ON THE BASE

Tugboat sinks into Guantánamo Bay

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

A Pentagon contract tugboat inexplicably sunk at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, over the weekend, creating a hazardous waste spill, the base said Monday.

The 60-foot tugboat operated by a contractor, not the Navy, was named Little Debbie, base spokeswoman Kelly Wirfel said by email from the remote outpost. It was alongside a maintenance barge in the port when it sank, she said, forcing closure of the bay and its beaches to recreational activities over the weekend but not disrupting tugboat activity because Guantánamo has other tugs.

No injuries were reported. The cause of the sinking is under investigation, Wirfel said.

The latest mishap occurred a month after a barge bound for Guantánamo lost containers off South Florida, including a half-dozen new rental cars. Last fall, Superstorm Sandy churned up an inert 500-pound practice bomb, also closing some beaches.

“It is always interesting here,” Wirfel said.

Beaches reopened Monday afternoon once the fuel spill was “contained and under control of Port Services Recovery Team,” Wirfel said. The base typically offers wide-ranging activities on the water for many of the 6,000 or so residents — fishing, diving, kayaking and sailing as well as beaches manicured for parties and barbecues.

Although it was not known how much oil spilled, the Navy base had trained for such a disaster and did not call in either the Coast Guard to inspect or other federal environmental authorities, said Wirfel. “Trained and qualified personnel from Port Services are conducting the clean-up efforts” with a local environmental impact team on site “to ensure there are no adverse impacts.” Meantime, a the base spokeswoman confirmed that Guantánamo’s Navy commander had reinstated landing rights to a South Florida air carrier, IBC.

The commander, Navy Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton, announced to base residents in mid-March that he was canceling commercial carrier service in a new interpretation of Navy regulations.

His predecessors had for more than a dozen years granted landing privileges to commercial shuttles from South Florida, and the abrupt announcement prompted protests, especially from defense lawyers who called the move an effort to reduce access to the 166 captives at the base’s prison camps.

The shuttles had been the way most civilian attorneys and translators reached Guantánamo. As of Monday, IBC air executive Richard Rose and the base spokeswoman said Nettleton had told the carrier he would permit them to offer regular South Florida-Guantánamo service through 2013.

That gives the captain time, Wirfel said, to once again review IBC’s “Civil Aircraft Landing Permit,” (the Navy calls it a “CALP”) and decide whether it was sufficient, after all.

Additionally, Wirfel said, a Navy division with oversight of Guantánamo would be reviewing Nettleton’s decision.

“Once the CALP has been approved at the installation level, it will be forwarded to the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, which is responsible for issuance of a license,” said Wirfel.

She offered no timetable for resolving the issue.

Rose said the decision to cut and then restore service had dealt a serious blow to ridership on what had been a three times a week shuttle. So the carrier was sticking to Monday and Friday flights and considering when it could reasonably add an additional Sunday shuttle.

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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