Alaska Oil Spill Motivates New Shipping Safety Coalition

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, February 24, 2005 (ENS) - The stranded Malaysian cargo ship Selendang Ayu sits in shallow water off the northern shore of Unalaska Island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The vessel has been there since it lost power, ran aground and broke in half December 8, 2004 on its way to China from Tacoma, Washington with a cargo of soybeans. Most of the 442,000 gallons of various fuels aboard have leaked into the waters of the refuge.

In an attempt to prevent similar accidents in the future, a new coalition of business and conservation interests today announced the formation of a Shipping Safety Partnership (SSP).


The Malaysian cargo ship lies wrecked off Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Islands chain. (Photo courtesy USCG)
The coalition is calling the wreck of the Selendang Ayu the "worst oil spill in Alaska waters since Exxon Valdez." That tanker struck a reef in 1989 spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, and that ecosystem has still not recovered.

"Anytime you spill a thousand tons of a toxic, persistent chemical into a biologically productive marine ecosystem, the damage will be serious," said Professor Richard Steiner, a SSP member and conservation biology professor at the University of Alaska who helped organize the emergency response when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground. "And above all, this damage is entirely unnecessary and unacceptable."

The Selendang Ayu will remain where it is until at least mid-April, when work crews will again attempt to remove what fuel oil remains on board. Harsh weather has made salvage and cleanup operations difficult at best, and the Unified Command earlier this month released a Winter Operations Plan that puts most activities on hold until the weather is better.

"Weather conditions typical of February, frequent frontal passages with short windows of calm between fronts, are not conducive to conducting operations safely and efficiently," said the Unified Command, which includes personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard, state and federal agencies. Safety is foremost in their considerations as six of the vessel’s crew members were lost in the rescue effort.

An undetermined amount of oil has leaked into the waters of the refuge. To date, the total amount of oil removed from the vessel is 144,931 gallons of intermediate fuel oil, diesel, and lube oils, according to the Unified Command, but no firm figure on the amount of oil spilled has been given.

The last overflight of the wreck on February 9 revealed that the bow section of the vessel is now completely submerged except for the tops of the two crane houses, barely visible above the water line.

Crews have finished skimming oil from the engine room and are now working on removing the remaining oil drums and smaller cans from the stern and demobilizing equipment.

Other crews have collected thousands of bags of oily waste from shorelines along with the bodies 1,606 dead birds have been recovered from the bays affected by the spill.


Jennifer Henderson, a member of the shoreline cleanup assessment team, examines oil that washed ashore at Buck Bight January 31, 2005. (Photo courtesy )
But crews may never be able to collect all the spilled oil. The Unified Command said on December 10, "The oil can travel hundreds of miles in the form of scattered tarballs by winds and currents. The tarballs will vary in diameter from several meters to a few centimeters and may be very difficult to detect visually or with remote sensing techniques."

The 4.5 million acre Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge extends from the Arctic Ocean to southeastern Alaska, with most lands in the Aleutian Islands.

This is the heart of the seabird range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says some 40 million seabirds nest on Alaska Maritime Refuge lands – more than found anywhere else in North America. Some of the birds that nest on the refuge, including whiskered, crested and least auklets, red-legged kittiwakes, Aleutian terns and red-faced cormorants, live and breed nowhere else but in this core Bering Sea-North Pacific Ocean zone, the agency says.

The northern fur seal, endangered Steller sea lion, and harbor seals breed on the beaches and offshore rocky islets. Walrus come ashore to rest on refuge lands in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Sea otters use the nearshore waters around islands in the Aleutian Chain, Southeast Alaska, and off the Alaska Peninsula.

And most important to the economy of the islands, the fish and crab are still abundant.

"Unalaska is home to the nation's largest commercial fishing port by volume, and the second-largest by value of annual catch," said Henry Mitchell, executive director of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association, a SSP member.

"The spill caused Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the Makushin/Skan Bay area to all commercial fishing, including Tanner crab, Pacific cod, black rockfish and other groundfish, depriving small-boat fishermen of an important source of income at this time of year."

To date, seafood inspections at the Dutch Harbor and Akutan processing plants have found all seafood products free of oil contamination. Inspections are conducted throughout the day and night to check crab and Pollock as they arrive at the docks.The Unified Command has implemented an enhanced program to protect seafood quality, but still, the seafood harvesters worry that more oil will leak from the wreck.


Salvage crews take advantage of a break in the weather to lighter oil off the Selendang Ayu wreck January 26, 2005. (Photo courtesy USCG)
The Unified Command is hopeful that all the oil that is going to leak has already entered the water, and they conducted an assessment by remote operated vehicle earlier this month. "The remote operated vehicle found substantial damage to the bow and stern sections, indicating a reduced threat of new oiling from the vessel once lightering is complete," officials said on February 9. Lightering is the process of removing oil from the ship.

The coalition aims to improve shipping safety along primary North Pacific cargo shipping routes, in particular along the Great Circle Route through the Aleutian Islands and the southern Bering Sea. The group's primary focus is to reduce the risk of groundings, collisions, and spills from the several thousand merchant vessels each year that trade between ports on the west coast of North America and Asia, sailing through the waters off Alaska.

The SSP is in discussions with Alaska and federal officials to explore further actions that need to be taken to prevent future maritime disasters, and a nongovernmental organization incident investigation is underway. The SSP also is urging Congress to hold hearings on the issue.


The two halves of the Selendang Ayu on December 9, 2004 (Photo courtesy USCG)
"Congress should investigate the Selendang Ayu oil spill in the Alaska Maritime Refuge before it revisits drilling in the equally environmentally sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," said attorney Mark Spalding, senior program officer with the Alaska Conservation Foundation's Alaska Oceans Program, a SSP member.

Other SSP members include: the Alaska Center for the Environment; Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility; Alaska Marine Conservation Council; Cook Inlet Keeper; Northwest Urban Indian Community; The Ocean Conservancy; Jim Ayers, director of Oceana Pacific Region; Pacific Environment; Tanadgusix Corporation (TDX), a shareholder owned Aleut Native Alaska Village Corporation, Unalaska Native Fisherman Association; and the World Wildlife Fund.

The Selendang Ayu is owned and operated by IMC Shipping, based in Singapore with offices worldwide. Howard Hile from Gallagher Marine Services of Alexandria, Virginia, the incident commander for the vessel's owners, says bad weather has slowed the response effort.