Fishers crucial to spill response

35,000-gallon discharge is biggest since Exxon Valdez in 1989

Posted: Wednesday, August 08, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- A 35,000-gallon diesel leak in Prince William Sound is testing a key response component set up after the Exxon Valdez oil spill -- the use of commercial fishermen.

Leslie Pearson of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the state's onsite spill coordinator, said about 20 fishing vessels from Valdez, Cordova, Tatitlek and Seldovia have played a crucial role by pulling boom and towing recovery devices used in the cleanup of fuel from the Windy Bay. The 180-foot fishing industry vessel sank Saturday in about 1,000 feet of water after hitting a rock.

The spill is the largest in Prince William Sound since the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil on March 24, 1989, fouling more than 1,000 miles of Alaska shoreline. Researchers say long-term effects of the crude oil spill continue to appear.

For the Windy Bay spill, the Coast Guard hired the Ship Escort Response Vessel System, an arm of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. that serves the Valdez oil terminal and tankers, to assist in the cleanup about 40 water miles southwest of Valdez.

Besides assisting tankers in safe navigation, the system provides response services in accordance with oil spill response agreements and plans.

The system keeps 350 fishing vessels on retainer for use in spills, including a core group of 50 available to leave at a moment's notice. The boats train with state and federal agencies.

''We drill. We exercise with them. They're obviously demonstrating their capability,'' said Alyeska spokeswoman Sandy McClintock in Valdez. ''They're an integral part of our response.''

Compensation for spill response instead of fishing varies by size of the fishing vessel, said Dennis Maguire, Alyeska's regulatory manger.

The core group takes part in formal exercises at least four times every year, Maguire said. Fishermen train to respond to varying conditions, such as spills in open ocean or near shore.

Diesel patches from the Windy Bay have been detected in a 40-square mile area of the northern sound.

To corral the petroleum, fishing vessels have worked in pairs, each towing 500-foot booms in a U-shape configuration. In the apex of the U is a 120-foot ''current buster'' boom that collects the oil.

''It almost looks like a rubber bathtub,'' Pearson said. The device is designed to allow boats to pull it at speeds greater than they can maneuver conventional boom. Current buster boom also mitigates wave and current action, keeping oil from splashing over or slipping under the boom, and should be more effective than standard containment boom, Pearson said.

Helicopters with state, Coast Guard and Alyeska employees direct vessel movements.

''It's almost like a ballet on the water,'' Pearson said.

By Tuesday, 11,000 gallons had been recovered. Recovery was aided by two circumstances: DEC personnel and response personnel were only seven miles away responding to anther spill from a fishing boat that hit an iceberg. Also, seas have been nearly flat, Pearson said.

''For the most part it's been ideal for a water recovery operation,'' Pearson said.

With the calm conditions, the current buster boom did not get a true test of its capability, Pearson said. ''A good storm would have been interesting.''

Each fishing vessel carries a crew of at least four, enabling the vessels to work 24 hours per day.

Pearson said 10 years of training is paying off.

''We've been lucky in the fact that we haven't had a situation to require it,'' she said.

State responders said Tuesday that numerous seabirds, bald eagles, sea otters, sea lions and humpback whales have been seen in the area of the sheens. One oiled bird was captured and taken to Valdez for treatment.


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