Fishing boats play key role in oil spill cleanup

Mop-up in Prince William Sound winds up today

Posted: Wednesday, August 08, 2001

ANCHORAGE - The cleanup of up to 35,000 gallons of diesel fuel in Prince William Sound should end today, state officials said.

But they'll continue to assess impacts to the shoreline and wildlife of fuel that leaked from the 180-foot fishing industry vessel the Windy Bay, which sank Saturday in about 1,000 feet of water after hitting a rock.

By this morning, 11,000 gallons of fuel mixed with water had been recovered, said Leslie Pearson of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the state's on-site spill coordinator. Other, unknown quantities of fuel have dissipated in the air.

The cleanup, which involved a skimming vessel and booms deployed from fishing boats, should wind up today, Pearson said. Officials saw only a light, scattered sheen during flights this morning, she said.

But officials will continue to monitor the shorelines and wildlife. One bird, a merganser, is being treated for oiling. A couple of beaches on islands have some oil on them, but that is being flushed away by the tides, Pearson said.

The leak has been testing a key response component set up after the Exxon Valdez oil spill - the use of commercial fishermen.

Pearson said about 20 fishing vessels from Valdez, Cordova, Tatitlek and Seldovia have played a crucial role by pulling boom and towing recovery devices used in the cleanup.

The spill is the largest in Prince William Sound since the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil on March 24, 1989, fouling more than 1,000 miles of Alaska shoreline.

For the Windy Bay spill, the Coast Guard hired the Ship Escort Response Vessel System, an arm of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. that serves the Valdez oil terminal and tankers, to assist in the cleanup about 40 water miles southwest of Valdez.

Besides assisting tankers in safe navigation, the system provides response services in accordance with oil spill response agreements and plans.

The system keeps 350 fishing vessels on retainer for use in spills, including a core group of 50 available to leave at a moment's notice. The boats train with state and federal agencies.

"We drill. We exercise with them. They're obviously demonstrating their capability," said Alyeska spokeswoman Sandy McClintock in Valdez. "They're an integral part of our response."

Compensation for responding to the spill instead of fishing varies by size of the fishing vessel, said Dennis Maguire, Alyeska's regulatory manger.

The core group takes part in formal exercises at least four times every year, Maguire said. Fishermen train to respond to varying conditions, such as spills in open ocean or near shore.

Diesel patches from the Windy Bay were detected in a 40-square mile area of the northern sound.

To corral the petroleum, fishing vessels have worked in pairs, each towing 500-foot booms in a U-shape configuration. In the apex of the U is a 120-foot "current buster" boom that collects the oil.

"It almost looks like a rubber bathtub," Pearson said. The device is designed to allow boats to pull it at speeds greater than they can maneuver conventional boom. Current buster boom also mitigates wave and current action, keeping oil from splashing over or slipping under the boom, and should be more effective than standard containment boom, Pearson said.

Helicopters with state, Coast Guard and Alyeska employees on board direct vessel movements.

"It's almost like a ballet on the water," Pearson said.

Empire reporter Eric Fry contributed to this report.

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