Six months have passed since a barge carrying large boulders sank in the Hylebos waterway. Though the barge, named “Compliance,” was removed a month after the spill, 200 tons of boulders and a large tire remain.
Puget Sound Pilots has declared the boulders a hazard to navigation and ordered all ships traversing the waterway, which borders Northeast Tacoma, to carry lighter loads. Now members of the shipping community have asked the feds to take immediate action to address the obstruction.
“These limitations and conditions result in significant immediate and continuing financial damages to other users of the waterway,” a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says.
While barges are unaffected by the hazard, ocean-going ships now have to sail at high tide to avoid the boulders, said Lou Paulsen, Port of Tacoma director of strategic operation projects.
“There’s a direct financial loss for those affected,” Paulsen said.
TPT US Ltd, which ships logs primarily to China, has reduced its loads by 5 percent to 10 percent depending on the tide and salinity of the water.
“If we have a good, high tide, that helps,” said TPT president Jerry Ashby.
With the navigation restrictions, any logs withheld from a shipment are put on a later vessel, he said.
Few details are available about what led to the barge sinking Nov. 4. Kingston-based Sealevel Bulkhead Builders had hauled the rock to a dock owned by Walrath Marine on Marine View Drive when the barge sank with its load.
Tom Walrath, owner of the dock, said Sealevel is a customer of his and the rock was destined for a job site. Messages left with the U.S. Coast Guard and Sealevel were not returned.
The Pilots say the boulders, each around 5,000 to 6,000 pounds each, have reduced depth in the area by three feet at the Buffelen Turn, so named after a century-old woodworking business nearby. The Pilots guide ships through Puget Sounds at times treacherous waters.
Captain David Grobschmit said ships need to leave enough room beneath the keel to avoid scraping the bottom.
“We are there for the safety of the cargo and the ship and Hylebos waterway,” Grobschmit said. “We use the under-keel clearance criteria as the safety margin for us.”
Complicating the removal is where the boulders now rest. The Hylebos waterway is part of a wide-ranging Superfund site, which includes Commencement Bay near the Port of Tacoma. Removing boulders in the wrong way can stir up the muck and spread contamination at the bottom of the waterway.
The Army Corps has asked Sealevel Bulkhead Builders to submit a plan to remove the boulders. The Environmental Protection Agency will review the plan to ensure it won’t negatively affect the Superfund site.
“The Hylebos, over the years, has been substantially contaminated,” said EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre. “Some contaminates have been capped in place.”
The Corps has asked the company for more information.