Before dawn on January 7, 1994, the T/B Morris J. Berman, a 302-foot-long by 90-foot-wide barge loaded with 1.5 million gallons of # 6 fuel oil, drifted aground near San Juan, Puerto Rico, after its tow line from the tug Emily S. broke. The barge grounded on a reef near Punta Escambrón, at latitude 18° 28.3’ N and longitude 66° 05.4’ W. The grounding ruptured seven of the barge’s nine holding tanks and resulted in the primary release and discharge of approximately 800,000 gallons of fuel oil into nearshore waters, including those adjacent to the San Juan National Historic Site. To remove the oil remaining on board the barge, lightering operations were initiated on the evening of January 8 and continued until January 12. However, bad weather conditions and rough seas at the site of the grounding and spill limited this operation.
On January 15, 1994, after lightering most of the remaining oil from the barge, the U.S. Coast Guard (Coast Guard) refloated, transported, and then scuttled the barge in 6,123 feet of water at a former munitions disposal site located 20 nautical miles (23 miles) north-northeast of San Juan. The Coast Guard estimated that a secondary release of between 85,000 and 125,000 gallons of an oil water mixture occurred during refloating and towing operations, resulting in patchy oil and sheens over a 20-mile stretch of offshore waters. An additional 160,000 to 200,000 gallons of oil sank with the barge.
For several weeks after the scuttling, this secondary release of oil continued from the sunken barge and formed oily slicks and scattered tarballs. This oil eventually spread along much of the northern and northwestern coast of Puerto Rico.