Alaska Spill Cleanup Slow as Cold Oil

JUNEAU, Alaska, January 11, 2005 (ENS) - Hampered by rough, cold weather, crews are making slow progress cleaning up the oil spill and shipwreck of the Malaysian freighter Selendang Ayu near Unalaska Island in the Aleutian archipelago. Taking advantage of temperatures above freezing on Monday, responders conducted overflights, shoreline assessment and cleaning, vessel lightering, water quality sampling and wildlife recovery operations.

The Selendang Ayu, a 738 foot bulk freighter, ran aground and broke in two on December 8, 2004, after the ship's main engine quit operating. Six crewmen lost their lives in the icy waters of the Bering Sea. Twenty of the crew were evacuated to safety, but a Coast Guard helicopter crashed during the evacuation.

The vessel had 500,000 gallons of Bunker C fuel oil aboard, and an undetermined amount of that oil has spilled into Makushin and Skan Bay areas of the eastern Aleutian District. She had a load of soybeans aboard in the cargo hold, and the surrounding beaches are now littered with soybeans.


The Selendang Ayu is hard aground near Unalaska Island in the Aleutian chain. (Photo courtesy Unified Command)
The seven year old Chinese built ship is owned by IMC Transworld of Malaysia.

A safety zone encompassing Skan and Makushin Bays is still in effect. No vessels or aircraft may enter that zone without the express permission of the Unified Command. In addition the five miles no fly zone around the wreck of the Selendang Ayu is also still in effect.

The Unified Command in charge of the Selendang Ayu assessment and cleanup operations said Monday that 880 gallons of Coreexit 9500 oil dispersant have arrived in Dutch Harbor. Unified Command officials approved the dispersant’s application plan for airborne and water use.

There is no change in the status of the Selendang Ayu. The U.S. Coast Guard reported January 5 that they located a hole in the starboard bow directly below the ship’s name. The stern section remains hard aground and is listing three degrees to port. The Unified Command is exploring all possible methods to determine the condition and contents of number one and number three centerline tanks.

On Monday, the lightering team continued to remove oil from tank number four starboard and began preparations to access tank number four on the stern’s port side. The total volume lightered from the vessel to date is 35,077 gallons of diesel as of Saturday, according to the Unified Command.


A team of salvagers from SMIT Americas cuts into the deck of the Selendang Ayu to begin extraction of oil in Dutch Harbor January 3. (Photo courtesy Unified Command)
Crews cleaned shoreline areas in Skan and Humpback Bays on Monday, and they will continue these operations as weather permits. Crews have collected 153.1 cubic yards of oily waste to date, the Unified Command said.

The shoreline assessment team worked Monday in Pumicestone Bay 6, Makushin Bay and Portage Bay. Crews recovered 21 oiled bird carcasses Saturday, bringing the total number of dead birds to 536.

To date, crews located 29 live, oiled birds and transported them for rehabilitation. The International Bird Rescue and Research Center officials report the release of 10 rehabilitated birds from Whittier.

Officials also found five sea otter carcasses including two skeletons.

Safety of response personnel remains the Unified Command’s highest priority officials said Monday. They also expressed great concern with protecting sensitive areas, wildlife, and shoreline clean up, on-water recovery and contining the lightering and salvage operations as weather allows.

On Saturday, officials conducted a water sampling survey relating to the ongoing Unalaska Bay Water Quality Sampling Program. Teams are using a fine mesh tow net to sample for tar balls, tar patties, fresh oil, mousse, or other forms of whole oil. While towing the net about three miles offshore near Driftwood Bay, the tow net revealed light contamination and trace amounts of a substance appearing as oil. "Crews could not analyze the substance because of its small amount," the Unified Command said.

The barge Kashega is in place and standing by with two near shore skimmers onboard to be available as needed.

Unified Command officials approved and signed the Waste Management and Disposal Plan on Friday. The Winter Operations Plan is also finalized and was signed as of January 3.


Members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conduct bird carcass collections on a beach littered with soybeans. The wreck of the Selendang Ayu is in the background. (Photo courtesy Unified Command)
“I was truly impressed by the efficiency of the beach crews I observed,” said Marc Hodges from the NOAA Hazardous Materials unit, surveying the impacted area on New Years Day. “These crews have been expertly trained to extensively rake the top layer of material and then dig down to remove any submerged oil. Then they rake back over the site to reduce the impact on the area.”

The environmental unit has surveyed 130 miles of beach by air, land and sea. Only four and a half of those miles are determined to have moderate oiling, with only a half mile heavily oiled. Those moderately to heavily oiled areas were identified in Skan and Cannery Bays and Humpback Bay. Beach clean up to date has been focused in those areas.

Reports were received that three eagles in the vicinity of the Unalaska landfill were oiled. Investigating, wildlife crews came quite close to the birds and found that two were wet but not oiled. The third is oiled and crews are making an effort to recover the bird for treatment. Two eagles were seen oiled in the response area.

"They are still fully capable of flight and crews weren’t able to capture them," said Barbara Callahan, response coordinator for International Bird Rescue Response Center and the incident wildlife coordinator. "They are less than 20 percent oiled."

At this time all western Alaska fisheries are still in effect with the exception of those scheduled for Skan and Makushin Bays. The state has closed the waters from Cape Kovrizhka to Spray Cape to all commercial fishing until further notice.


Holding a Selendang Ayu life ring, Jeff Williams with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service stands atop a cargo hatch that washed ashore from the wrecked freighter, visible in the background. (Photo courtesy Unified Command)
The tanner crab fishery openers in the Bering Sea around St. Paul and the local Unalaska Bay fishery are still scheduled to open on January 15. But state officials said the closed area may be enlarged if the threat of contamination expands to adjacent bays and fishing grounds.

The state of Alaska enforces a zero tolerance policy with respect to oil contamination of seafood products, said the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC). The policy was adopted following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill to preserve the seafood market and product image of seafood from Alaska.

The department currently has no plans to close or delay the Bering Sea snow crab fishery scheduled to open on January 15. The snow crab resource and fishing grounds are far from the spill impacted area, but again, the agency said that if oil contamination is found near the fishing grounds for snow crab, or transit routes from the grounds to shoreside and floating processors, a closure, delay, or modification of the fishery may be imposed.

To keep local residents informed of the progress of the cleanup operation, Unified Command officials conduct public town meetings in Unalaska each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.