Princess Kathleen oil recovery to eclipse $10M

Posted: Sunday, June 13, 2010

The cost to recover about 110,000 gallons of bunker oil from a sunken ship off Lena Point has surpassed $10 million and likely will cost more than $12 million, U.S. Coast Guard officials said this week.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Federal funding to pay for the oil removal project will come from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, the emergency fund discussed as a source for cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico associated with BP's oil rig explosion.

Project coordinators with the U.S. Coast Guard and state officials consider the Juneau project a major success. Removing the oil eliminates the potential for a large environmental disaster, Alaska On-Scene Spill Response Coordinator Scot Tiernan said.

The price tag also is worth it, U.S. Coast Guard Response Chief Cmndr. Kurt Clarke said.

"The cost to clean up 100,000 gallons off the beach makes $10 million look insignificant," he said.

The funds pay for staff time for project management agencies but money will go to contractors that worked on the job.

Commercial dive crews and barge operators were brought in from Seattle but local plumbing, welding, construction, helicopter transport, freight, dive retail and other businesses were employed on the project.

The Coast Guard decided to remove the oil early this year and finished pumping it out of the undersea wreck this month. The barge containing the oil left Juneau on Monday for Seattle, where the oil will be weighed and disposed of, or possibly recycled.

The 369-foot passenger vessel SS Princess Kathleen grounded on Point Lena, just north of Juneau, on Sept. 7, 1952. About 10 hours later during an incoming tide, the ship slipped off the rock and sank with an unknown quantity of fuel oil in the tanks.

Since the sinking, periodic fuel releases and oil sheens have been noted in the vicinity. The vessel sits at an angle on its port side at a depth ranging from 52 feet at the bow to 134 feet at the stern.

Inspection of the ship's integrity showed it to be coming apart since the rivets have mostly disintegrated.

Small amounts of oil will still be released at the site, since dive crews could not scrub the ship clean. The leaks will result in small oil sheens on the surface, as had been observed before the work.

"It will sheen but the risk of the ship collapsing and putting (thousands) of gallons of oil on the beach is gone at this point," Clarke said.

Four people were treated at Bartlett Regional Hospital for injuries sustained while on the oil removal job. None were life-threatening.

Two divers were treated for decompression sickness, a diving illness that occurs when nitrogen builds up in the blood vessels over periods of time underwater. Dive tables that determine how long and deep it's safe to dive were made more conservative after the incidents.

Two workers also were treated for hydrogen sulfide exposure after an oil and water mixture leaked from a holding tank. Crews used respirators in the area of the tank after that incident.

The ship had been leaking oil for years but the amount likely increased during the removal operation, although it is impossible to say how much, Tiernan said. He guessed it could have been measured in ounces per day.

On May 12, high winds and seas separated a boom that had been put in place around the worksite to contain any oil that leaked. Minor spots of oil about the size of a quarter were reported in Lena Cove afterward, but significant amounts of oil was not observed during regular checks on the project.

• Contact reporter Kim marquis at 523-2279 or

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