Aleutian Oil Spill Shows Area's Problems
ANCHORAGE Alaska's Aleutian Island chain, where a broken cargo ship has been leaking fuel oil for five days, needs the type of environmental protections that are given to better-known areas, a marine wildlife activist said Monday.
The wreck of the Selendang Ayu, the 738-foot Malaysian-flagged cargo ship broken in two and grounded off Unalaska Island, illustrates the vulnerability of the 1,000-mile Aleutian chain, said Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska marine science professor and prominent Alaska environmentalist.
"Once you've got a broken boat on the shore, and oil is in the water, almost anything you do is going to be irrelevant," he said. "The wreck that we have to focus on is the next wreck."
"It's a very rich, productive ecosystem out there and deserves the protections that we have in Prince William Sound," where a system of traffic monitoring and escort and rescue tugs were established after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Despite their obscurity for most Americans, the Aleutians are home to heavy shipping.
Unalaska is in the Great Circle marine shipping route between North America and eastern Asia. Nearby Unimak Pass, where ships pass between the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, is traveled by five to 10 large cargo vessels a day, Steiner said.
Major Fishing Port
There is also The fishing vessel traffic associated with Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, the city of 4,400 that is the busiest U.S. seafood port by volume.
Steiner said he plans to renew a campaign he started in the 1990s to get a response system operating in the Aleutians similar to that in Prince William Sound.
He said the area around Dutch Harbor and Unimak Pass needs dedicated high-powered rescue tugs, a regional vessel-traffic monitoring system, better communications and possibly weather closures to prevent future marine disasters there.
After the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez disaster, the state and federal governments passed laws mandating new spill-prevention and response measures for oil tankers. Because of international maritime law, the Selendang Ayu -- a ship that had not intended to stop at any Alaska port -- was not bound by those state rules.
The cargo ship was carrying 424,000 gallons of bunker fuel oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Already, 40,130 gallons has spilled from a ruptured tank and as much as 160,000 gallons was at risk of leaking out, based on surveys made of one half of the wrecked vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
The Selendang Ayu reported to the Coast Guard early Tuesday morning that it had lost engine power and was adrift on the Bering Sea. Efforts to tow it and anchor it failed when lines snapped.
On Wednesday night, the Coast Guard rescued 20 of the ship's crew members from the disabled vessel. But six crewmen were lost and are presumed dead after a Coast Guard helicopter crashed during the rescue mission.
The ship was bound for China from Tacoma, Washington.