Salvagers and federal and state officials are scrambling to develop a plan to drain the remaining fuel out of a wrecked freighter off Unalaska Island to avoid spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of thick bunker oil into coastal waters rich in crab, seabirds and marine mammals.
Dec. 15DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska Salvagers and federal and state officials are scrambling to develop a plan to drain the remaining fuel out of a wrecked freighter off Unalaska Island to avoid spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of thick bunker oil into coastal waters rich in crab, seabirds and marine mammals.
The wreck of the Selendang Ayu now sits in two massive pieces, each roughly a football field in length, on the west side of this island in the Aleutian chain. Even for salvage teams that pride themselves on tackling the most difficult of tasks, this will be tough, dangerous work at a time of year that often yields some of the fiercest of Bering Sea storms.
"Nobody is making any guarantees the odds of this stuff working is no better than 50-50," said Gary Folley, an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation official who serves on the Unified Command Team developing a plan to salvage the freighter.
A tentative plan under discussion would refloat and tow the front section of the wreck 23 miles to a protected cove to pump out the oil. But officials learned yesterday the main tank, carrying more than 170,000 gallons of fuel, appears to have been damaged. Officials do not know whether the tank is leaking, and a Coast Guard official said yesterday that refloating may not be possible.
"Let's just say there's more damage to the bow than we hoped we would see," said Capt. Ron Morris, a Coast Guard official who serves on the Unified Command.
The stern section already appears impossible to refloat. But salvage officials have proposed to try to put pumps into the tanks and drain fuel at the wreck site.
The 738-foot Selendang Ayu ran aground last Wednesday and has already leaked an estimated 40,000 gallons of fuel in a remote corner of the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. Most of the 26 crew members were evacuated, but six were lost when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter crashed into the sea.
A report published yesterday in Lloyd's List, a respected insurance-industry newsletter, said the Selendang Ayu ran into trouble after a cracked cylinder liner prompted the crew to shut down the engine to prevent water from entering. The report was attributed to Peter Chew, managing director of the IMC, the company that operated the freighter.
One salvage official said yesterday that had water entered the engine, it would have likely caused it to seize and shut down on its own.
Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor who watchdogs oil-spill response, said it would have been a much better option if at all possible to have run the vessel to safe moorage before shutting it down for repairs.
Once the vessel engine was shut down, it is unclear why the crew could not restart the engine, according to Lloyd's List.
The fuel that already spilled from the freighter has streaked in sheens and tar balls around isolated Skan Bay and was spotted yesterday in ribbons that stretched for miles along a beach in nearby Portage Bay. So far, cleanup skimmers have been able to recover only minimal amounts of fuel.
Nearly 400,000 of bunker oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel may remain on board the Selendang Ayu.
A flyover yesterday revealed several miles of ribbons of oil along the coast. Wildlife teams have spotted up to two dozen oiled birds. But they had a hard time carrying out rescues amid rough seas and rugged island shorelines.
They have retrieved one dead sea otter and four dead birds. They also rescued three other birds. One of them a harlequin duck later died.
For the Unified Command Team, much of the focus is now on the effort to contain the size of the spill.
This would be the most ambitious salvage attempt on the West Coast since the 1999 attempt to pull the wrecked New Carissa off the Oregon coast. That troubled effort lasted more than a month and soaked up $35 million as the grounded freighter, which also had split in two, was set afire to try to burn up on-board fuel. The 440-foot bow section was finally towed out to deep sea and sunk with the aid of a torpedo from a Navy submarine. The stern section still sits off Coos Bay.
Many of the same industry officials involved in the New Carissa salvage have converged on Dutch Harbor, a major port and processing hub for Bering Sea fisheries that is the launch point for responding to the wreck.
They are joined by other salvage veterans, including Dutch Harbor-based Dan Magone. Magone, a vocal proponent of trying to refloat the bow of the vessel, said yesterday evening he still believes it may be possible.
The attempt to refloat the front section would involve jettisoning soybean cargo and then injecting air into the fuel tanks to increase buoyancy. The air injection, itself, could trigger additional leaking but also could be the key to the flotation attempt succeeding.
Draining fuel from the stern section also could pose problems. Bladder tanks could be placed aboard the stern section, possibly by a heavy-lift Chinook helicopter. Or, they could possibly float alongside the wreck, if protected by pneumatic fenders, according to David Usher, founder of Marine Pollution Control, which has supplied pumps for the Exxon Valdez and other major salvage operations around the world.
Usher said bunker fuel is even harder to pump than crude oil and would need to be heated somehow to thin out the molasseslike consistency.
By Craig Welch and Hal Bernton. Staff reporter Hal Bernton reported from Portland.
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