OSPR Labs Special Projects: S.S. Jacob Luckenbach Oil Spill

Since its inception in 1991, the Petroleum Chemistry Laboratory (PCL), has amassed an oil source library for the purpose of characterizing samples of unknown origin. A major portion of these library samples were collected by volunteers with the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) Beachwatch Program. Their sampling of tar-balls while conducting post-storm surge surveys of beaches in the Sanctuary has allowed the PCL to create a data set of base-line oil contamination unmatched by any other stretch of California coastline.

The GFNMS experienced major bird oiling events in the winters of 1997-1998 and 2001-2002. The PCL was able to rule out natural seep oil and, using the oil source library data, match the oil to many mystery oiling events dating as far back as 1973.

This revelation focused efforts of OSPR, the US Coast Guard, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on stationary, recurring, man-made sources of oil, which are primarily sunken vessels. Using the PCL’s oil source library data, staff chemists were able to rule out the well-known T/V Puerto Rican, which sunk in 1984, as the source. With the application of LIDAR and satellite imaging, among other high technology search methods, the search narrowed to the S.S. Jacob Luckenbach, a freighter sunk in July 1953 after colliding with another vessel in the Gulf of the Farallones, In 2002, PCL chemists definitively matched source oil leaking from the S.S. Jacob Luckenbach to tar samples from the Point Reyes Tar-ball Incidents in 1997-1998 as well as the San Mateo Mystery Spill in 2001-2002.

Most of the oil was removed from the vessel, however, it was not possible to remove all of the product. The remaining oil was sealed inside the vessel, but during major storm events, the vessel is rocked hard enough to release small amounts of oil. The PCL continues to monitor oiled birds found in this area after major storm events and compares them to the S.S. Jacob Luckenbach source oil. Matches have been found as recently as winter 2016.

Office of Spill Prevention and Response
Mailing: P.O. Box 944209, Sacramento, CA 94244-2090
(916) 375-8580 for OSPR Information

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(800) 852-7550 or (800) OILS-911

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