Effort to contain grounded tugboat's fuel spill continues

casey.grove@adn.comNovember 23, 2012 

A sheen is observed as the 78-foot tug Polar Wind and its 250-foot barge sit aground 20 miles east of Cold Bay, Alaska, Nov. 16, 2012. The grounding took place the evening of Nov. 13, 2012. The five crew members of the Polar Wind were rescued by Coast Guard helicopter crews and safely transferred to Cold Bay.

UNKNOWN — U.S. Coast Guard

Workers trying to contain diesel spilling from a tugboat aground in Southwest Alaska hoped to start removing the fuel late Friday or early Saturday, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Crewmen on the tugboat, the 78-foot Polar Wind, were reconnecting a broken towline Nov. 13 to a 250-foot barge when the tug hit Ukolnoi Island, about 40 miles east of Cold Bay, said the Coast Guard, which rescued the crew with two helicopters. The tugboat and barge, carrying nearly 1.5 million pounds of frozen seafood, remained stuck on a rocky island beach, and spotters on a Coast Guard overflight Nov. 16 noticed a sheen of diesel fuel on the water nearby, according to the DEC.

About 6,000 gallons are thought to have spilled out of two punctured fuel tanks on the tugboat, said Steven Russell, the conservation department's scene coordinator. A crew surrounded the tugboat with containment boom Nov. 16, and there have been no reports of pollution impacts to wildlife, according to the DEC. Three endangered species -- Steller's eiders, sea otters and sea lions -- live in the area.

Wind up to 100 knots, freezing sea spray and seas between 6 and 8 feet have made for a difficult containment and salvage mission, Russell said. A total of nine vessels and about 70 people are involved in the operation, Russell said. Some specialists are from Seattle and Anchorage, and everyone involved had to put Thanksgiving plans on hold, he said.

"It's been quite an effort to get to the location," he said. "The weather's been the biggest headache for us."

A boat with fuel-pumping capabilities was en route to the grounded tug and barge late Friday and, weather permitting, was expected to connect to the Polar Wind's tanks to start removing fuel by the weekend, Russell said. Meantime, the crew at the site will continue to monitor the situation and generators powering 33 refrigerated cargo containers holding nearly 1.5 million pounds of fish on the barge, Russell said.

A Coast Guard investigation into the grounding continues.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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