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EPA pulls tugboat from depths of Oakland Estuary

on November 6, 2013

There’s something in the water in Oakland.

But thanks to several local, state and federal agencies, it’s being cleaned up. On Monday, a 105-foot tugboat, nicknamed “Captain Al,” emerged from the depths of the Oakland Estuary where it had been resting – and rusting – for over a decade.

The operation, which incorporated divers, barge-mounted sea cranes and around 50 workers was just one part of the Oakland Estuary Cleanup, which aims to remove four large sunken ships, along with “35 illegally moored vessels, dilapidated docks, piers, pilings and other like marine debris,” according to a situation report by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The scope of the problem was brought to light when the Oakland Police Department requested the help of Cal Recycle, a state agency responsible for investigating illegal dump sites in California. Cal Recycle, after realizing the scope of the project, wrote a letter to the EPA., the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and others asking for assistance in the project.

“As federal partners, we said, ‘Sure. We’d like to help you out with this.’ We see the value in getting these obstacles, sources of pollutants, out of the estuary, out of the waterway,” said Will Duncan, EPA’s On Scene Coordinator.

For the Captain Al, a technique known as “parbuckling” was used, the same technique used in the righting of the M.S. Costa Concordia off the Italian coast in September. This technique involves using divers to run cables beneath a shipwreck, and then using cranes to right the ship. The next step was to pump debris and mud out of the ship, in an attempt to make it more buoyant.

The Coast Guard, EPA and marine salvage crews held their breath as the boat rose from the water. The job was hardly finished, though. The next step was to pump the remaining debris out of the ship, and then float it to shore where it could be tested for asbestos and other contaminants, said Todd Thalhamer, project engineer at Cal Recycle.  By late Monday evening, it appeared the ship was able to float on its own.

The Oakland Estuary has been a known spot for illegal dumping and mooring, said Thalhamer. He attributed this to a lack of patrol capability by Alameda County and the City of Oakland. The estuary has had little regulation or punishment for dumping.

Fuel, oil, lead-based paint and asbestos are some of the many potential contaminants in the sunken tug. At the time of the ship’s recovery, no oil appeared to be leaking from its engine, according to Rusty Harris-Bishop, remedial project manager in the superfund division of the EPA. Harris-Bishop explained that even a few ounces of oil would create a colorful sheen on the surface of the water.

If no contaminants are found in the ship, it will be disassembled and recycled for scrap metal. Cal Recycle will try to identify any previous owners, who would face steep fines. Often times the boats are stripped of any identification before intentionally abandoned or sunk, according to Thalhamer.

“People are swimming, they’re recreating, they are being unduly exposed to something that they shouldn’t have to be if they’re out here to have a good time and enjoy the environment,” said the EPA’s Duncan.

The Oakland Estuary Cleanup is set to continue in early December, when agencies will reconvene to remove the largest of the sunken vessels, the 150-foot “Respect.”


  1. SteveD on November 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    I see by several media reports that “Captain Al” has been raised, but has “Respect ” been brought up yet?, any pix posted?

    • Jason Paladino on November 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm

      “The Oakland Estuary Cleanup is set to continue in early December, when agencies will reconvene to remove the largest of the sunken vessels, the 150-foot “Respect.””

  2. harvey on November 10, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Let’s create an Oakland Maritime Museum with the salvage. The Jack London Maritime Museum.

  3. Jess Scott on December 18, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    What a project!It has been awesome to watch this clean up.We need to keep the dream alive and keep our bay clean.We are truly lucky to live in such a great place.Also nice to see men at work..Thank you…

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