Weather stalks oil removal

SELENDANG AYU: Crews make ready to remove fuel from ship.
By PETER PORCO
Anchorage Daily News

Crews have made progress over the last two days preparing to remove the remaining bunker oil from the wreckage of the Selendang Ayu off Unalaska Island in the Aleutians and also in cleaning some of the soiled beaches in the area, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said Saturday.
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The weather forecast, however, called for weather today and Monday foul enough that actual removal of the fuel could be delayed once again, said Len Marcus.
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Winter storms contributed to the grounding and subsequent breakup of the 738-foot cargo ship on Dec. 8, and they've been hampering salvage, cleanup and animal-rescue operations for much of the time since.
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But parts of last week were relatively good-weather days, Marcus said. "Yesterday was a very productive day," he said late Saturday afternoon. "The helicopter to be used for lightering (pumping the oil into tanks that will be flown to Unalaska) made several runs to the wreck. "Workers on the copter brought supplies and equipment to the stern half of the ship, which split in two on the west side of the island outside Skan Bay, spilling oil and fouling beaches, when the vessel's crew couldn't restart its engines.
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Three tanks in the stern section are thought to hold about 100,000 gallons of the heavy oil, the target of the planned lightering operation by Houston-based Smit America.
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At least 40,000 gallons was spilled in the waters outside the bay when the soybean freighter broke up. Authorities have said it's possible even more oil leaked from two main fuel tanks, estimating that additional amount to be as much as 280,000 gallons.
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The front half of the vessel has sunk, but the back half has remained above the ocean's surface.
The Smit America salvage crews visited the stern portion Tuesday and made some lightering preparations. Poor weather followed and delayed them until Friday when they flew from Unalaska to the ship.
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They landed, secured their equipment and made other preparations before flying back to Unalaska, Marcus said. The same occurred on Saturday. "The actual fuel removal work itself will probably begin in a day or two of today, weather permitting," he said Saturday.
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The National Weather Service forecast called for strong winds and high seas for today, Monday and into Tuesday, said Marcus.
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The break in the weather early last week also gave field workers, whose ranks have swelled to about 100, their first good look at some of the environmental damage caused by the Selendang Ayu's oil.
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They found the bunker fuel in some beaches had penetrated a foot deep, and they also found signs that foxes and eagles are eating oiled carcasses of birds.
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Saturday, cleanup workers had planned to concentrate on a marshy area near the shore of Skan Bay where the storms had pushed the oil beyond the beach, according to Marcus. The marsh would not flush out normally as well as the regular beaches can, and the crews wanted to keep the gunk from getting pushed farther into the marsh. But seas were high enough to keep the workers' skiffs from getting there, Marcus said. "So they ended up in Portage Bay, another cleanup area," he said.
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Besides the lightering of the oil and cleanup of the beaches, workers are also trying to assess the overall contamination of the shores, according to Marcus. And they're also trying to conduct a wildlife survey while collecting live and dead animals where they can.
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On Monday, 45 seabird carcasses were found in a relatively small area of one beach, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency believes many more are dead.