Learning from Alaska
Severe weather, remote location hamper work in worst spill since Exxon Valdez
The search for oiled animals was called off in early January 2005 after most of 470,000 gallons of oil leaked from a grounded freighter into the waters off Unalaska Island. Members of the IBRRC response team were able to collect 29 birds – even though severe winter weather and the remote location hampered the search and collection of oiled animals. A stranded Malaysian cargo ship that lost power on December 8, 2004, still sits in shallow water in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The vessel has been there since it lost power and broke in half on its way to China from Tacoma, Washington with a cargo of 60,000 tons of soybeans. Oil not the only mess left by freighter According to Incident Command reports, more than 1,500 birds and five otters have found dead. Several hundred more live oiled birds were spotted, but proved to unreachable because of the remote Bering Sea location.
Totals as of Feb 2, 2005
- Captured – 29
- Cleaned and Released – 10
- Died – 19 Birds, 6 Mammals
- Carcasses – 1,503 Birds, 6 Mammals
Various experts have called the spill the worst since the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that dumped 11 million gallons into the Prince William Sound. The ship ran aground near Valdez on Bligh Reef at 12:04 am March 24, 1989.
In an attempt to prevent similar accidents in the future, a new coalition of business and conservation interests announced the formation of a Shipping Safety Partnership (SSP). The oiled birds collected, included Common Murres, Crested Auklets, Horned-grebes, Pelagic Cormorants and a Long-tailed Duck. Some members of IBRRC’s oil spill reponse team left Alaska and traveled directly to a broken pipeline oil spill near Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico.
To study the impact of the spill on shorebirds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released 162 bird size blocks of wood from the grounding site the second week in January 2005. The blocks will help determine where dead birds might have drifted, said Catherine Berg, an oil spill response coordinator with the USFWS. The agency is asking that people report any ocean sightings and return any blocks found on shore.
“We’re trying to get a feel for what we may have missed,” Berg said. “It’s just not possible to search every beach where carcasses come ashore and even if could, we’d still be competing with animals that prey on oiled birds, like foxes, eagles, gulls and rats.”
At the mercy of the weather
For three weeks the weather proved to be a frustrating waiting game for IBBRC and others on scene. The cleanup and search for oiled animals was stalled by strong winds, rough seas and the remoteness of the spill. Adding to concerns: Only five hours of daylight in this area of Alaska in winter.
“We are at the mercy of the weather,” said Jay Holcomb, Executive Director of the California-based IBRRC. “As soon as there’s an opening in the storms we’ll assist wildlife officials in assessing and capturing any oiled wildlife we can find.” Holcomb said. “But it has to be safe enough for our team members to access the impacted areas.” When live birds were rescued, they were stabilized for a day or two in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Then the oiled birds were flown to Anchorage for treatment at IBRRC-managed Alaska Wildlife Response Center (AWRC). The AWRC is an adapted warehouse that was developed after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. It is funded by the petroleum industry. Federal law requires that any oil spill response team include wildlife handlers. In past spills, animals have been hazed to keep them out of oil and IBRRC has captured and removed healthy animals to keep them clean.
Tar balls from the spill were reported on shore as far north as Makushin Bay, about 10 miles from the spill site. Oil was also spotted in Skan Bay, drifting north from the wreckage.
According to a federal hazardous materials fact sheet, the type of bunker oil on the ship is “a dense, viscous oil … (that) usually spreads into thick, dark colored slicks” when it is spilled on water.
Biologists are worried that the spill from the vessel could threaten Steller sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals and seabirds foraging in bays along the island’s west coast. This spill was not only a tragedy for wildlife but for people as well. A Coast Guard helicopter crashed trying to rescue crew members from the grounded freighter. Six people were lost at sea in the 43-degree water; the four Coast Guard members onboard survived.
The internationally recognized IBRRC has responded to more than 200 spills since its formation in 1971. On this spill, the bird rescue group is working with the oil spill response co-op Alaska Chadux Corporation.