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Jul. 9—NORTHPORT — Eight ducklings died after what Northport Marina Harbormaster Bill Rosemurgy called a pileup of complicating factors surrounding a diesel spill over the Independence Day weekend.
A blown gasket in actor Tim Allen's diesel-powered yacht caused the boat to dump fuel in and around the Northport Marina on July 3 at around 5 p.m. Rosemurgy said he arrived the next day to see the sheen starting to blow out of the marina so he placed a boom across the entrance.
Dockhands who were there on July 3 are trained in how to handle small spills, Rosemurgy said — they have experience in using oil sorbent pads to blot up fuel slops here and there.
But they had neither the training nor experience for a spill estimated to be several gallons, Rosemurgy said — he previously figured around 30 while Allen said it was around 11. That training and response plan is something the marina staff will review, according to the harbormaster.
"I know this was a stinky spill and it created some havoc on the busiest weekend of the year, but in the scheme of spills this was not a big spill," Rosemurgy said.
Leelanau Township Fire Department responded on July 3 and St. Ignace-based Mackinac Environmental Group arrived the day after, with the U.S. Coast Guard providing oversight for the marina cleanup, as previously reported.
Following the response, Rosemurgy reported eight ducklings died, according to a Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) spokesperson.
Helena Marano attempted to rescue a duckling by washing it clean at home with dish soap, she said. She and her family spotted it in the water on July 4 coated in diesel. The baby bird seemed to respond well to her care but later died in her hands.
She also spotted dead fish in the marina that day — Rosemurgy said it's not unusual to see some dead fish there, and while he noticed a few on July 4 he couldn't say if diesel killed them.
It was a deeply upsetting experience for Marano, particularly as many people in the marina partied on while wildlife suffered, she said.
Rosemurgy agreed it's apparent diesel killed the ducklings, although he said it's difficult to keep wildlife out of marinas.
"But we are reviewing our response plans and our response procedures, and we will learn from this," he said. "And I hope that others reading, others will learn from this and review their procedures."
Jeff Johnson, Public Information Officer for EGLE, said marina staff told them about the spill 20 minutes after diesel from Allen's yacht first started spewing into the harbor. Responders completed the cleanup on the morning of July 5.
That's when Rosemurgy reopened the nearby beach in Bay Front Park, which he closed in the morning July 4 after seeing diesel the boat apparently dumped outside the marina. Northport Youth Sailing School had a class set to use the beach that day, and when he checked for more diesel he saw none.
The harbormaster removed the boom at 7 p.m. the night before, as previously reported.
That was after Mackinac Environmental Group cleaned up the beach as well as remaining fuel in the marina, Rosemurgy said.
While a sign warning people in the park to stay out of the water listed the Benzie Leelanau Health Department as a contact, department Environmental Health Director Eric Johnston said the department wasn't involved or notified of the spill as of Thursday.
The health department monitors public swimming beaches and routinely tests the water at Bay Front Park for E. coli bacteria but fuel spills aren't typically something it handles, Johnston said.
"Usually in these events, because we do not have the expertise in fuel spill cleanups or anything of that nature, we would be there to assist those agencies in whatever they needed and required," he said.
Rosemurgy said he didn't contact the health department, adding there were "too many balls in the air." Several factors added to the havoc, Rosemurgy said. He wasn't at the marina at the time, and the release happened amid a busy three-day holiday weekend.
Allen previously told the Record-Eagle he figured the fuel filter gasket gave out near Omena, sending fuel into the engine compartment. That eventually caused the bilge pump to dump diesel.
In a statement, Johnson wrote, "because the spill was a result of mechanical failure rather than negligence, and because Allen as the responsible party has paid for cleanup, EGLE anticipates no fines or penalties at this point."
The U.S. Coast Guard provided oversight, but did not physically respond to the spill, according to officials in Sault Ste. Marie. The officials defined oversight as broadcasting the marina's closure over their radio, calling in pollution responders to offer help as needed and making notifications about the spill.
Rosemurgy credited that behind-the-scenes work as key to coordinating the early response, he said. The first cleanup company they contacted wasn't available, adding another complicating factor to the response.
Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich said his office did not actively help with the clean-up, but instead directed boaters away from the marina while it was closed. Firefighters meanwhile used 1,000 oil sorbent pads to soak up the diesel on July 3, wringing them out and reusing them as they did.
According to Johnson, diesel does not usually remain in the environment for more than a couple days if it is exposed to direct sunlight and air. Compared to other oils, diesel evaporates faster since it is relatively light. That same property impacts wildlife that spend the majority of their lives on the water's surface, like the ducklings.
Since diesel spilled instead of gasoline, EGLE does not anticipate any long-term environmental impacts to the area's wildlife, Johnson said.
He added EGLE expects to follow-up with Northport Marina on spill readiness and response.