A winter salvage effort to pump fuel from a wrecked freighter will focus only on the stern section, with officials resigned to leaving a leaky bow section to the fate of unpredictable...

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DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska — A winter salvage effort to pump fuel from a wrecked freighter will focus only on the stern section, with officials resigned to leaving a leaky bow section to the fate of unpredictable seas.

Salvagers say it is not possible to recover an estimated 170,000 gallons of bunker oil from the bow section of the Selendang Ayu. Instead, they will try to plug some of the leaks and leave the bow hulk on the rocks at least until spring, when improving weather could make it possible to remove the wreckage.

The prospects look better for recovering fuel from the stern section. The salvagers plan to use heavy-lift helicopters to try to pump more than 120,000 gallons of oil from the stern section but not until early next month.

The scaled-back salvage plan announced yesterday underscores the damage that powerful seas already have wrought on the 738-foot Selendang Ayu since it lost power, ran aground and split into two pieces Dec. 8 off Unalaska Island. The sea has been more harsh on the bow section, where an inspection team found water had been entering fuel tanks.

“As the vessel continues to sink and settle on the bottom, it continues to degrade and continues to leak,” said Capt. Ron Morris, a Coast Guard official who serves on the Unified Command Team of federal, state and industry officials overseeing the salvage effort and oil-spill cleanup.

The bow section could continue to leak fuel into the stormy coastal waters of Unalaska Island for days or weeks. Heavy seas also are expected to continue to batter the wreckage. It is unclear how much, if any, fuel will be left by the time salvage efforts are launched next year.

For some residents of the Aleutian island, many of whom earn their living and feed their families from the sea, the plan was difficult to digest.

“That’s scary,” said Sharon Svarny-Livingston, environmental coordinator for Unalaska’s Qawalangin Tribe. “The oil’s just not going to stay in there. I just don’t believe it will. And that could pose a very, very long-term effect.”

Svarny-Livingston said she fears the salvage experts are underestimating the force of winter weather on the western side of the island, where the freighter is mired in rocks. “They haven’t seen nothing yet,” she said. “It’s not unusual to get 120-mile-per-hour winds out there. A few years ago, they clocked 206-mile-per-hour winds.”

Dutch Harbor resident Greg Hawthorne, an outfitter who runs a salmon and halibut fly-fishing camp in the summer at Volcano Bay, about 10 miles from the wreckage, at first favored the plan for the stern portion of the ship.

But after hearing that the bow section would be left until spring, he said, “No, no, no, that’s not right. You’ve got to get that oil out of there. Leaving it there is just too dangerous.”

Earlier in the week, Unified Command officials had hoped that the bow section might be refloated and towed to a safe harbor, where the fuel could be pumped off. But three separate multinational salvage groups making bids on the job all concluded that the bow section had sustained too much damage to be refloated. A separate analysis by the Coast Guard reached the same conclusion.

The winning salvage bid was put in by Smit International, a Dutch-based company. In early January, Smit plans to try to pump out the stern section, a task expected to take about a month to complete. The plan calls for using heavy-lift helicopters to position 2,000-gallons tanks on board the vessel and then to ferry them off as they are pumped full of fuel.

“The one [plan] that has been selected is not the one with the lowest price tag, but the one with the highest potential for success,” said Howard Hile, who represents the vessel’s owners and insurers.

Hile said a separate plan is being developed to return in spring or summer, when weather is far milder, to remove both sections of the wreck from the rocks and haul them away.

Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, in a conference call, grilled on-scene incident commanders over the steps leading to the grounding, and he initially sounded skeptical of their plans.

“She’s going to be all busted up in a couple of months, isn’t it?” he asked, referring to the fuel-filled bow section.

After hearing the salvage plans, however, the governor sounded resigned.

“If you can’t get the ship out, you can’t get the ship out,” Murkowski said. “I’m not sure what you could have done.”

The Selendang Ayu, a Malaysian-flagged freighter, went adrift Dec. 7 while en route from Puget Sound to China with a load of soybeans. A published report indicated the crew shut down the engine to make a repair in stormy seas. After a lengthy, unsuccessful effort to restart the engines, the crew called the Coast Guard for assistance.

Efforts to tow the freighter to safety failed, and the ship ran aground with an estimated 424,000 gallons of bunker oil on board. Coast Guard helicopters were able to rescue most of the crew, but six died when one of the aircraft crashed into the sea. Three Coast Guard crewmen and one member of the ship’s crew were pulled from the water.

Spill-response crews have boomed up the entrances to salmon streams at the end of Skan Bay to try to prevent fuel from washing into the waterways. But they have been unable to place booms along another sensitive waterway that leads from freshwater lakes.

The ship’s fuel is expected to float rather than sink. But so far, efforts to skim up the fuel — floating as sheens and tar balls — have yielded little results. Officials estimate about 41,000 gallons of oil may have leaked from the freighter thus far.

The skimmers, however, will remain on the scene. In the days ahead, they are expected to find “plenty of pockets” of floating fuel thick enough to skim, according to Gary Folley, an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation official.

Wildlife damage assessments are just beginning in part of the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge that is home to sea birds, sea otters and many other animals. Rescue teams earlier in the week retrieved a dead sea otter, as well as four dead birds, and have spotted other birds that appear to be oiled.

Federal and state officials say they do not have a good estimate of how much fuel has been released, and that uncertainty increased yesterday with reports that water is moving in and out of damaged tanks on the bow section.

Due to the rough waters around the wreck, it is not possible to put out booms to try to contain the oil as it leaks out the front half, according to Folley, the state official. “There is no containment boom in the world that is capable of handling those conditions.”

Seattle Times staff researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story. Staff reporter Hal Bernton reported from Portland. Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com