Thursday, April 15, 1999

Harm to reef
from fuel spill

A scientist at the site says
there is a high probability
of long-term damage

By Anthony Sommer


KAPAA, Kauai -- Two marine biologists today planned to begin surveying underwater environmental damage from 16,000 gallons of diesel fuel that spilled from the fishing boat Van Loi after it ran aground on Kapaa Reef early Saturday.

One of them said yesterday that, based on studies of diesel fuel pollution of other coral reefs, he would not be surprised to find extensive damage to invertebrate marine animals and coral. Reef fishes, he noted, tend to flee spilled petroleum and avoid harm.

After five days of battering by the surf, little of the 95-foot boat remains above water.

Recovery crews spent another day yesterday picking up diesel-soaked plywood, planks and Styrofoam insulation that continue to float ashore along a four-mile stretch of beach. It appeared they would be cleaning and recleaning the same beaches for several more days.

Yesterday, a state Health Department crew using high-tech portable testing equipment and a very low-tech tin can nailed to a board -- for collecting samples -- measured hydrocarbon levels in the water along the beaches from the wreck site five miles south to Lydgate Park.

Don Heacock, state Department of Land and Natural Resources resident marine biologist on Kauai, said he held off exploring the reef until today when he could be joined by John Naughton of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.

Heacock and Naughton worked together surveying marine life damage last year when crude oil from a spill off Barbers Point on Oahu was blown to Kauai.

Crude oil tends to stay on the surface and form tar balls that are more of a threat to sea birds and marine mammals. But it affects reef animals in shallow waters as well. Studies have shown that exposure to crude oil causes neurological damage to crustaceans such as lobsters and changes the feeding behavior of coral and massive tissue damage, leading to death.

"If crude oil is toxic, diesel -- which is just refined crude oil -- is very toxic," Heacock said. "Research on another diesel spill on a very similar fringing reef on the windward side of an island showed acute toxic effects on a wide range of invertebrates to a depth of 15 feet."

"The Coast Guard is right in what it has been saying: That diesel fuel is volatile and tends to dissipate and evaporate quickly --but not when there are heavy waves like we had. The wave action mixes the diesel fuel thoroughly in the water, like shaking up oil and vinegar for your salad."

Heacock also said diesel fuel is made up of several compounds, some of which evaporate and some of which quickly go into solution in the water.

"The toxins literally rain down on the invertebrates," he said.

The animals most affected are echinoderms such as urchins and sea cucumbers that absorb toxins through their skins.

There also exists a high probability of long-term damage that won't be seen for some time, he said.

"The toxins can be absorbed by the limu (seaweed), and organisms like surgeon fishes feed on the limu, and larger organisms (including humans) feed on the surgeon fishes. The toxins can accumulate in the fatty tissues of the animals at the top of the food chain and cause illness," he said.

"Just because we don't find thousands of dead organisms around the wreck doesn't mean there wasn't major long-term impact."

And now #4

In the past 10 years, there have been three other major petroleum spills in Hawaii, according to U.S. Coast Guard records:

Bullet March 2, 1989: The Exxon Houston, an oil tanker, dumped 25,000 gallons of crude oil and 8,400 gallons of fuel oil while unloading off Barbers Point.

Bullet May 14, 1996: More than 25,000 gallons of fuel oil destined for the Waiau power plant spilled into Pearl Harbor from a corroded Chevron Industries pipeline.

Bullet Aug. 24, 1998: An estimated 4,900 gallons of oil were accidentally pumped into the sea from a ship at a Tesoro Hawaii Corp. mooring off Barbers Point.

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