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Oil Burns on Grounded Oregon Ship

February 12, 1999

COOS BAY, Ore. (AP) _ Fire set to a grounded cargo ship quickly consumed more than half the fuel oil on board and did not result in a significant spill, smiling officials said today as they pronounced the risky operation a success so far.

``Every gallon that is burned means one less gallon in the environment and the coastal habitat,″ said a smiling Coast Guard Capt. Mike Hall.

Explosives experts raced to set fire to the 639-foot New Carissa on Thursday night before punishing waves could break the ship apart and possibly wash hundreds of thousands of gallons of gooey oil onto Oregon’s coast.

Hours after the blaze erupted in a tremendous fireball, the ship broke into two huge, still burning, pieces. Flames were shooting from the stern section, and about 150 feet away the the center of the bow section was glowing orange from fire and acrid black smoke was billowing skyward.

``It seems terribly alarming but it’s completely expected. It’s going as we expected it to go,″ Sarah Bott of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said this morning.

An examination of infrared images of the burning ship revealed that about two-thirds of the nearly 400,000 gallons of diesel and tarlike bunker oil on board has already burned away, and that no more than 10 percent of the load has spilled onto the beaches.

Authorities estimated that by tonight, nearly 90 percent of the fuel will have burned and much of the rest will have been reduced to a waxy residue. After the fire, the rest of the oil will be removed, and the wreckage will be cut up and hauled away.

``The fact that the vessel split apart just confirms that we did the right thing before bad weather moved in,″ said Chief Petty Officer Gene Maestas. ``By burning the oil we prevented it from spilling into the ocean.″

Oregon environmental officials said that even the air pollution from the burning wreckage has been minimal. Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Mike Szerlog said pollution in the town of Coos Bay is ``less than a good day in L.A.″

The daring burning of a grounded ship’s oil to save beaches had never been tried in the Lower 48 states, and officials said that the success of the New Carissa operation will make it more common in the future.

``We feel like it is something that will be scrutinized and accepted throughout the world,″ said Jerry Craft of Williams Fire and Hazard Control, Baton Rouge, La., a leader in extinguishing oil platform fires.

The Japanese-owned freighter was waiting to pick up a load of wood chips in Coos Bay when it ran aground Feb. 4 about 150 yards offshore with nearly 400,000 gallons of fuel oil aboard. It began leaking early Monday as the pounding of the waves widened the cracks in its hull.

With stormy weather approachaing, federal and state authorities decided to burn the vessel and its fuel rather than risk trying to bring the New Carissa out intact.

In a tremendous fireball Thursday night, the ship was set ablaze by a series of blasts sparked by nearly 400 pounds of explosives and 600 gallons of highly flammable napalm gel.

Tongues of flame hundreds of feet into the night sky and belching forth an acrid black plume of smoke that billowed from open cargo holds and drifted up the coast.

Even before the fire was set, some fuel had leaked and come ashore, dotting several miles of beach with oil.

More than 300 workers were mobilized to scrape up oil and watch for fouled wildlife. Five dead birds have been found and some threatened Western snowy plovers were seen with spots of oil.

An oil sheen was detected entering the mouth of Coos Bay, a biologically rich estuary that is home to Oregon’s largest oyster farms. Harvesting of clams and mussels has been banned.

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