Soybeans & heating oil, YUCK!

Ominous news from the Unalaska tonight. For the first time since a Malaysian freighter broke in half off the coast, there are signs it is deteriorating.
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Friday, in increasingly rough seas, brown foam was sighted around the ship. It's a sign that more oil is leaking from it, though no one knows how much.
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And now soybeans are floating through the water, accumulating on the bottom and piling up knee-deep on beaches near the shipwrecked freighter Selendang Ayu, which broke apart last week on Unalaska Island and began spilling its 66,000-ton load of soybeans.
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Biologists and cleanup experts are far more concerned about the thick, brown bunker oil that has fouled the area's crystal waters and black-rock beaches. But an Illinois soybean expert said things could get ugly when summer hits the Aleutians.
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"Enjoy it while you can" this winter, said Emerson Nafziger, a crop science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Once it does get warm, it's going to smell to high heaven."
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Still, 66,000 tons is a big pile of soybeans, and spill responders aren't quite sure what effect the beans will have on a remote Aleutian island and its birds, marine mammals and shoreside creatures.
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"This is a new one for us, that's for sure," said Anne Morkill of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which includes the portion of Unalaska Island where the ship went aground.
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Soybeans, the quarter-inch-long yellow legumes brimming with oil and protein, are the most valuable export crop for the United States, and China is the country's biggest customer.
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The Selendang Ayu had packed its seven cargo holds full before it sailed from Tacoma on Nov. 28 for Xiamen, China. A full load for the Malaysian-flagged vessel would settle during transit to some 2.4 million cubic feet, according to the ship's managers, IMC Group.
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That's enough soybeans to lay a strip four inches deep and four feet wide from Anchorage to Fairbanks or to fill a caravan of 8,900 dump trucks. And when soybeans get wet and swell, the volume can double or triple.
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Still, the Illinois professor said, "Of all the things that could fall into the water, soybeans are one of the more innocuous."
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Never having thought about a soybean spill before, Nafziger couldn't offer suggestions on what the beans may do. In fresh water, they sink, he said. "I'm not sure about saltwater."
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In Skan Bay, where the freighter lies in two pieces, soybeans poured out of the broken hold and apparently sank. As water leaked into the remaining holds, white foam, apparently a by-product of the swelling beans, trailed away from the ship and its holds. When spill responders finally got to the shore nearest the wreck, they found soybeans piled 3 feet deep along a 100-yard stretch of beach.
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Actually, they found soybean mush, said Dan Magone, the Dutch Harbor salvage expert whose crews waded through it. "It was knee deep," he said, but no longer beanlike. "It's already expanded and puffed out," like oatmeal.
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Magone, who has been anxious to start cleaning up the wreckage and whatever oil it contains, said he isn't concerned about the soybean scum line around Skan Bay. "It'll degrade in a hurry," he said.
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Others suggest that, as organic material, the soybeans won't harm the environment. Biologists are hoping that's true but want to analyze some of the material before they call it harmless, said Morkill, deputy manager of the refuge.
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"I think there are just a lot of questions about whether this is a good or a bad thing," she said. Among their questions is whether soybeans may absorb or attract oil and transport it farther than the oil would normally travel. Soybean experts have said that's unlikely because the beans release a substance that makes it almost impossible for oil to stick.
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The same experts have told spill responders that even if soybeans survive the oil, the saltwater and the winter, they're not likely to sprout. And if they did, they wouldn't survive the summer.
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Perhaps a better question is whether other plants may sprout in the wake of the spill. Soybean experts told the spill responders that 2 percent of a soybean ship's cargo is wheat, weeds and other seeds, a total of more than 1,300 tons.
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Biologists also wonder how animals will react if they eat the beans or the resulting mush. So far, glaucous-winged gulls seem more interested in it than other birds, Morkill said. Many seabirds are carnivores, subsisting largely on small fish.
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But the bird population in the spill area will soon grow, as other species return for the summer, including threatened Steller's eiders and emperor geese. "It's something we'll just have to keep our eye out for," she said.
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Soybeans are known as a superb feed for livestock and fish, but that's after processing. The raw beans are just the opposite, according to Nafziger, containing what he called an "antinutritional factor." The protein is hard to digest, he said. If shorebirds ate the beans, "I don't think it would prove toxic, but it may not really advance their cause much."
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There is some concern that the beans could end up in a thick layer on the ocean floor, said NOAA's Whitney. No one knows what effect the beans may have on crab or bottom fish or how long it would take for the material to decompose, or whether currents would wash the area clear.
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Fuel has spilled onto shore and into marshland officials said. A shoreline cleanup that began Thursday near Skan Bay had to be halted on Friday because of inclement weather, Hile said.
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Before the cleanup was stopped, 35 large bags of oily waste had been collected, officials said. A small amount compared what will be needed if all 424,000 gallons spill.
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Eleven birds covered with oil have been found alive so far, and another six were dead, conservation officials said. One dead sea otter has been found.
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The rising seas and winter storms are affecting the vessel, the soybeans and the fuel still inside. Further disintegration of the ship is possible if the sea continues to pound it, Hile said. "Storms clearly represent the greatest threat to the integrity of the vessel," Hile said.
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Snow storms are forecast for the area in the next two days, with wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour expected and seas up to 14 feet, according to National Weather Service spokesman Dave Vonderheide.
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By Sunday, the wind is expected to shift and come from the east, and the island's peaks could shelter the area, Vonderheide said.
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Meanwhile Friday, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens said he hopes the federal government will push to require ships traveling through the Aleutians to have survival suits for all crew members. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the Selendang Ayu had only three survival suits on board, the minimum required, and Coast Guard rescuers said they saw no evidence of any.