The owner of the disabled tugboat Pathfinder gained approval Thursday evening to begin pumping the remaining diesel fuel from the tug's two tanks that were slashed open on the unforgiving rock of Bligh Reef the night before.
Depending on how much of the original 33,500 gallons of fuel in those tanks spilled into Prince William Sound in the hours following the Wednesday grounding, the emergency pumping operation could last up to eight hours and continue into Christmas morning, according to the Coast Guard and a spokesman for Crowley Maritime Services, owner of the tug.
The fuel transfer from the Pathfinder to the oil-spill response ship Valdez Star was expected to begin before midnight Thursday.
The 136-foot tug had been scouting the Valdez shipping lanes for ice Wednesday when it struck one of the most infamous maritime hazards in the world, 20 years and nine months after the Exxon Valdez came up hard aground on the same charted rock.
The six-member Pathfinder crew reported running aground on Bligh Reef at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, though the Coast Guard didn't make the incident public until about 3:30 a.m. Thursday.
A still unknown amount of diesel fuel bubbled from the vessel into the sea. Off the reef 30 minutes later, the tug limped under its own power to a sheltered cove on the south side of nearby Busby Island, where it remained, surrounded by oil-spill containment boom.
Divers who inspected the hull of the Pathfinder in the predawn darkness Thursday morning discovered major damage to the vessel. A 4- to 5-foot section of the keel was missing, and three fuel tanks were breached.
The Coast Guard sent a Jayhawk helicopter and C-130 plane over the area in the morning and discovered a silvery sheen three miles long and 30-feet wide about a mile east of Glacier Island.
The Valdez Star with its skimmers was sent out in early afternoon to try to recover the fuel, but the effort came up empty-handed.
"There's no recoverable sheen," said Jim Butler, a spokesman for Crowley. "That was based on overflight and equipment operating in the area."
While diesel fuel is toxic, it gets diluted relatively quickly through dispersion and evaporation, Butler said. Though it doesn't just "go away," it doesn't persist like crude oil, which globs up on beaches and tidal pools and can continue to pollute for years. The Exxon Valdez spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of North Slope crude, and its effects are still being felt in the Sound.
The Coast Guard reported that marine forecasters didn't believe the fuel sheen would touch Glacier Island, at least for the next 24 to 36 hours, and they expected it to dissipate rapidly.
After the failed skimming operation, the Valdez Star turned back to Busby Island at mid-afternoon to be on hand for the fuel transfer. Two of the three breached tanks contained fuel, while the third was empty. Secure tanks holding another 65,000 gallons of fuel will not be emptied, officials said.
Once the remaining fuel is removed, officials said they will be able to estimate how much of the 33,500 gallons originally in those tanks spilled into the water.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reported that the main engine of the Pathfinder is inoperable. The federal on-scene coordinator, Coast Guard Lt. Erin Christensen, said Thursday night that a marine towing company, Titan Marine, was drawing up plans to tow the Pathfinder to Valdez for further assessment.
Butler said the journey could begin Christmas Day and take roughly five hours to cover the 17 miles from Busby to the port.
The Coast Guard announced Thursday afternoon that a unified command made up of officials from the Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Crowley had been established to manage the after-effects of the disaster. Unified commands are used when agencies and companies with different jurisdictions and responsibilities need to respond to a large-scale incident.
Butler said he had no information about how the ship ran into the reef, a question that had some people responding with disbelief.
"How did it hit the most famous rock in Prince William Sound?" asked Stan Jones, spokesman for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, a watchdog group funded by the oil industry after the oil spill.
Coast Guard officials said Thursday they were also trying to find out why the tug hit the reef. A Coast Guard inspector from Valdez talked to the crew, but Christensen couldn't say when the information from the interviews would be made public.
The Exxon Valdez captain, Joe Hazelwood, had been seen drinking before the wreck, but he was cleared of drunken navigation charges in part because it took hours to measure the alcohol content in his blood after the disaster.
Tests administered to the Pathfinder crew before 10 p.m. turned up no alcohol, the Coast Guard said. Results of drug tests would be available in three or four days, Christensen said.
Crowley, based in Seattle, is a marine services contractor for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which runs the trans-Alaska pipeline for its oil-company owners.
When it struck the reef, the Pathfinder was scouting the shipping route from Valdez to Hinchinbrook Entrance, a passage between two islands through which oil tankers enter and exit the Gulf of Alaska, the Coast Guard said
The National Weather Service said that seas were as high as 6 feet near Bligh Reef on Wednesday. Thursday morning, seas were at 2 feet and winds were blowing from the northeast at 10 to 15 knots. Winds could increase to 25 knots Thursday night, said Andy Brown, a lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Anchorage.