State to check Unalaska beaches for oil

Environmental officials start summer clean-up operation of remnants from 2004 freighter spill

Posted: Monday, May 15, 2006

ANCHORAGE - State survey teams start walking the beaches of Unalaska this week to check for residue from thousands of gallons of oil that spilled from a soybean freighter after it grounded off the Aleutian island more than a year ago.

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Environmental officials were to arrive Monday for the start of summer clean-up operations of the 335,000 gallons of fuel oil that gushed from the Selendang Ayu after it grounded in December 2004.

They are particularly curious about how much wave action from an abundant winter storm season may have helped wash oil from the more than six miles of shoreline along Skan and Makushin bays that fell short of cleanup benchmarks during the state's most recent visit in September.

"We expect a lot of the more exposed beaches have been worked over by waves, while areas that are more shadowed will require more clean-up," said Leslie Pearson, on-scene coordinator for the Department of Environmental Conservation.

The three-member state survey team will decide which beaches of volcanic rocks and sediment still need mopping up by companies contracting with Singapore-based IMC Group, which owns the Selendang Ayu.

State survey crews will rotate in and out of Unalaska all summer, or until they consider the clean-up finished.

"It should be completed this summer season," Pearson said. "I'm crossing my fingers."

IMC Shipping is responsible under state law for fully funding the cleanup and has paid about $100 million to remove oil film and tar balls from the gray-green waters and rocky beaches of the island. Unalaska is the hub for a prolific commercial fishery about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage.

So far the state has paid out $2.1 million, mostly to send out survey teams, Pearson said. IMC, which must reimburse the state, has paid back $1.7 million of those costs so far.

Also starting in May, work crews with Unalaska-based Magone Marine will undertake a delicate butchering operation to remove the smokestack and engine of the 738-foot vessel with cutting torches. They will send divers to cut away parts of the engine room and assess how best to remove the decking. The hulk of the Selendang Ayu is listing to starboard in about 30 feet of water within a quarter mile of shore.

The state team will also retest shellfish, such as clams and chitons, to make sure they are safe for humans to eat, and meet with Unalaska residents who have concerns about the spill. In April, the state said mussels and other shellfish collected last summer from the grounding site are safe for human consumption.

The state is still trying to calculate what percentage has been cleaned up so far. But the exact figures may never be known because it's unclear how much oil washed ashore and how much was carried off into the North Pacific.

Retracing the oil's oceanic path is difficult because data on currents in the area is spotty, and violent storms after the grounding prevented overflights that could have monitored the oil as it floated out to sea, Pearson said.

The DEC is still working with the Department of Law on possible civil penalties for IMC, but "this trip is not about a lawsuit," said Gary Folley, an on-scene coordinator with the DEC, who was scheduled to arrive on Unalaska on Monday.

The Malaysian-flagged Selendang Ayu was en route from Tacoma, Wash., to China with a load of soybeans when it grounded and broke apart Dec. 8, 2004. The vessel was carrying an estimated 442,000 gallons of fuel oil and some diesel.

A Coast Guard helicopter carrying Selendang crew members from the tanker crashed during rescue operations, and six of the 10 freighter crew aboard died. The Coast Guard personnel survived.

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