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 pouring out from behind me. After turning off the engine, I looked over the stern to investigate. A distinct rainbow-patterned, oily sheen was quickly forming on the water around our boat’s 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 their fueling dock and they 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, who promptly dispatched a small crew from the Selkirk Fire Department.
When they arrived, they 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. Then wrapped up and promised to come back to check on the status of the plume later.
It wasn’t until we all stopped to catch our breath 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! But despite the situation’s oxymoron, there is an opportunity for a lesson learned. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to share what we learned with you here.
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 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 indeed, 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 (i.e. gasoline or motor oil), as well as the conditions when the crew arrives on scene (e.g., continuous leak vs. 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? Well 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: (1) 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. (2) Oily sheens at the water’s surface can prevent the exchange of oxygen, leading to other water quality issues. (3) Those same sheens can also cover the feathers of waterfowl, preventing thermoregulation and promoting disease. (4) Hydrocarbons and metals in petroleum products can accumulate in the food chain.
A few other points of interest to anyone who recreates on a motor craft – all spills are reportable to 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 this 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.
I’d also like to share a few helpful best management practices (BMPs):
- 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.
- 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.