Some called them orange globs. Others called them grease balls. At first no one knew exactly what they were.
But almost as soon as the sticky, orange balls that washed up on the southeastern shore of Maury Island were reported to the state, officials were on the ferry to investigate. And within two days, the grease balls — which were eventually linked to a lubricant spill in Tacoma — were cleaned off the popular stretch of beach between Point Robinson and the Maury Island Marine Park.
“It was a really phenomenal effort that they got it cleaned up so quickly,” said Amy Carey, a local environmentalist and director of Preserve Our Islands who first reported the incident to the state.
The globs, which ranged from an inch across to the size of a Nerf football, were spotted last week by an islander walking on the beach on Maury. The man posted an inquiry on the Facebook page for Orca Network, a regional whale advocacy group, and Orca Network contacted Carey, who then reported the globs to the state Department of Ecology (DOE) on Wednesday.
“I would bet they were on the island within two hours of me calling them,” Carey said.
DOE not only sent a crew to investigate the report but also set up a website advising people not to touch the orange balls and to contact the state if they discovered balls along other stretches of shoreline.
“It’s not a material we’ve had a tremendous amount of experience with,” said Larry Altose, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology. He said DOE most often is called to clean up oil spills — slicks on the beach or sheens in the water — not solid materials. The globs were clearly petroleum-based, Altose said, and the department knew they would be harmful to the environment if they were smeared into the sand, disintegrated or got back into the water.
The agency determined that the globs originated from a shipyard in Tacoma, where a shipbuilding company spilled a lubricant in the water in late January, Altose said.
The company, J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp., was launching a ship in the darkness on Jan. 25 when a lubricant used on the rails the ship was sliding on spilled into the water. Martinac performed a cleanup immediately, Altose said, but some of the lubricant apparently floated off in the darkness.
“The explanation we were given was because of the tides at the time, they did this at night, and they did not recover the lubricant that they normally would have recovered had there been better lighting,” he said.
About a week later, globs of the lubricant were reported at Brown’s Point in Tacoma. The state traced the substance back to Martinac, and the company funded a beach cleanup.
It’s unknown how long ago the squishy globs washed up onto Maury Island, Altose said. They were found strewn along the beach’s high tide line and were somewhat hidden among driftwood and other debris.
Carey, who went to the beach to check out the globs herself, noted that many of them had sand or rocks stuck to them and blended in with the driftwood. It’s possible the globs were on the beach for days or weeks before someone spotted them, she said.
“They could have been up on the beach and been taken back out and redeposited,” she said.
On Friday a crew of about 15 people patrolled a 2.5-mile stretch of Maury shoreline, from Point Robinson to the Maury Island Marine Park, picking up the orange globs and anything on the beach that had the lubricant on it. The cleanup, like the one at Brown’s Point, was funded entirely by Martinac, as required by law, and overseen by DOE as well as U.S. Coast Guard officials.
“We connected the dots, and Martinac was right on the spot and took care of the cleanup,” Altose said.
The workers did a thorough job, he said, but it’s possible that still more globs could wash up on Maury or other beaches. The state is asking that any sightings of the orange substance be reported to the state immediately.
“The current in the area could have dropped these blobs somewhere else,” Altose said.
Martinac, a family-owned Tacoma company that designs and builds ships up to 250 feet long, was issued a warning from DOE for the January spill. According to the warning letter, Martinac agreed to place more boats in the water during launches in order to more easily respond in the case of a spill.
Altose said DOE officials were pleased with Martinac’s immediate responses to both orange glob incidents. It is currently completing a follow-up investigation, Altose said, and it’s too soon to know if Martinac will be fined.
“We do not always issue penalties when a violation occurs if it is clear that the responsible party is taking measures to prevent another spill,” he said.
Releasing a pollutant into Washington state waters can result in penalties of up to $10,000 a day.
Sightings of orange grease balls on any beaches should be reported to 1-800-OILS-911.