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Barge overtaken by king tide leaks fluids into Petaluma River

A marine construction barge that apparently became stuck in the mud at low tide in the Petaluma River on Saturday was inundated by the rising tide overnight, becoming partially submerged and leaking fluids into the tidal slough, authorities said Sunday.

The Petaluma Fire Department reported that most or all of the diesel fuel used to operate the barge had been removed before the vessel began to sink. The base of the crane affixed to the barge was underwater, with the crane arm jutting skyward from the sunken end.

A variety of other fluids, including lubricants and petroleum-based substances, were on board when a king tide inundated part of the vessel, swinging part of it away from its moorings and submerging it in the channel so it blocked three-quarters of the navigable part of the waterway, fire officials said.

“Whatever happened — I’m not 100% sure what, exactly — it got sideways and sunk,” Petaluma Fire Battalion Chief Chad Costa said.

The barge’s owner, Les Shorter, declined to comment Sunday, saying he was too busy talking with state Fish and Wildlife personnel to grant an interview.

The vessel had been moored for an extended period at Heritage Salvage, a short distance north of the Highway 101 bridge that crosses the river south of town.

Michael Jotham, who owns the land onshore, was able to see the entirety of the barge in the mud during low tide Sunday morning, around 6:45 a.m., before it became submerged again.

King tides on the North Coast this weekend caused especially impressive high tides as well as unusually low, low tides. The Petaluma River is exposed to those tides because it is a slough that connects to San Pablo Bay.

Ted Tiffany of Santa Rosa, who went paddleboarding in the area on Sunday morning, said others who were paddling and rowing on the river saw the wreckage and were concerned about an oily sheen that was pushing north toward the turning basin in downtown Petaluma.

“The crane is completely submerged on the barge, and it’s pretty much blocking the waterway now,” Tiffany said. “There’s oil all the way up to the turning basin — lots of flotsam off the barge. Just took whatever was floatable.”

Jotham and Costa said they thought the spill was minimal.

“The vessel was empty,” Jotham said. “The only thing they had was a little hydraulic fuel, and that was being captured by the fire department with the booms that they put in there.”

Moving the barge out of the navigation channel was expected to be a long-term challenge, however, and a problem for large boats just starting to use the river again after its recent, long-awaited dredging.

Costa said he observed several vessels squeezing by at high tide at midday Sunday but suspected they would not have made it at low tide.

The booms were anchored and would be in place for however long was required to right to the barge, in the event there was additional leakage, Costa said. The big issue,“ he added, ”is going to be the navigation.”

Fire officials had notified multiple environmental and emergency response agencies, including the state Office of Emergency Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, state Fish and Wildlife, the Petaluma Harbor Master and Petaluma Police Department.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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