BELLINGHAM - Construction of an oil-containment vessel destined for Alaska has been plagued by minor oil spills in the past few weeks, prompting the state to threaten fines against the builder.
Three spills, each releasing about one quart of oil into Whatcom Waterway, came from leaks in pressurized hydraulic systems on July 24, and Aug. 4 and 6. The state's notice of violation was sent to Superior Energy Services, which is building the oil-containment barge Arctic Challenger at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal, 629 Cornwall Ave.
"They're a quart at a time, but every time there's a spill there's more environmental damage," Ecology spokeswoman Katie Skipper said.
The three hydraulic spills were held within a preventive containment boom surrounding the construction project, Ecology officials said.
The state Department of Ecology is also investigating less than 20 gallons of diesel fuel that spilled from a small workboat into the waterway outside the containment boom.
Skipper said the spills could be happening because crews were working hastily to finish the barge so exploratory oil drilling can begin in the Alaskan Arctic. The barge would lower a large dome over an offshore oil leak, trapping the oil so it can be pumped onto the barge.
"We know they're going fast, but they have to be responsible for protecting the water and following our laws," Skipper said.
The irony of a company building a floating oil-containment system and spilling oil from that very project was not lost on Ecology.
"This is an oil containment project that's spilling, and the thing is going up to the Arctic," Skipper said. "We're hoping that by working with us in our state that we're contributing to whatever efforts they employ when they're in the Arctic."
Ecology is requiring Superior to plug deck drains, set up barriers to catch spray from hydraulics, and lock equipment so it is only running when supervised.
Superior spokesman Greg Rosenstein said the company is taking the steps outlined by Ecology.
"Superior takes spills seriously, and it's a corporate priority to ensure that we complete the project safely, efficiently and without harm to the environment," Rosenstein said in a voice message.
The location of the fourth spill was updated Aug. 21, 2012.
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-715-2266.