Group: More must be done to prevent Aleutian wrecks

Study to examine risks to ships is far from completion

Posted: Friday, December 09, 2005

ANCHORAGE - A shipping safety group that formed after the wreck of a freighter off Unalaska Island last year says not enough has been done to prevent a similar episode.

One year after the Selendang Ayu broke up off the Aleutian Island, representatives of the Shipping Safety Partnership said more should be done to protect the archipelago from the estimated 3,000 vessels that pass through each year.

At a press conference Wednesday at the Alaska Center for the Environment, University of Alaska marine scientist Rick Steiner blasted the state and federal government for not making changes.

"I'm outraged," Steiner said. "How many disasters will it take for the government and ship owners to take action?"

Federal and state authorities say evaluating the wreck and what can be done to prevent more occurrences is a slow process and it could be years before risks from the vessels are understood and recommendations of change are made.

The 738-foot Selendang Ayu was carrying about 60,000 tons of soybeans when it lost power, drifted for two days and grounded and broke in half on the west side of Unalaska. Six crew members died when a Coast Guard helicopter trying to rescue them crashed near the freighter during a storm Dec. 8, 2004.

Response crews estimated about 335,000 gallons of fuel oil and marine diesel were spilled, along with the soybeans.

Steiner said the freighter's owner, IMC Group in Singapore, should pay environmental claims to speed recovery and hasten prevention measures.

Steiner's group is also calling for IMC to pay $50 million to buy two tugs that could handle a freighter the size of the Selendang Ayu. Tugs powerful enough to haul the Selendang to safer waters were not available one year ago, leaving the ship defenseless against the weather.

"There's been a total lack of attention to the North Pacific after the Selendang Ayu," said former Alaska Oil Spill Commission chairman Walter Parker, a member of the new organization. "I've watched the system go to sleep from 1980 to 1989, and now I'm watching them asleep again."

Parker said the number of ships traveling the North Pacific route has increased 100 percent from 15 years ago.

Leslie Pearson of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said the cleanup team does not know how much the final bill will be. She said what the shipping safety group wants is premature.

"They are jumping the gun in what needs to be placed out to the Aleutians for spill mitigation," Pearson said.

Pearson and the federal on-scene coordinator for the Selendang Ayu spill, Coast Guard Capt. Mark DeVries, said a study to determine risks of the vessels passing through the Aleutians has not even started. Pearson said the $2 million risk assessment study may take a year to complete.

The study will look at traffic lanes, escort tugs and other considerations, she said.

The first step is getting someone to pay for a study, she said.

DeVries said changes have been made since last year. Sensors have been put in place to monitor vessel traffic at Unimak Pass. That enables the Coast Guard to know earlier when vessels are in distress, he said.

The Selendang Ayu crew did not call for help when it encountered trouble, possibly costing critical hours, he said.

DeVries said IMC has contributed millions of dollars for the cleanup. He hopes to complete the cleanup this summer.

Pearson said 97 percent of the beaches had been cleaned.

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