MSD Santa Barbara — Rising to the challenge of panga boats

Abandoned panga and fuel containers south of Gaviota Beach. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Wayne Alleyne

Story by LT Jeff Fry

The call from the command center usually comes late at night:

“Marine Safety Detachment Santa Barbara, we have another panga on the beach and we need you to respond!”  Over the past year, this call for pollution responders from the Marine Safety Detachment (MSD) has come more than 15 times as panga boats have become the vessel of choice for traffickers attempting to smuggle illegal drugs and migrants into Southern California by sea.

Whether the panga is abandoned on a beach or apprehended on the water by the Coast Guard, the spare fuel containers carried aboard pose a significant threat to the maritime environment.

Oil from a panga boat

Abandoned fuel containers from a panga on Ragged Point Beach. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Wayne Alleyne

MSD Santa Barbara, along with state and federal partner agencies, oversee the recovery of these containers and the proper disposal of the fuel within, minimizing the potential for environmental damage.  While removing the fuel containers from the shore or water may seem like an easy task, the geography of the landscape and weather conditions can severely limit the recovery options.  Typical landing sites are in remote areas, often with nothing more than a steep dirt trail leading to rocky shorelines with dense kelp beds extending hundreds of yards out into the water.  Ingenuity is a required part of the job.

“Panga incidents are always a unique challenge, but one of the most interesting types of responses we have at MSD Santa Barbara,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Wayne Alleyne, a marine science technician with MSD Santa Barbara.  “Each panga landing presents a very different set of limitations and complications, so our ability to accurately assess the incident and tailor the response operations to ensure the safety of the responders and the environment is a key quality.”

Abandoned fuel containers on Gaviota Beach are recovered using a California State Park all-terrain vehicle. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Wayne Alleyne

Abandoned fuel containers on Gaviota Beach are recovered using a California State Park all-terrain vehicle. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Wayne Alleyne

Some of this “required ingenuity” was displayed by MSD responders during panga recovery operations on Refugio Beach in Goleta, Calif., and Ragged Point Beach located in San Simeon, Calif.  Steep terrain and harsh sea conditions prevented conventional recovery methods using box trucks or a small vessel to carry the fuel away.  Instead responders used a “daisy chain.”  The abandoned containers — containing over 300 gallons of fuel — were tightly secured and over-packed to prevent accidental spilling before being carefully pulled past the surf by a response vessel where they could be safely recovered.

Other landings required responders to initiate new partnerships, as was the case after a panga landed south of Gaviota Beach.  California State Park Rangers provided the pollution responders with an all-terrain vehicle to aid in the transport of containers to an area where they were loaded onto a truck.

No matter the situation, MSD Santa Barbara is ready for the panga challenge.

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