In the first few days after 1989's Exxon Valdez disaster, fishermen were forced to fell trees and drop them across favored spawning streams to halt the spread of oil. Rivals, desperate for ways...

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DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska — In the first few days after 1989’s Exxon Valdez disaster, fishermen were forced to fell trees and drop them across favored spawning streams to halt the spread of oil.

Rivals, desperate for ways to protect their own sacred fishing spots, were known to sneak in and steal the homemade booms.

“Even though we had a few days of absolute calm weather, we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have equipment,” said John Devens, mayor of Valdez, Alaska, at the time of the 1989 spill. “We had cleanup contingencies but we referred to them as ‘the great works of fiction.’ “

Progress in oil-spill prevention and response over the past 15 years has helped make Alaska — the nation’s leading shipper of oil — perhaps the most-prepared region in the world for a mishap during the transport of crude.

But a growing armada of cleanup workers gathering on this mountainous snow-covered island of 3,300 are learning that many of those advances don’t apply to oil streaming from a busted foreign-flagged cargo vessel near one of the world’s most isolated fishing ports.

Focus on tankers

Much of the state’s measures aimed at mitigating the damage from oil spills are directed at tankers and in areas far less remote than the Aleutians.

“We’re in great shape when it comes to tankers,” said Devens. “The Aleutians, unfortunately, are a whole different story.”

In Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, outside Anchorage, oil-skimming capacity is seven to 10 times greater today than in 1989. By law, large tankers must have the capacity to clean up 300,000 barrels of oil within 72 hours.

Tankers are monitored by satellite when they reach treacherous or sensitive straits, such as southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. And if the cleanup company a tanker must have ready is unprepared, the state has 250 fishing vessels on contract to help out.

Yet while the Malaysian-flagged freighter Selendang Ayu was first reported adrift nearly a week ago, workers from as far as San Antonio are still struggling to gauge even how much of its more than 400,000 gallons of fuel has poured into the Bering Sea.

Until yesterday, salvage personnel had not been able to land on either section of the broken ship to determine how much oil had spilled.

In fact, while Alaska’s Legislature in 2001 passed significant new laws extending more cleanup requirements to nontanker traffic, none of those laws applies to the Selendang Ayu.

“Innocent passage”

The 738-foot freighter was ferrying soybeans from Tacoma to China and did not stop in Alaska, exempting it from that state’s regulations under international law, which protects so-called “innocent passage” of foreign-bound vessels.

“I don’t see how in the world this thing’s going to end well,” said Dustan Dickerson, a Dutch Harbor fisherman so frustrated he was near tears. He’d been awaiting the first Tanner-crab season in 13 years along parts of Makushin Bay, which is in the path of the leaking ship’s oil.

“Every day is just more lost time,” Dickerson said.

Despite limited access to the wreckage, cleanup efforts have benefited greatly from lessons learned from previous spills, such as the 10.8 million-gallon Exxon Valdez dump in Prince William Sound, said Gary Folley, state on-scene coordinator.

Last week, a command structure was quickly put into place, aiding decision making.

Folley said many of the world’s top spill experts are now in Dutch Harbor and have plans to evaluate how to stop more oil from leaking from the ship.

The Singapore company that manages the Selendang Ayu and its insurers have hired a response-contractor to start coordinating cleanup, even though Alaska has no authority to force the company to take these steps. (Pre-Exxon Valdez, Folley said, it was common for companies to just sink a stricken ship and say, “See you in court.”

While 20-foot seas for several days prevented salvage crews from boarding the busted freighter, other work crews stretched boom across sockeye-, pink- and chum-salmon streams, making use of sheltered bay to get at least some work done.

In fact, Folley said, now that responders have reached the wreck, improved types of boom, advanced and larger skimmers and years of drills on how to quickly envelope oil will make the response dramatically different from the confusion during the early days of the Valdez spill.

“I have seen a quantum leap in the Feds’ and the state’s ability to tackle these things,” said Dutch Harbor Mayor Shirley Marquardt. “Most of the chaos thus far has been because of our inhospitable weather.”

Marquardt said she was prepared for a growing sense of frustration among residents, who tolerate sideways-blowing snows and six daily hours of winter light because they love the sea and its bounty.

But getting equipment to the spill site is complex and subject to the whims of Mother Nature. Strong winds grounded helicopters and some airplanes several times in the past several days.

Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska biology professor who became an oil-spill activist during the Exxon Valdez disaster, had urged U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in 1998 to do more to track vessel traffic in the Aleutians. He warned of catastrophic spills and suggested having a rescue tug stationed nearby.

Steiner said a high-powered, ocean-going rescue and salvage tugboat, coupled with early notification the ship had lost power Tuesday, could have kept the vessel from running aground. He said he had called on the Coast Guard to study such measures six years ago.

“There’s a number of things that could have been put in place to prevent this,” he said.

The Coast Guard, however, wrote back that such a costly assessment wasn’t needed, Steiner said. Instead, it said it was issuing guidelines to local Coast Guard offices to study how to deal with shipping risks.

Steiner said that hasn’t produced needed changes out on the water. A powerful tugboat on standby at a critical spot along the island chain would have had a far better chance to halt the wayward Selendang Ayu than smaller tugs sent to help, he said.

“They’re a heck of a lot more capable than the harbor tugs that were trying to render assistance here,” he said.

Coast Guard officials and Dan Magone, owner of Unalaska’s most experienced shipwreck-removal company, said maintaining such a tug would cost millions of dollars, money unlikely to keep flowing from Congress given how rarely it would be used.

“It’s all second-guessing,” said Chief Petty Officer Darrell Wilson, a Coast Guard spokesman speaking from Anchorage. “It’s impossible for anybody to say what size tug would have been capable of controlling it, if any.”

Magone said it’s hard to discount just how far the region has come.

For example, he said, the 1986 wreck of the Chi Bo San, a small Korean freighter, sat so long on rocky shores less than three miles from the Selendang Ayu, with its contents streaming out, that rats multiplied until even the hardy salvage crews were afraid to board it.

“It wasn’t that long ago we were leaving wrecks on the beach,” Magone said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or

Alaska oil-spill response
The state of Alaska has adopted numerous regulations for oil-spill response and readiness since the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. However, state regulations that require individual ships to be capable of responding to their own spills do not apply to the Malaysian-flagged Selendang Ayu because it did not stop in Alaska.
Type of response March 1989 December 2004
Managed response No consistent management

structure for spill response.

Unified Command Structure adopted by Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and industry.
Trained responders Limited number of trained responders. Dedicated trained government and industry

spill responders.

Fishing vessels No plan to involve local fishing vessels

in response to a spill.

A program to train fishing-vessel personnel in Prince William Sound, lower Cook Inlet and Kodiak, incorporating over 400 contracted vessels.
Wildlife rescue No established wildlife-rescue programs. Wildlife-response plan, bird-rescue and otter-cleanup centers, and cleaning and rehabilitation equipment in place.

sensitivity mapping

No maps of sensitive areas available. All coastal resources mapped and ranked for priority protection, with data available for response planning.
Non tank vessel plans No plans required. Plans and financial-responsibility certificate required for vessels over 400 gross tons calling on Alaska ports. Plans include activation of an incident-management team and cleanup contractors.


No state-inspection program. Regular inspections of tank vessels and barges by state Department of Environmental Conservation staff.


No Internet capabilities. Establish “Unified Command” Web sites to distribute information to the public.
Source: State of Alaska

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