Team to re-examine salvage plan of grounded freighter in Alaska
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A salvage team will take another look at whether thousands of gallons of heavy fuel can be removed from a section of a grounded freighter earlier determined unsafe to touch until spring.
Salvagers said Wednesday it was not possible to remove the 176,473 gallons of heavy oil from the No. 1 fuel tank in the bow of the 738-foot Selendang Ayu, which split in half last Wednesday when it ran aground off Unalaska Island in the Aleutian chain.
But on Thursday, incident commander Howard Hile of Gallagher Marine Services said a salvage team from Houston-based Smit America will study whether the fuel can be taken from the tank without removing the bow section, which is grounded at an angle of 30 to 35 degrees.
“The Smit folks are creative and they are going to take a hard look at whether they can do it,” Hile said at a Thursday news conference from Dutch Harbor.
The salvage company’s team was headed to Alaska on Thursday to attempt to remove more than 103,000 gallons of heavy oil from the ship’s No. 3 tank in the stern. A special pump for the operation was to be transported from South Africa, where it was being used in another spill.
The operation calls for pumping fuel into 2,000-gallon tanks and flying the tanks to Dutch Harbor by heavy-lift helicopter. The operation should begin in 10 to 12 days, factoring in bad weather and time for the team and equipment to assemble, officials said.
Meanwhile, conservation officials said they planned to clean more than 5,500 feet of marshland along Skan Bay, where oil had been driven into the mud and sediment.
Workers will use jets of low pressure water to direct the oil away from the vegetation, Gary Folley of the state Department of Environmental Conservation said Thursday.
“It’s a very delicate operation and we want to be sure we don’t drive the oil further into the marsh,” he said.
Folley said the cleanup could begin by Friday and that the area was a high priority because of the wildlife habitats there.
DEC officials said that so far, nine birds covered with oil have been captured, another six have been found dead. A dead sea otter has also been found.
A salmon hatchery in Dutch Harbor is being used as a rehabilitation center for birds covered in oil.
A flyover of the area was delayed Thursday by bad weather, and officials were not able to provide new details of how much oil may have spilled and where it may have spread.
Mike Hodges, a trajectory analyst with NOAA’s hazardous materials division in Seattle, said he was headed to Dutch Harbor Friday, but neither he nor his colleagues have been asked to run their models to forecast where leaking fuel could end up.
“We are basically in a waiting mode,” Hodges said. “From our standpoint, we have to wait until they decide what they are going to do with the salvage.”
He said some advocated leaving the salvage until spring to avoid the possibility of further loss of life, but the same winter storms that threaten the safety of salvage crews could also force the oil out of the partially submerged tanks.
“If they leave the fuel in there, it runs the risk of going through a winter storm and rupturing the other tanks,” Hodges said.
The investigation into the grounding of the Selendang Ayu is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board. Three NTSB investigators are in Dutch Harbor, said spokesman Paul Schlamm. They have been interviewing crew members and collecting whatever logs, charts and records have been recovered.
Six members of the freighter’s crew were lost in the Bering Sea during a helicopter rescue attempt and are presumed dead.
The helicopter crashed into the sea carrying 10 people shortly after evacuating seven crew members. Three Coast Guard personnel and 24-year-old Rajiv Dias of Goa, India, were rescued from the sea by another helicopter.
A search did not turn up the bodies of any of the six missing crew.
Most of the 26 crew members have returned to their homes in the Philippines and India.