Coast Guard Investigating Northern California Oil Tanker Leak

The Coast Guard Cutter Tern, an 87-foot coastal patrol boat homeported at Coast Guard Sector San Francisco, patrols the waters of San Francisco Bay during Fleet Week, Oct. 9, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jordan Akiyama)
The Coast Guard Cutter Tern, an 87-foot coastal patrol boat homeported at Coast Guard Sector San Francisco, patrols the waters of San Francisco Bay during Fleet Week, Oct. 9, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jordan Akiyama)

RODEO, Calif. -- Authorities scrambled Wednesday to contain and clean up an oil tanker spill on San Pablo Bay that apparently caused the noxious smell that sent more than 100 residents in nearby Vallejo to the hospital the night before.

The spill left two sheens on the bay, including one just over a mile long by 40 yards wide on the water in the northern San Pablo Bay area, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, the lead agency investigating the incident. A second sheen was later identified during a Coast Guard overflight near the Phillips 66 Rodeo refinery marine terminal.

Several vessels and skimmers began containment and cleanup operations Wednesday morning, placing 1,000 feet of boom on the water surrounding the refinery. While the spill immediately raised concerns about the potential environmental effects in the bay, there was no indication of a continuing threat to public health.

On Tuesday night, the Vallejo Fire Department received more than 800 calls from residents complaining of a strong smell of natural gas, gasoline and rotten eggs. An estimated 120 patients went to Solano County hospitals, with complaints of headaches, nausea and dizziness, according to the Solano County Health Department.

Crude oil can have a high sulfur compound, resulting in a strong skunk-like smell that can make people nauseous, said Randy Sawyer, the chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer for Contra Costa Health Services.

A shelter-in-place warning was issued Tuesday evening for Vallejo residents, and ferry service was temporarily suspended Wednesday morning.

Although the Coast Guard declined to say whether the two incidents were related, Sawyer said it was highly likely there was a connection.

"The evidence is pointing that the oil spill did come from the unloading of a crude oil ship at Phillips 66," he said Wednesday afternoon. The source of the spill may be a leak in the bow of the ship, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

On Tuesday night, the Coast Guard reported a sheen on the water, but initial reports from the five East Bay refineries indicated that there were no incidents or releases at the time of the odor complaints. A helicopter flyover by the Coast Guard on Tuesday night failed to discover anything in the water.

"Essentially, we were not able to connect the dots, and we didn't know where it was coming from," Sawyer said. "All the refineries said that it wasn't them."

Repeated calls to the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo were not returned Wednesday, although the company sent an emailed statement confirming it was working to contain a spill and saying the leak did not pose any danger to people.

Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the incident would likely have a significant impact on salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and other fish in the bay, along with endangered marsh birds like the black rail.

"The San Francisco Bay is one of world's most beautiful and important coastal ecosystems," Wolf said. "When an oil spill happens, most of the oil stays in the ecosystem and can be deadly. Many animals that are killed sink under the water, and we never see them."

The Coast Guard said it had not found any signs of wildlife that had been impacted so far.

According to, which tracks maritime traffic in real time, the damaged ship is the 274-meter-long Yamuna Spirit, a crude oil tanker that arrived at the refinery Monday. Built in 2002, the tanker has a gross tonnage of 81,270 tons, and its current draft, the distance from the waterline to the bottom of its hull, is 9.2 meters, according to the site.

The ship is owned by Teekay Shipping, an English company, and it sails under the Bahamian flag. The tanker left Saudi Arabia on Aug. 9, headed to California.

A call and email to the corporate headquarters were not immediately returned Wednesday.

West Contra Costa residents complained that little information was available in the aftermath of the spill, beyond a recorded response on the refinery public information line. No information was posted on the Contra Costa Emergency Warning System site, created to alert residents about incidents at local refineries.

"This lack of information is a structural, routine and disturbing problem," said Ann Puntch, a Rodeo resident. "The community watch system they have in place doesn't work. ... We don't know what's going on."

Heather Tiernan, who manages the county's emergency warning system, said the system issues warnings only for hazardous materials incidents inside the county. In this instance, the shelter-in-place order occurred in Solano County.

"Right now, Contra Costa HazMat (Hazardous Materials department) doesn't have any protective action that anyone needs to take," Tiernan said.

According to international news reports, the Yamuna Spirit was involved in a major spill in Nigeria in February. The tanker was loading crude at the Forcados terminal on Feb. 13 when 13,000 barrels of crude spilled into the waterways, affecting the shorelines and neighboring environment.

Shell, the owner of that facility, which still hasn't opened months later, determined the cause was sabotage, blaming a group called the Niger Delta Avengers for rupturing the pipeline leading to the wharf. There were no reports of damage to the tanker in that incident.

According to Teekay's internal sustainability reports, the company had not had a spill of over one barrel since 2014, when it had two spills. Before that, the company tallied four spills of that size in 2012, three in 2011, and one in both 2010 and 2008.

On the night of the spill, the Benicia City Council was hearing a proposal by Valero, which has a refinery in the city, to expand its operation by allowing up 70,000 barrels of crude oil to be delivered by rail. The project was unanimously rejected amid concerns to public safety.


The Vallejo-Times Herald contributed to this report.

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