A storm more powerful than the one that ripped a freighter in half off the coast of Unalaska Island swept over the Aleutians last night, promising near-hurricane-force winds that...
DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska A storm more powerful than the one that ripped a freighter in half off the coast of Unalaska Island swept over the Aleutians last night, promising near-hurricane-force winds that could do even more damage to the stranded ship.
Officials overseeing efforts to contain oil spilled from the Selendang Ayu ordered a half-dozen chartered cleanup vessels off the Bering Sea after weather forecasters predicted overnight gusts that could top 80 mph, 22-foot seas and freezing spray.
By 5 p.m. yesterday, researchers with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who had put in a temporary weather station just north of Volcano Bay near where the ship ran aground, already had reported winds of at least 57 mph.
Flights in and out of Dutch Harbor were grounded, and officials overseeing the cleanup were busy honing plans to salvage oil from the ship even as they acknowledged the oil might be gone by the time the storm subsides.
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“As the vessel deteriorates, there’s a risk of an even greater release,” said Gary Folley, on-scene spill coordinator for the state of Alaska. “The question is: Will it be a slow release or a fast one? Obviously, we need to be prepared for the worst.”
The Selendang Ayu was hauling soybeans and carrying 424,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel when it broke apart off the west coast of Unalaska on Dec. 8. The ship already had spent nearly 40 hours without engine power in raging seas during a storm that weather officials rated as “moderate.” Six crew members died when a Coast Guard helicopter crashed trying to rescue them from the ship.
Folley said the storm system now moving through the area was rated “severe” and was expected to worsen through the evening.
But Chris Maier, an on-scene adviser from NOAA, said the impact of the storm on the vessel, now trapped just offshore near Skan Bay, may be mild compared with what had been feared at first.
The storm two weeks ago blew in from the northwest, so its full force hit the ship, blowing it in toward Skan Bay. The latest front was coming from the northeast.
“The island actually may serve as a bit of a shelter to that area in this storm,” Maier said, because mountains jut directly from the sea a few thousand feet from where the ship is aground in two pieces.
Of course, he added, “we won’t really know for sure until we get a look.”
Command officials expected that might take a few days. Dutch Harbor, on the northeast side of Unalaska Island, is relatively sheltered, with mountains covering all but a few narrow stretches of land. But even here, roads yesterday were covered with 4 or 5 inches of fresh snow, and visibility at times was limited to a few dozen yards. Whitecaps broke in the harbor, and waves at least 3 feet high crashed against rocks near the airport runway.
The Aleutian Islands chain has had a relatively mild fall, Maier said. But in late December and January, the region has been known to experience hurricane-force winds, though the chance is typically not more than 2 percent.
Most oil-cleanup vessels including large, oceangoing ships that will be used to ferry skimmers to remove oil from open water aren’t designed to operate in more than 5- or 6-foot seas and 30-knot winds, Folley said.
Weather during the next month is expected often to be right at the edge of that operating limit, he said.
A salvage team in January will attempt to remove the fuel from the stern portion of the ship by pumping it into 2,000-gallon containers, which would be ferried off the wreckage by helicopter.
An attempt to remove oil from the bow section was initially determined to be unsafe before spring, but officials now say the salvagers team will try to find a way to do it earlier.
The Selendang Ayu already has dumped at least 40,000 gallons of bunker fuel on the west side of Unalaska Island, part of a national wildlife refuge inhabited by numerous marine mammals, salmon and marine waterfowl, including at least one kind of seabird protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Two other fuel tanks that once held nearly 300,000 gallons are leaking, though no one has been able to assess how much already has escaped.
Twenty oiled birds have been recovered alive, as have 20 dead oiled birds and one dead sea otter. Biologists have observed approximately 600 birds in the area that have been affected by the oil.