Aleutian Oil Spill Biggest in Alaska Since '89
ANCHORAGE — A cargo ship that ran aground, split in two and poured fuel oil into the Bering Sea in December ranks as one of the biggest spills in Alaska, dwarfed only by the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, state environmental officials said Thursday.
Among the reported environmental impacts of the wreck of the Malaysian-flagged Selendang Ayu, which ran aground in Alaska's Aleutian island chain, are 1,600 dead birds and oil in the plumage of bald eagles and the fur of red foxes.
The U.S. Coast Guard and other government agencies now estimate that 321,047 gallons poured from the vessel, out of the 424,000 gallons of intermediate-grade fuel oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board.
"It's pretty safe to say that this is definitely the largest intermediate fuel oil spill that we've ever had," said Leslie Pearson, manager of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's emergency prevention and response program.
The 738-foot ship grounded after being adrift for two days in the Bering Sea. Crewmen were unable to restart the engine after shutting it down for repairs. Most crew members were evacuated shortly before the Dec. 8 grounding, but six died when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter was struck by a large wave and crashed.
The grounding site, off the uninhabited western coast of Unalaska, is remote, rugged and a haven for sea birds and marine mammals. It is managed as part of the sprawling Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and is important habitat for Steller sea lions, Steller Eiders and Aleutian sea otters, species listed as endangered or threatened.
Though much smaller than the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez event, the spill's environmental effects have been difficult to quantify because of the area's fierce weather, treacherous terrain, scarce winter daylight and general remoteness.
"This is a significant spill, and there's been significant resource damage," said Greg Siekaniec, manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
But figuring out how many birds were killed and what type of birds were victims will take some detailed scientific study, Siekaniec said.
Causing other concerns is the escape of some of the 60,198 metric tons of soybeans the Selendang Ayu was carrying, intended for China. Some soybeans have coated the beaches with layers up to four feet thick, Siekaniec said.
State officials closed commercial fishing in the area around the wreckage.