Cleanup crews today are expected to begin the back-wrenching work of removing a mile-long swath of oil blown by winter storms from a busted freighter into a biologically rich marsh...

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DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska — Cleanup crews today are expected to begin the back-wrenching work of removing a mile-long swath of oil blown by winter storms from a busted freighter into a biologically rich marsh.

Yesterday, salvage crews were asked to reconsider plans to let potentially hundreds of thousands of gallons of bunker fuel remain for months in the two damaged halves of the Malaysian cargo ship Selendang Ayu. Until yesterday, the only oil that cleanup crews talked about removing was some 120,000 gallons from the stern.

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Both actions come after Unalaska Island residents — some eager to help, others concerned that oily pollution could worsen this winter — expressed concern that efforts to rid the region of oil after last week’s shipwreck didn’t appear to be moving fast enough.

“People see oil and they think, ‘We’ve got to go get it, we’ve got to go get it,’ ” said Gary Folley with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. “But that was one of the criticisms of the Exxon Valdez [oil spill] — that there wasn’t enough planning on where our priorities ought to be.” In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled about 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound.

The Selendang Ayu broke apart last week after floating 40 hours without engine power in rough seas. The ship’s crew was plucked from the ship, but six of them perished after a Coast Guard rescue helicopter plummeted into the 43-degree Bering Sea.

With no roads over the snow-capped peaks of Unalaska to Bering Sea beaches fouled by the accident — and with winter weather complicating efforts to safely assemble work stations — experts only now are beginning to characterize the amount and depth of oil soiling wildlife-sensitive beaches. And many of the cleanup crews now are acknowledging that most of the beach cleanup likely will take place in spring or summer — if at all.

Oil-removal experts in the past several days from Polaris Applied Sciences in Kirkland have been dropped to the site by helicopter to walk oiled beaches to assess which areas workers should attack first.

Top of the list: a slow-moving stream surrounded by auburn grasses near the toe of Skan Bay, where heavy surf and winds blew the sticky tarlike bunker fuel at least 1,700 feet up into freshwater. It’s an area rich in plant life and used by birds and several species of shellfish.

Yesterday, work crews soaked up oil with mats and are expected today to begin raking areas along the stream bank, much of which is dormant in winter.

“We have to be careful that the solution is not more harm than the problem,” said Gary Mauseth with Polaris, an oil scientist. “Unlike on some of the beaches, it could be three years before natural change cleans this area. We’re trying to speed up those natural processes.”

In fact, Mauseth and others increasingly believe that, provided oil isn’t leaking in great quantities from the abandoned ship, much of the oil now visible on rocky beaches will be broken apart by wave action. That would greatly diminish cleanup needs in the spring.

“There is no reason to be pessimistic,” said Ed Owens, another scientist with Polaris.

The potential for those tanks to rupture this winter prompted cleanup leaders yesterday to say they’ve asked salvage crews to look for options to drain those tanks as well — options that one day earlier were considered unlikely. Earlier in the week, salvage experts had said it was too risky to attempt draining the tanks during winter.

Since then, however, Richard Steiner, a University of Alaska professor and persistent critic of oil-spill response after the Exxon Valdez disaster, complained that as much oil as humanly possible should be pumped from those tanks during any available January weather window.

“Would this be deemed acceptable if the freighter were off Martha’s Vineyard, the Florida Keys or San Francisco? Of course not,” he wrote in an e-mail to reporters. “The salvors need to get more creative and aggressive with this issue, and not accept that ‘no action’ on the bow section until spring is a reasonable course.”

Capt. Ron Morris, incident commander with the Coast Guard, would not elaborate on what other options might be available but said “we’re looking for all opportunities” to remove that oil.