Historic shipwreck may be source of oil sheens

Coast Guard conducts dives to determine if fuel should be removed

Posted: Sunday, February 21, 2010

The U.S. Coast Guard investigated an historic shipwreck off Lena Point this week after an increase of oil sheens on the water were reported recently.

"We traced them back to what we thought was the Princess Kathleen and we thought it would be prudent to dive on the vessel to see if there was anything going on down there, and if there was, either what we can do to mitigate it or how we are going to proceed," Lt. j.g. Andrea Manuel said Friday.

A Remotely Operated Vehicle examined the shipwreck Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and the Coast Guard is conducting an assessment to determine if any fuel left on the vessel may need to be removed.

"They have been conducting dives on it basically seeing the structural integrity of the vessel, seeing how it's sitting," Manuel said. "Once we get the results of those, and working with our pollution responders and experts in that area, we're going to work with the state to proceed forward with how we should appropriately respond to it."

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Coast Guard coordinated with Southeast Alaska Lighterage and Global Offshore Divers to evaluate the vessel that went aground and sank off Lena Point in 1952.

"They've been doing this assessment just to see what the possibilities would be to remove the fuel, hopefully at a later date," said Crystal Djuren, an environmental program specialist for the DEC. "But it's unclear what their plans will be for the future here."

Officials are trying to determine how much fuel remains on the 369-foot vessel. The Princess Kathleen sits on a slope in about 80 to 140 feet of water and has been periodically releasing small, unrecoverable oil sheens in the area for years. The vessel's fuel tanks could hold 155,000 gallons.

"We're not even sure how much fuel was onboard when the vessel sank," said Sarah Moore, an environmental program specialist for the DEC. "At this point there is no estimate of how much fuel is left on board, which is one of the questions the Coast Guard assessment is trying to answer."

It is too early to say how or when the fuel may be extracted from the shipwreck, Manuel said.

"We're pending results of what they find down there and that's going to proceed how we move forward," she said. "It is a historical wreck and we are going to work closely with the state and local agencies here to make sure we balance our concern for the environment along with its historical significance."

The assessment will also try to determine what the risk of removing it would be and the feasibility of removing the fuel, said Scot Tiernan, the Southeast Alaska on-scene coordinator for the DEC.

"Since it is at an angle, that makes it a little more problematic," he said.

It is unclear how much oil has been seeping out of the wreck, but there have been numerous reports of "rainbow" looking sheens on the water that average about 20 to 50 feet in diameter, Moore said. It is possible there are simply just more reports of oil in the area rather than an increase of volume escaping the vessel since the opening of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute at Lena Point, she said.

"Giving a volume estimate (escaping) isn't possible," she said. "We have seen an increase in the number of reports lately, but with NOAA's presence there, there is also a lot more eyes on site. So it's really impossible to say whether or not if the volume has increased or if the number of reports has increased."

It is unclear if it has ever been attempted to remove the fuel from the vessel.

"To my knowledge there was never an attempt to remove the fuel from the vessel once it was abandoned by the operator," Tiernan said.

The Princess Kathleen was built in 1925 for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The wreck site has remained a popular SCUBA diving area in Juneau due to its depth and location.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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