From: Craig Welch, The Seattle Times
Published December 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Alaska Oil Spill Damage Now Looks Worse

Dec. 28-More than 600 oiled seabirds have been spotted near a broken ship off Alaska's Aleutian islands, and federal biologists now suspect hundreds or thousands more will be discovered in coming weeks.


Meanwhile, water samples in bays surrounding the two sections of the broken cargo carrier the Selendang Ayu have shown enough oil contamination that Alaska state game agents yesterday shut down a commercial crab-fishing season that was to open in January and will close that area to commercial fishing for Pacific cod and rockfish.


Three weeks after a freighter ferrying soybeans from Seattle to China lost engine power and ran aground in a wildlife sanctuary off Unalaska Island, the first detailed attempts by state and federal agencies to quantify effects on wildlife show the damage is greater than initially thought.


"What we were hearing about before were the birds in the hand, so to speak -- the ones we'd caught or found dead on the beaches," said Greg Siekaniec, head of the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. "Now they're pulling together the limited information from folks on the scene, and starting to say, 'Oh my gosh.'"


Until yesterday, spill-responders had only noted the roughly 40 bird carcasses and 22 oiled birds they'd been able to retrieve from area beaches.


Now, a detailed compilation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of observations by cleanup crews and wildlife experts puts the number of birds splattered with oil at 643. It's unclear how many of those might be dead or dying.


Because high winds and heavy seas continue to hamper efforts by environmental officials to spend much time on the ground studying beaches and marshes -- and since birds tend to hunker down or hide themselves when they're hit with oil -- that number is expected to grow substantially.


"Based on our expert opinions on how animals act in an oil spill, we expect we'll find hundreds or thousands more oiled birds," said Anne Morkill, deputy manager of the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. "We definitely think there are a lot more."


The discovery comes on the heels of an acknowledgement by the Coast Guard late last week that the amount of oil that already has escaped is significantly higher than officials had hoped.


In the aftermath of a storm last week that again slammed the grounded Malaysian-flagged cargo carrier with gale-force winds, Coast Guard officials said they believed several hundred thousand gallons of syrupy bunker oil had drained into the Bering Sea off Unalaska Island.


The Selendang Ayu was carrying 424,000 gallons of bunker fuel and 18,000 gallons of diesel when it broke in two Dec. 8. Six crew members died when a Coast Guard helicopter crashed while trying to rescue them from the vessel.


Slightly more than 40,000 gallons were released immediately, but Coast Guard officials until last week had hoped most of an additional 176,000 gallons remained in the bow section, and an additional 200,000 gallons still were in the stern. Now the bow section is empty, and most of the oil from the stern is believed to be leaking or gone.


But response officials from the state, the Coast Guard and the ship's owner still are struggling to determine precisely where most of the oil has ended up.


Samples from three-dozen crab pots dropped into Makushin and Skan bays, near the spill, show at least some oil still floating at varying depths. Helicopters flying over Makushin and Skan bays have found the beaches are thick with oil along at least two finger bays. On some beaches, "they've dug through the dirt and found oil down as deep as a meter 1/8about 40 inches3/8," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis.


"Not all of it's that deep; the majority of what they've found are tar patties that can just be raked up, or tar balls."


Some oil experts hope that a good portion of the bunker fuel has been carried out to sea or broken into minute pieces by waves crashing against the rocks.


"The beaches have been hard to get to," said Lynda Giguere, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "The ocean out there is really active and really working the oil, so I don't think anyone can give a definitive answer yet as to where it is."


Yesterday, a four-man team was dropped onto the stern section of the freighter and started cutting away handrails and antennas with a cutting torch, to ready it for helicopter landings. Salvagers are expected to begin trying, perhaps as soon as today, to drain remaining oil from tanks below deck, which then would be ferried ashore by helicopter.


To see more of The Seattle Times, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.seattletimes.com.© 2004, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


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