Crime - Sacto 911

Is the capsized Spirit of Sacramento polluting the Delta?

State and federal officials were working Monday to detect any possible fuel spill in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta after a former Sacramento-based tour boat capsized with hundreds of gallons of diesel aboard.

The 87-foot paddlewheel boat Spirit of Sacramento began taking on water late Saturday night and capsized early Sunday near Bethel Island in Contra Costa County, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Spirit of Sacramento once operated as a tour boat, taking passengers on trips up and down the Sacramento River and into the Delta. Sacramento city officials replaced the company that operated the craft, Sacramento Yacht Charters, with Hornblower Cruises and Events in 2009.

The two unidentified people on board notified the Coast Guard of the situation at 12:30 a.m. Sunday. They escaped the sinking vessel on a dinghy and were escorted to shore by a boat crew from the Rio Vista Coast Guard station.

“The two passengers were transiting the river aboard the privately owned vessel, (using it) for recreation (when it) started taking on water on the stern,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. j.g. Nicole Emmons. “They anchored it outside the channel and we monitored the situation overnight.”

She said the cause of the sinking had not been determined.

As much as 600 gallons of diesel fuel may have been on board, according to the Coast Guard, and the concern early Monday was that the fuel was leaking into the river. “Minor sheening” was spotted by onlookers and confirmed by the Coast Guard and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office when they reached the scene. “Sheening” is the rainbow effect on water’s surface caused by spilled oil.

On Sunday, the Coast Guard hired Global Diving and Salvage of Vallejo to assess the situation and stabilize the boat. “They’ve boomed off the area to keep the spill contained, but so far we haven’t seen their salvage plan,” Emmons said. “It’s a process to move a vessel of that size.”

Emmons said Monday afternoon that the dive team had closed off all the fuel vents and “couldn’t see a leak anywhere,” noting that workers will return as early as Tuesday to resume operations. They hope by then to have schematics for the vessel from which to work, she said, but efforts Monday to reach the owner were be unsuccessful.

“They didn’t come up with anything conclusive today,” she said.

The sheening observed early Monday was not visible later in the day, she said.

The Coast Guard is also coordinating with the California State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Preparedness and Response.

“While the Coast Guard is the lead federal coordinating agency for pollution response efforts in the coastal zone, this unified effort of federal, state and local partners will ensure all aspects of the response are covered, with minimal environmental impact,” said a news release issued Sunday, quoting Lt. Cmdr. Rhianna Macon, the Sector San Francisco incident management chief. “We will continue response and salvage efforts with our partners until the environmental threat has been mitigated.”

The incident was yet another ignominious chapter for the Spirit of Sacramento, which was swept into a dispute nearly a decade ago between its operators and the city of Sacramento.

In 2006, Sacramento Yacht Charters entered into a 10-year contract with the city to operate the faux paddlewheeler out of Old Sacramento. In 2008, the city began the process of terminating the contract because, it charged, the company’s schedule was unreliable and its projected revenues fell short. The company acknowledged problems but cited a drop in ridership due to the economy and the intractable negotiating positions of Sacramento city officials.

At the time, the company also was operating the popular River Otter water taxis, which the city similarly accused of delivering spotty service.

Ultimately, Sacramento Yacht Charters went bankrupt, and its fleet was sold. The company was replaced in 2009 by Hornblower Cruises & Events, which is still in operation.

The Spirit of Sacramento paddlewheeler was not operating in any tour-boat capacity at the time that it sunk and was strictly a private vessel, Emmons said.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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