December 11, 2004 in Nation/World

Wind hampers oil spill response

Rachel D'Oro Associated Press
 
The Spokesman-Review photo


(Full-size photo)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – High wind gusting across the Bering Sea hampered efforts Friday to stem an oil spill from a broken freighter, and there was still no sign of six crew members lost when a rescue helicopter crashed in the turbulent waters.

Two Coast Guard cutters were standing by the broken halves of the Selendang Ayu, while a third cutter with oil vacuuming equipment was heading for the remote beach on Unalaska Island where the 738-foot vessel ran aground Wednesday, said Petty Officer Amy Thomas.

Coast Guard officials said a 40-member response team was assembled in Dutch Harbor on the other side of the island in the Aleutian chain. Plans were to shuttle pollution technicians to the grounding site to begin the cleanup and get a handle on the extent of the spill, said Coast Guard spokesman Roger Wetherell.

“Their job will be to deploy boom across three main streams,” Wetherell said. “Once the boom is deployed they’ll assess the shoreline for pollution, injured or dead animals.”

The six crew members, five from India and one from the Philippines, were plunged into the sea when a rescue helicopter crashed Wednesday while evacuating them from the freighter. Four others, including three Coast Guard personnel, were rescued from the water by a second helicopter that evening and were in good condition.

No sign of the missing crew had been found as of Friday afternoon. The Coast Guard said the cause of the crash was still unknown.

The spill is near a wildlife refuge, home to sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, tanner crabs, halibut and kelp beds.

In 1989, thousands of seabirds and other marine animals were killed and more than 1,200 miles of shoreline contaminated when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in south-central Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling almost 11 million gallons of crude oil.

The double-hull Selendang Ayu belongs to Singapore-based IMC Group, which has contracted a private spill response company. The soybean freighter was carrying 480,000 gallons of heavy bulk fuel and another 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

The vessel lost power in its main engine Tuesday. Tugs and Coast Guard cutters were unable to halt its drift onto a shoal where it broke apart the next day.

Until responders can board the vessel, the extent of the spill is anybody’s guess, said Jim Lawrence, an IMC representative. But that step will have to wait, he said Friday afternoon, when winds were picking up and predicted in the 45-knot range by evening.

“One of the first priorities is safety in working on a response,” Lawrence said. “It’s a dangerous environment there.”

Unalaska Island is 800 miles southwest of Anchorage.

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