. Stop the leak, locate a spill kit and alert the marina.
Luckily, Sandpoint Marina had a spill response kit located at its fueling dock and staff members there generously shared their materials with us. We attempted to contain the leak, but soon realized this was a mess for which we definitely needed more help. So I called the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office, which promptly dispatched a small crew from the Selkirk Fire Department.
The first responders deployed larger absorbent materials and secured them to the docks. They made sure the area was safe — that there wasn’t a risk of fire or any other safety hazard. Wrapping up, they promised to come back later and check on the status of the plume.
It wasn’t until we all stopped to catch our breath that we realized the irony of the situation; we had set out to patrol the lake for pollution only to find it right in our own slip. Nonetheless, it provided a valuable lesson and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share what we learned.
Apparently, these kinds of calls are rare. Perhaps recreationists are really great at maintaining their boats to prevent leaks and spills from happening; alternatively, recreational boaters might not know who or whether to call for help when accidents do happen, adding to the infrequency of these types of calls.
A couple of weeks after the incident, I followed up with Assistant Fire Chief Dale Hopkins to learn more about small vessel petroleum leaks and spills.
First, I wanted to know whether Selkirk Fire was the best option to call for this type of incident. The answer? Yes, absolutely. As our community’s first responders, Selkirk Fire can best assess the situation and notify anyone who may need to be aware of the incident; whether that’s a local marina or other business, or an agency such as Idaho Fish and Game. How fire departments respond depends on the size and type of spill (gasoline or motor oil, for example), as well as the conditions when the crew arrives on the scene (for instance, whether they’re confronting a continuous leak or one-time spill).
But in such a big lake why does any of this really matter? You would think that small amounts of fuel or oil entering the water don’t really amount to much damage right? Actually, small spills and leaks do add up to degrade water quality — particularly in nearshore areas that aren’t as well flushed as open water. In these areas, oil and gas products tend to stay around longer and can impact environmental health. Here are a few examples: more refined petroleum products such as gasoline are more readily absorbed by the soft, sensitive tissues of young fish who aren’t as able as adults to avoid the area; oily sheens at the water’s surface can prevent the exchange of oxygen, leading to other water quality issues; those same sheens can also cover the feathers of waterfowl, preventing thermoregulation and promoting disease; hydrocarbons and metals in petroleum products can accumulate in the food chain.
A few other points of interest to anyone who recreates on motorized watercraft — all spills are reportable to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality; so if you see something, you’ll want to call it in. Never use soaps or detergents to “clean up” the spill. Doing so actually makes matters worse by trapping and dispersing the fluid through the water column, making it easier to contaminate sediments and harder to evaporate off or absorb through pads. It’s also illegal. It is against fire code to refuel a boat from a gas can while moored in a marina. If you need to refuel, you need to go to the fuel dock.
A few other best practices: when fueling up, use a collar and/or baffle to prevent spillage; recreational boaters have a responsibility to make sure their motors are maintained and that all repairs that could result in spills are performed out of the water; finally, even when you keep your motor in tip-top condition, accidents do happen — as in our case, sometimes old parts fail. Most marinas have spill response kits, but boaters can also carry their own kits for small spills.
We can all learn from sharing our experiences, and use lessons learned to better protect our waterways in the future.
Chantilly Higbee is the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper.
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