Workers Face Tough Battle Against Alaskan Oil Spill Amid Icy Seas
Dec. 20SOUTH OF SKAN BAY, in the Bering Sea Scott Halama, his cheeks crimson from biting winds, dragged a yellow oil boom across an estuary, straining to refashion a barrier destroyed by the night's raging surf.
It was 11:30 a.m., barely an hour after sunrise, yet the day already seemed remarkably similar to the last: Awakened before 6 a.m. from his cramped berth on the tug Redeemer, Halama was dumped by a skiff on a remote shore to cordon off the same stream as yesterday.
Nearly two weeks after a Malaysian freighter split in two in a wildlife refuge off the uninhabited side of the Aleutian island of Unalaska, cleanup crews trying to corral the vessel's syrupy leaking oil are still wrestling to maintain every inch of progress.
As the region enters winter and the crippled Selendang Ayu is believed to be gushing even more chocolate-colored bunker fuel from its broken halves a day spent with work crews highlights just how grueling this cleanup may prove to be.
Laborers are hamstrung by mismatched or improvised gear and frigid, blustery seas that can kill in a moment. With a mere six hours of Alaskan daylight and the possibility of temperatures that, with wind chill, are below zero Fahrenheit, wet socks alone can be enough to halt a day's work.
"I'll tell you what: I'm used to the rivers in Montana, where I could walk across them barefoot," Halama said. "But when your boots fill up with this water, you know pain."
The wreck is 18 miles as the crow flies from the tiny fishing village of Dutch Harbor, but no roads lead over the black volcanic peaks in between. And mountains around the crippled ship jut so abruptly from the sea that even satellite-telephone or radio communication is often spotty.
"I called up the other day and said 'We need 2,000 feet of boom,' and then it was like 'Huh? What? Say again? You're breaking up,'" said Scot Tiernan, an expert on oil-spill responses with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, who is helping coordinate cleanup for workers onboard the salvage tug Redeemer. "We eventually got the boom, but it wasn't like going down to the corner store."
An oil boom is a long, ungainly strip of heavy cylindrical plastic that, when laid into the water, traps oil at the surface and several inches below.
Deliveries of everything from drinking water to coffee pots to the rakes and shovels workers use to scrape oiled rocks from the beach require a tricky six-hour one-way boat trip across swollen winter seas, a churning ride so uncomfortable that some Bering Sea veterans lose their lunch.
And ferrying goods to workers are a few fishing-boat captains and their crews, most of whom have been operating on three to five hours of sleep a night for a week.
"I don't think I can do this for another 100 days," said a baggy-eyed Denny Knagin, a crabber and crewman aboard the Sirene, which has been transporting equipment from Dutch Harbor to the Redeemer and other work-boats virtually around the clock.
In fact, much of what workers have accomplished thus far is a tribute in part to brute strength and stubborn perseverance.
Multiple layers of protective booms now block oil from a half-dozen streams and tributaries each in Makushin and Skan bays, though oil in some cases has breached the first barrier, and there's no telling how long others will last.
"Ideally, you'd have someone tending to these booms all day after putting them down, because oil a foot thick is eventually going to go where it wants," said Tiernan, with the state.
"We don't have the resources for that."
Six crew members of the Selendang Ayu died in a roiling storm off Unalaska Dec. 7 after a Coast Guard helicopter crashed while attempting to rescue the men from their powerless, drifting vessel.
As the National Transportation Safety Board struggles to figure out everything that went wrong during the 40 hours after the ship lost power, a command team led by the ship's owner, the Coast Guard and the state are trying to figure out how to fix the mess left behind.
More than 40,000 gallons of bunker fuel are known to have drained from the busted ship, settling in a few marshy areas and along several miles of coastline within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, a region popular with hundreds of wintering sea and shorebirds, marine mammals, shellfish and salmon. At least five birds have died, along with a sea otter, but bird experts and federal officials have spent little time on the shore and expect to find dozens more.
Early next month, salvage experts will begin trying to drain some of the ship's intact fuel tanks, but at least two other tanks that once held about 380,000 additional gallons of fuel also are leaking. No one can say at this point how much has spread into the frigid seas.
In the major bays near the wreck, workers only recently began attempting to remove oil from marshlands, having focused until then on making sure the oil didn't disturb new areas.
Much of that work has been led by one of the same tug crews that tried unsuccessfully to offer the Selendang Ayu aid the night it ran aground: the Magone Marine Salvage's tug, the Redeemer.
After the ship broke apart and as gale-force winds whipped up 20-foot seas that swamped its own deck, the Redeemer sailed back to Dutch Harbor and refueled, returning 12 hours later to begin roping off salmon streams.
"My daughter just happened to be flying into town that night, and I hadn't seen her in two years," said James Clark, an assistant engineer aboard the Redeemer. "I had time to spend an hour with her at dinner, before we headed back out on the water."
At this point no one can say how long Clark will be away.
Hours before dawn on a recent morning, Denny Knagin helped pilot stacks of protective booms from his delivery boat to the back deck of the Redeemer, while workers on board the hulking tug prepared old halibut anchors to be used to help hold the booms in place. Inside the ship's galley, the Redeemer's skipper, Dave Magone, prepared a breakfast of eggs, pancakes and hash scooped from a 1-gallon can.
After a safety briefing in which Butch Aus recounted the time he and his brother were the only survivors to find their way into a life raft when their boat sank, half the Redeemer's crew donned full-body orange protective suits and clambered into a waiting skiff.
In Pumicestone Bay, where the Redeemer is anchored south and west of the wrecked vessel, no oil has been sighted by the crew, but Halama found the remains of an oiled duck.
"Nothing left but the feathers," he said. "Fox must have got it."
"Or an eagle," said Tiernan, who took notes on the find to report to incident command. "How much oil was there?"
"Just a finger's worth on the feathers," Halama said.
"That's enough to kill a bird," Tiernan replied, adding that birds can ingest it while preening or catch hypothermia when it covers too much of their feathers.
The wreck of the Selendang Ayu is so isolated that incident commanders overseeing cleanup have not let "nonessential" personnel near seriously oiled areas. But recently, Halama and Philip Allen Jr. dragged booms across heavily oiled Portage Bay, where a thick, dark greasy smear ran for several miles along the beach.
"It was 3- to 5-feet wide, and like a foot thick," Allen said. "When you step in it, you know it; it's really sticky."
While Magone filmed Halama and Allen's efforts, a heavily oiled seagull landed on the bow of the Redeemer and began preening.
After two days of effort, Halama and two others finally wrangled a yellow boom around the stream outlet during an unusually sunny moment. They were forced to use the halibut anchors, which are made to hold loads at a different angle and have been known in high winds to skitter across the bottom.
That patch of rye-grass marsh and freshwater proved easier to protect than another, when frigid winds picked up and a driving snow began. There, after hours of effort, the crew finally pieced together the ends from two different types of booms. The crew stayed on the water until after 7 p.m.
Tiernan later cut an end off another sample of boom to take back to Dutch Harbor.
"I want to show them what kind of stuff they're sending out here," he said.
After a dinner of stew, prepared by Magone, crew members watched a DVD of "Van Helsing" and staggered off to their bunks.
In the morning, they'd be headed back to Skan Bay, to start raking gravel from a marsh covered with up to 1,700 feet of oil.
As he smoked a cigarette before bed, Aus stepped out for one last bit of snow and windy fresh air, attempting to gauge how rough the next day's journey would be. Choppy whitecaps were blowing just off the Redeemer's bow, and Aus' bearded face settled into a slow grin.
"This is a very protected bay," Aus said. "That means out there, it's gonna be ... " he added, trailing off.
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© 2004, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.