Major oil spill threat to sea life

Prince William Sound has not experienced such a large spill since 1989

Posted: Tuesday, August 07, 2001

ANCHORAGE - A cleanup is under way today in the largest oil spill in Prince William Sound since the Exxon Valdez more than 12 years ago.

About 35,000 gallons of diesel have leaked from a 180-foot fishing vessel that sank Saturday. No one was injured, but workers have spotted endangered Steller sea lions and humpback whales swimming through the diesel. Also, the spill has hit the beach in at least three spots.

By Monday afternoon, about 10,500 gallons had been recovered, according to the Coast Guard, and another 10,500 gallons had dissipated into the air. That leaves about 14,000 gallons uncollected.

"We've got a large spill in the Sound. We've got a lot of sensitive resources in the area. With one this big, you can expect wildlife impacts," said Leslie Pearson, the state's on-scene coordinator who is tracking the spill from Valdez.

So far, workers have not recovered any dead or fuel-soaked wildlife, she said.

Diesel patches have spread out among 10 square miles of the northern Sound, an area rich with wildlife, near the height of the summer pink salmon run.

The tender Windy Bay was headed south Saturday morning from Unakwik Inlet when the accident occurred. The tide had just turned and was coming back in when the vessel grounded on a ledge about 400 yards off the eastern shore of Olsen Island.

The fjords and bays near Unakwik Inlet and nearby Wells Bay are deep. But rocks spike the waters.

"We don't know what they hit," said Lt. Keith Ropella, a Coast Guard spokesman in Valdez. "Some rocks in the area are marked. We don't know if they hit one of those."

After the vessel sank, fuel began percolating to the surface immediately, Pearson said. She believes all of the 35,000 gallons of diesel aboard leaked from the boat.

About 200 people and 30 boats responded to the spill, including 19 salmon fishing boats, Ropella said.

The spill crews set up absorbent boom around Fairmount Point and Fairmount Bay, trying to protect an oyster farm, Pearson said. Other boats have been working along tide rips, where diesel gathers in a line of scum.

State and Coast Guard officials praised the response. In particular, Pearson commended the fishermen.

"They are the ones pulling the booms and collecting the oil," she said.

Under state law, vessel owners are responsible for cleaning up a spill, said Larry Dietrick of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Windy Bay crabbed for at least the past 10 years in the Bering Sea, said co-owner Ralph Hansen of Sumner, Wash. He said his insurance will cover the costs of the cleanup.

"We're jumping on this. We know it's our responsibility," he said.

The spill is the worst in Prince William Sound since the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude oil.

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