ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A fierce autumn storm hammering Northwest Alaska ripped a barge from its tugboat near the Red Dog mine port on Tuesday and pushed it onto a gravel beach about 30 miles south of Kivalina.
Wind-whipped surf pounded the vessel, carrying 22,000 gallons of diesel fuel, but environmental officials detected no signs of leaks as of late Tuesday.
Salvage crews and environmental technicians were expected on scene Wednesday morning.
''With 18- to 20-foot seas and a gravel beach, it's hard to say what can occur,'' said Leslie Pearson, emergency response program manager with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
A strong low-pressure system moving down from the Arctic Ocean kicked up winds packing rain and snow over much of the north and northwest coast of Alaska over the last few days, said Dave Anderson, manager of the weather station in Kotzebue. Strong tidal action, compounded by the winds, was causing beach erosion along the coast, he said.
The angry weather snapped a tow line connecting a tugboat and the barge early Tuesday. The heavy winds and waves sent the barge toward shore, about four miles away. The stern hit the beach and the vessel grounded about 9:10 a.m., said Joe Langjahr, vice president of Seattle-based Foss Maritime Co., the owner.
The barge is one of two that Foss uses to lighter ore concentrate from the Red Dog mine to freighters when the ocean is ice-free.
Red Dog is the world's largest zinc and lead mine, located in the DeLong Mountains about 90 miles northwest of Kotzebue. No ore was on the barge at the time of the accident because it was riding out the storm, Langjahr said.
In the 13 years Foss has ferried ore from port to freighter, it has never had a barge accident, Langjahr said. The company was set to wrap up the lightering season probably next week, he said.
Responders will assess the damage and begin pumping diesel fuel into portable tanks, according to the Coast Guard, the barge company and state environmental officials. The next task will be to tow the barge off the beach and back into the ocean, if it's seaworthy.
The storm was expected to diminish during the night Tuesday and make the salvage effort easier, officials said.
If the barge breaks up or otherwise spills diesel, sea ducks and marine mammals are the animals of most concern for contamination, state biologists said. Beluga whales, along with bearded, ringed and spotted seals, ply the waters around the port this time of year, said Lori Quakenbush, a marine mammal biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
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