Salvage, cleanup of Aleutian wreck halts for season

Recovery crews since January have removed 30 percent of fuel on board

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Salvage and cleanup operations of a bulk freighter that wrecked in the Aleutian Islands have been shut down until spring, responders told lawmakers Monday.

Salvage crews since January have removed from the remains of the Selendang Ayu 127,784 gallons of intermediate fuel oil and 11,523 gallons of diesel, or about 30 percent of the fuel the freighter was carrying, Coast Guard Adm. James Olson said.

The rest - 321,052 gallons of fuel oil and an unknown amount of diesel - is presumed lost in the Bering Sea.

The Dec. 8 wreck of the 738-foot Malaysia-flagged bulk freighter is the worst fuel spill in Alaska since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Cleanup and salvage

winter operations: The Coast Guard and State Department of Environmental Conservation on Monday began their winter operation plan for responding to a grounded freighter off unalaska island.Water quality will continue to be monitored, but salvage and cleanup have stopped until mid-April.

Fuel removed: Salvage crews have recovered 127,784 gallons of intermediate fuel oil and 11,523 gallons of diesel. another 321,000 gallons has been lost at sea.

Prevention: Conservationists told the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee that an interim protection program should be put in place to protect the aleutian islands from future spills.

The freighter had drifted powerless for nearly two days until running aground off Unalaska Island, where it split in half and spilled fuel into sensitive wildlife habitats and a tanner crab fishery. Six crew members were lost at sea when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter crashed into the water.

The spill closed the Makushin Bay tanner crab fishery and more than 1,606 dead birds have been recovered.

The winter operations phase began Monday after a salvage team removed "every ounce (of fuel) that we could," Olson said. During the winter phase, which is expected to last until April 15, there will be continued water quality monitoring and air surveillance, he said.

"Unless something major happens, we probably won't do anything until mid-April," Olson said.

Kurt Fredriksson, acting commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said shoreline oil removal was also being halted until spring.

Both Fredriksson and Olson told members of the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee they considered the response to the grounding a success, considering the remote location and the harsh winter sea conditions.

"I had my doubts that there was much we could do," Fredriksson said.

Others who testified at the committee hearing were less congratulatory. Rick Steiner, a professor with the University of Alaska's marine advisory program, said that he considered it a failure that Monday's discussion had to happen at all.

"There are certainly some success stories," Steiner said, but "I'd say the glass is about 95 percent empty and 5 percent full."

Steiner said a risk assessment needs to be conducted on shipping traffic through the Aleutian Islands and that a rescue vessel and tracking systems should be put in place.

The Legislature should institute an interim protection program until a study is completed, Steiner said.

Tom Lakosh of Parker Associates Inc., said the state or Coast Guard should commission building tug boats powerful enough to rescue massive freighters in severe conditions.

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