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Penalties assessed for 2022 diesel spill from sunken fishing boat off San Juan Island

The Aleutian Isle is lifted from the water by the crane barge September 17, 2022. Canada Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans photo

In August 2022, a 58-foot fishing boat sank off the western shore of San Juan Island, kicking off a complex, lengthy response to prevent additional diesel from spilling out of the sunken vessel, and to eventually raise the boat back to the surface.

Now, the Washington Department of Ecology is penalizing Matthew Johnston, the boat’s owner, $18,000 for the spilled diesel. Ecology is also seeking reimbursement for its costs of $444,473.05. Additionally, there will be a state Natural Resources Damage Assessment of $183,786.27.

The majority of the response costs were paid directly by the US Coast Guard from the National Pollution Liability Trust Fund.


The incident began in the afternoon of Aug. 13, 2022, when Mr. Johnston noticed water rising from the aft scuppers on his boat, the Aleutian Isle. Water quickly began to cover the main deck, and within 15 minutes the fishing boat rolled to port, then sank in Haro Strait. Mr. Johnston and his crew were rescued by other nearby fishing boats. For the next week, Ecology and response partners regularly observed diesel near the sunken vessel and shoreline. More than a mile of absorbent boom was ultimately deployed around the site to collect diesel, although wind and waves made working at the site difficult at times. 

Dive teams located the boat in about 200 feet of water – a depth that required specialized divers and equipment to close valves and plug vents to prevent the remaining diesel from escaping. They then rigged the boat so it could be pulled to the surface by a floating crane and placed onto a barge. Divers had to contend with fishing nets from the sunken boat, while surface crews kept an eye out for nearby Southern Resident Killer Whales and deterred them from coming near the recovery operation.

Once the vessel was back at the surface, crews were able to recover about 590 gallons of diesel. However, based on information from Mr. Johnston, Ecology estimates between 1,328 to 1,528 gallons of diesel spilled into Haro Strait.

Several marine birds were observed directly oiled, while other birds were observed swimming in light oil sheen. Wildlife can be adversely affected if they, or their habitat, comes into contact with even a small amount of spilled oil.  

Mr. Johnston actively participated in cleanup efforts and fully cooperated with Ecology’s investigation. This penalty is based on strict liability under Washington State law for spills to Washington waters, regardless of fault. Ecology’s investigation did not find that the spill was caused by negligent or reckless operation.

Mr. Johnston has 30 days to appeal the penalty to the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board

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