Cleanup starts on diesel spill near Valdez

Fuel from ruptured fuel tank of fishing boat reaches land

Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Clean-up crews on Monday started mopping up a spreading sheen of diesel that leaked this weekend from the ruptured fuel tank of a fishing vessel after it grounded in Prince William Sound, state environmental officials said.

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The fuel from the Nordic Viking has already reached an island used as a resting place for seals and is coating an unknown amount of shoreline in the wildlife-rich sound, according to John Brown at the state Department of Environmental Conservation. A cleanup could take weeks, he said.

"This is a large spill for Prince William Sound and that area," said Brown, who is an environmental program specialist at the agency. "There's certainly plenty of wildlife and potential environmental risk is pretty high."

The spill is already one of the top 20 largest of the hundreds that have occurred in the sound over the last decade, said Leslie Pearson, prevention and emergency response manager for the department.

The Nordic Viking leaked up to 3,500 gallons of diesel, covering an area at least five miles long and 200 feet wide. The spill is probably larger, Brown said, but a dense fog on Monday prevented officials from flying over the sound for an update.

Diesel, like crude oil, can be fatally toxic to marine birds and mammals, but dissipates more quickly than crude.

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"As far as we're concerned they're both bad," Pearson said. "Diesel has the same effects on wildlife. It gets into the feathers of birds and the otters' fur and could result in fatalities."

There is no evidence that the spill has killed or injured any animals, Brown said.

The 127-foot vessel grounded near Olsen Bay and Port Gravina on Saturday night, just before an 11 p.m. sunset, for reasons that remain unclear, Coast Guard officials said. The four crew members on board escaped without injury and found shelter aboard another fishing boat nearby.

The grounding site is not considered difficult to navigate, Brown said. It is well-charted on nautical maps and has few submerged rocks.

Winds were blowing from the south at 10-12 mph and seas were generally calm, with two- to three-foot swells. There may have been some fog, but without a weather station in the immediate vicinity, it is difficult to know for sure, said National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Dang.

The Nordic Viking is a fish tender, hauling fish from smaller boats to canneries onshore.

The owner of the boat, Bill Prout of Kodiak, is liable for clean-up under state law, Pearson said. Alaska Chadux Corp., an oil spill removal company based in Anchorage, has been hired for the clean-up.

Calls to Prout and Alaska Chadux were not immediately returned.

Two small fishing vessels have been hired by Hudson Marine Management Services, the vessel's insurer, to assist with an open-water cleanup, Brown said.

A crew on a 100-foot landing craft has cordoned off the waters around the entire vessel and cleaned up oil within the border while keeping an eye out for more leaks. The landing craft will also be used to remove 11,500 gallons of diesel still onboard the vessel.

"We don't know how much has been collected because communications are tough," Brown said. "The only way we can talk to them is through satellite. It's a remote spot."

The site of the grounding is 25 miles south of Valdez and about 20 miles southeast of the reef where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into the rich Southcentral Alaska fishery. Peason said there is no overlap between the Exxon Valdez and Nordic Viking spills.

There were 813 reported spills in the sound between 1995 and 2005, Pearson said. Of those, 221 were from vessels and the rest were from unregulated oil tank farms and home heating oil tanks.

"Fishing vessel spills are the worst of them all because they occur in water and can have a huge impact on the marine environment," Pearson said.

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