Alaska Oil Spill Crews Seize on Calmer Weather
ANCHORAGE About 150 people were ready to begin cleaning up an oil spill threatening endangered animals Sunday, four days after a ship broke apart and six people died in a helicopter rescue attempt.
The cargo ship broke apart during a storm off the coast of an Alaska island, and weather has calmed, allowing environmental crews to start work, federal and state authorities said Sunday.
Winds slowed to 10 to 15 knots and waves shrank to 6 to 12 feet, a big change from the fierce winds of up to 55 knots and seas up to 24 feet of past days, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
"Everybody is taking advantage of the good conditions and trying to get stuff done," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Darrell Wilson.
Assessment teams were able to conduct an aerial survey, and a research vessel with wildlife experts was headed to the spill site, on the western coast of Unalaska Island in the Aleutian chain, officials said.
The island is about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage; the wreck site is on its western shore, an area without road links to the port city of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor on the north part of the island.
Saving the Salmon
Vessel crews in the affected cove were also scheduled to lay out more protective boom to block fuel oil from reaching salmon-spawning streams, and there were plans to get salvage experts on board the broken vessel, the Coast Guard said.
The 738-foot Malaysian-flagged vessel, the Selendang Ayu, was carrying 480,000 gallons of bunker fuel and 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel when it broke apart off the island's rocky coast. It is estimated that 140,000 gallons poured out because the breach in the ship opened one of the fuel tanks, officials said.
The ship lost power and began drifting in the Bering Sea by early Tuesday morning, according to Coast Guard reports. Efforts to tow it and to anchor it failed because lines broke in the stormy weather.
Six of the 26 Selendang Ayu crew members were missing and presumed dead after they disappeared into the water when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter crashed Wednesday night.
With the focus now on spill response rather than rescue, about 150 workers have gathered on and around the island to try to stop the fuel leak, federal and state officials said.
The area is managed as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and is important habitat for marine mammals, sea birds and fish.
It is used by endangered Steller sea lions, two species of sea ducks with Endangered Species Act protections and Aleutian sea otters, a population that has plummeted in recent years and was slated earlier this year to be listed as a threatened species.
The bunker fuel is "really sticky stuff" that tends to sink into the water, especially if it becomes entangled in sediments, said Leslie Pearson, manager of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's spill preparedness and response program.
"If it gets on the wildlife, of course, they're going to be preening themselves and they'll ingest it," she said.
Another concern is the health of a crab population. "There's quite a lot of tanner crab fishing that takes place in this area," she said. A commercial crab harvest is scheduled to start next month.
The Selendang Ayu is operated by IMC Shipping. The vessel had been carrying soybeans from Tacoma, Washington to China.