Risks grow with ship traffic in Aleutians

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Ship traffic through the Aleutian Islands is growing, along with the risk of accidents, according to a scientific report published Thursday.

Many of the ships traveling through the Aleutians are minimally regulated, according to the report. In recent years, thousands of gallons of fuel have spilled near Unalaska Island, one of the country's top seafood ports, and only a small fraction of the oil has been recovered, the report said.

The report was published by the Washington, D.C.-based Transportation Research Board, an arm of the National Research Council.

Federal and state decisions about shipping safety in the Aleutians won't be formulated for several years at least. The report, published Thursday, precedes a two-year, joint state and federal study of how to reduce those risks.

"I have some impatience," said Pete Hendrickson, an Unalaska fisherman. He says he lost fishing time due to the massive fuel oil spill from a Malaysian cargo ship, the Selendang Ayu, that broke apart near the island in 2004.

The Selendang Ayu accident led to six deaths when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter went down. Fuel from the ship contaminated 34 miles of beach and cost roughly $100 million to clean up.

Last March, Hendrickson said, he and other Unalaska residents were petrified when a 443-foot freighter, the Spanish-flagged Salica Frigo, temporarily lost power and drifted within 500 yards of Unalaska Island.

"We need to get something in place so we don't lose another ship," he said.

Thousands of cargo ships pass through the remote, stormy archipelago each year, transiting the Great Circle shipping route between Asian and U.S. ports.

The report recommended that the Coast Guard and the state should investigate funding levels for a rescue tug stationed in the Aleutian chain while the two-year study is in progress.

The $3 million study will begin this year with the naming of an advisory panel.

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