Weather stymies oil spill cleanup

Search for missing crew called off

Posted: Sunday, December 12, 2004

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - With 24-foot seas and 50-knot winds continuing to pound the Aleutian island where a soybean freighter cracked in half, officials Saturday could take only a few small steps toward cleaning up the massive oil spill left behind.

Three days after the 738-foot Selendang Ayu wrecked on the west side of Unalaska Island, Coast Guard officials still didn't know how much of the more than 400,000 gallons of thick oil had spilled because they hadn't been able to board either half of the wreck.

The agency's first priority is avoiding more casualties. Six crew members from the ship were lost when a helicopter crashed after lifting them off the vessel Wednesday; four other people were rescued. A search for the ship's missing crew - five from India and one from the Philippines - was suspended Friday night.

Capt. Ron Morris, the Coast Guard's incident commander, said salvage efforts Saturday were limited to just three missions, including a flight by a Coast Guard helicopter to survey the broken freighter.

A private vessel was to attempt to lay more protective boom in front of streams within Makushin Bay, and a ship hired by the Selendang Ayu's owner was to leave Dutch Harbor, on the other side of Unalaska Island, to bring wildlife experts to the island Sunday to survey and rescue oiled birds.

The Coast Guard had brought in a cutter, the Sycamore, that carries equipment to skim oil in open water. However, oil released so far already has been pushed into surf where contractors will perform the cleanup.

Oil has reached the headlands east of the wreck. Northwest winds also have pushed oil into Skan Bay a few miles north of the wreck. The Coast Guard has unconfirmed reports of a sheen about 10 miles north of the wreck in the much larger Makushin Bay.

The freighter lost power in its main engine Tuesday. Tugs and Coast Guard cutters were unable to halt its drift to Unalaska Island, where it grounded Wednesday and broke apart.

The ship was carrying 440,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil and about 30,000 gallons of fuel. It split in two over the No. 2 tank, which had a capacity of 140,000 gallons. Coast Guard officials say that is the oil that apparently flowed out of the ship.

Morris said incident commanders were planning for one catastrophic release. However, since the initial surge when the ship broke up, oil streaming from the wreck has diminished.

That could mean other tanks on the Selendang Ayu remain intact, but no one will know until the bow and stern pieces are reboarded, said Howard Hile of Gallagher Marine Services, the incident commander for the vessel's owners.

"There is no way to determine what is still there," Hile said.

As of Friday, the two parts of the ship remained upright a couple of hundred yards apart off the rugged island beach, Hile said.

In other developments Saturday, the cutter Alex Haley returned the final 10 survivors rescued from the freighter to Dutch Harbor. Morris said representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board had begun questioning crew about the cause of the wreck.



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