Oil spill could be smaller than feared

Posted: Tuesday, December 14, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Salvage and recovery plans for the broken freighter Selendang Ayu continued to inch forward Monday as Coast Guard officials confirmed some good news - the initial spill off Alaska's coast may not have been as large as feared.

The federal government's incident commander, Capt. Ron Morris, said just 41,138 gallons of bunker fuel were contained in the No. 2 tank, the tank directly breached when the Malaysian soybean freighter split in two on an Unalaska Island shoal. Coast Guard officials last week said they thought the 140,000-gallon tank had been full.

Determining which tanks remain intact is a key part of developing a plan to first offload remaining oil and then eventually remove the freighter's bow and stern sections.

A break in the weather Sunday allowed a Coast Guard helicopter to place a three-man assessment crew on the stern Sunday. The helicopter did not have the same luck Monday, Morris said.

"The forward section is awash," he said. "The waves are coming over the deck."

Howard Hile of Gallagher Marine Services, who is heading the recovery for the ship's owners, said a salvage plan was between two days and a week away. He said all options are being considered and the preferred option would be to remove oil before either part of the ship is moved.

The location of the wreck will make any oil pumping difficult. The wreck is on the west side of Unalaska Island in the Aleutian chain and directly in the path of the Bering Sea's winter savagery.

Leslie Pearson, prevention and emergency response program manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said it's unlikely a vessel carrying a pump will be able to lift oil form the damaged freighter sections.

"It's just too dangerous," she said.

A more likely scenario is an airlifted pump - brought in by heavy-lift helicopter - placed on the freighter itself and oil pumped off into other tanks.

The ship was carrying 483,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil and about 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

The survey Sunday indicated the No. 3 tank, containing 104,448 gallons of bunker oil, had been breached and was "breathing," or rising and falling, as the tide moved in and out. However, much of the oil may be riding on a floor of water, Morris said.

Virtually no oil has been recovered.

The vessel Redeemer attempted skimming operations with equipment geared to heavy oil, said Gary Folley, the state's on-scene coordinator.

"They have been encountering heavy sheen and tar balls but no recoverable oil," he said.

Tar balls are heavy oil globs mixed with rock, dirt or sediment.

"It's not easy to recover with a tradition skimmer," Folley said.

Recovery officials have detected few animals affected by the spill. Two dead cormorants were spotted last week. Five dead waterfowl, three more cormorants and two other seabirds, were spotted Sunday, Morris said.

The freighter lost power in its main engine Dec. 7. Tugs and Coast Guard cutters were unable to halt its drift to Unalaska Island.

Six crew members from the ship were lost when a Coast Guard helicopter crashed after lifting them off the vessel Wednesday. Four other people were rescued, including the three helicopter crew members.

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