ANCHORAGE - Plans to transfer millions of gallons of oil from an oil storage facility near Mount Redoubt were derailed Saturday when the volcano erupted again and a tanker sent to get the oil had to turn back.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory said the volcano about 100 mile southwest of the city erupted again at 5:58 a.m. Saturday, sending an ash plume 50,000 feet into the air. It was one of the biggest explosions since the volcano became active again on March 22.
Seismologists said the explosion was nearly as large as any that occurred when the volcano was last active for four months in late 1989 and early 1990.
The ash cloud drifted to the southeast. The towns of Seldovia, Homer and Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula received a light dusting, according to the National Weather Service.
The explosion caused a mud flow in the Drift River Valley. The slurry of meltwater, hot rocks, volcanic ash and other debris reached the area of the Chevron-operated Drift River Terminal, where 6.3 million gallons of oil is stored in two tanks, said Rod Ficken, vice president of Cook Inlet Pipeline Co., which is responsible for the transport of the oil at the terminal.
A concrete-reinforced dike surrounding the tank farm is continuing to do a good job of protecting the tanks, he said.
Ficken said when the eruption occurred, the tanker Seabulk Arctic was headed to the terminal to begin the process of drawing down the tanks and removing some of the oil for transport to a Tesoro refinery.
Officials previously said the tanks would be drawn down to 840,000 gallons of crude in each. But on Saturday, Sara Francis, spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, said the plan is to reduce the amount of oil in each tank to twice that amount, or about 1.7 million gallons.
Officials have said they have to keep some oil in the tanks to keep them from floating away in the event of a flood. The reason for the change in the level was not immediately clear.
Francis also said at no time will the amount of oil in each tank exceed 1.7 million gallons as oil from two other facilities, where storage capacity has reached critically low levels, is moved through the terminal for tanker loading.
On Saturday morning, the Seabulk Arctic was a few hours away from the terminal when the volcano blew, said Coast Guard Capt. Mark Hamilton, the federal on-scene incident coordinator. The tanker was caught up in part of the ash cloud and had to divert its course in Cook Inlet, he said.
"They will find a place to anchor the vessel and rest up," Hamilton said.
If possible, the tanker will head back to the terminal on Sunday morning "pending the volcano's behavior" to try again, Hamilton said.
When the volcano erupted, 11 people were at the terminal sleeping in the facility's "safe haven" area, Ficken said. The building, built on a platform about 100 yards off the terminal's aircraft runway, is equipped with its own power, food and water.
No one was injured, he said.
"We do have the facility shut down at this time," Ficken said.
He said after the explosion workers assessed the condition of the terminal and the dike.
"We don't have any water in the tank farm," Ficken said.
Some water came up the road from the terminal's airport runway, following the same path as in a previous explosion, he said.