KODIAK — When Petty Officer 1st Class Jeffry Crews was awoken by his phone at 11:30 p.m. Friday, he knew he was in for a long day.
That long day turned into a long weekend and now a long week, as cleanup continues on Kodiak’s largest fuel spill in more than a decade.
Up to 15,000 gallons of No. 2 diesel leaked into Chiniak Bay after the U.S. Army landing craft Monterey struck Kalsin Reef at or near Humpback Rock just before Friday turned into Saturday.
“We consider this a significant spill,” said Steven Russell of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. “We have spills of this size (statewide) fairly frequently, usually in the winter months during vessel groundings. This one is a little bit unique because of the location. We’re right in downtown Kodiak.”
The Monterey has grounded on Puffin Island and remains visible from both downtown Kodiak and a scenic overlook frequented by tourists. Meanwhile, gloved workers are trying to soak up fuel on the beaches below.
“Part of our job here is to respond to oil spills,” said Crews, a Coast Guard marine science technician. “Those calls can happen at any time.”
The Coast Guard isn’t working alone. On Monday, slab-sided corrugated containers bearing the name of Alaska Chadux clustered on the St. Paul Harbor spit. Chadux is a private oil spill response group in Western Alaska, and the containers were among those it has stationed in Kodiak to respond to an Exxon Valdez-like disaster.
While the spill from the Monterey isn’t as severe as the one from that ill-fated tanker No. 2 diesel evaporates much more quickly than crude oil its scale is huge. From Puffin Island to the shore of Kodiak Island is six square miles of Chiniak Bay.
“This is the largest pollution incident on my watch,” said Lt. Matthew Zinn, head of Marine Safety Detachment Kodiak, the Coast Guard’s unit in charge of spill response in Kodiak.
Zinn has been on duty for two years in Kodiak and said he isn’t aware of a larger incident since the 1980s. That was corroborated by the Kodiak harbormaster’s office.
Zinn said the Monterey was ringed by 600 feet of oil containment booms by 4:30 a.m., about five hours after the wreck.
That’s surprisingly fast, considering the booms’ heavy plastic snakes had to be transported from Coast Guard Base Kodiak in the early morning hours.
“It was a little challenging, but we got it anchored,” Crews said.
A second boom followed by noon Saturday and a third is in place now.
Chadux, which sent a handful of workers from Anchorage on a specially chartered flight, moved into high gear by noon Saturday.
With labor from Kodiak-based TC/MK Enterprises, oil-skimming operations were in full swing within the booms on Monday, and additional crews laid oil-absorbing pads in Gibson Cove and Dog Bay, where much of the diesel was blotted up.
“It’s kind of a unique spill response, because everything worked out,” Crews said. “The weather drove everything into good collection points and away from sensitive areas like the Buskin (River).”
The Buskin River contains a vital salmon stream as well as waterfowl nesting grounds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveyed Puffin Island on Monday but reported no oiled wildlife. No evidence of diesel was found at the Buskin, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Russell of ADEC said those reports are good news, but they don’t mean the cleanup is over.
“We’re still finding some hot spots, some areas of pooled petroleum products in the area of Gibson Cove and St. Herman Harbor,” he said. “Those activities will continue until there is no more recoverable product.”
Attention will next turn to the fate of the Monterey, which had been on a mission to deliver construction supplies and heavy machinery to Bethel.
Maj. Annmarie Daneker, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Reserve, which operates the landing craft, said the ship will remain in place until examined by divers and engineers to ensure it remains seaworthy.
After that, it will be floated to Lash Dock and unloaded.
“Right now it’s still up in the air as to whether they’ll be able to support the (Bethel) mission,” Daneker said.
The damage to the Monterey’s human crew is less severe, she said. Three of the 17 people onboard the landing craft were injured, treated and released, she said.
Because of damage to the Monterey, the landing craft’s crew remains at Coast Guard Base Kodiak, rotating onboard the ship as needed.
“They will stay with the vessel as long as they’re needed,” Daneker said.
The biggest remaining question what caused the accident will not be answered any time soon, she said.
The Army Reserve has begun what it calls a 15-6 investigation, named for the Army regulation that governs it.
An impartial officer will be selected to collect information about the accident, then issue a report and recommendations.
“It’s not a quick process,” Daneker said. “This is probably going to take months to not just finish the investigation but go up through channels, through the chain of command.”
She declined to name the investigating officer or comment on the investigation, citing confidentiality.
Coast Guard officials said the Army is the lead agency in the investigation and they will contribute at the Army’s request.
“Obviously something went wrong,” Daneker said, “so we need to figure out where that happened.”