A Soviet skimmer ship that officials say is the best hope of scooping up oil in the Gulf of Alaska has never worked on an oil spill before.
Nonetheless, oil spill officials said, the M|V Vaydaghubsky, which docked in Seward Wednesday, was designed for the job it's here for: to corral oil drifting in the Gulf of Alaska, in wind and waves that would defeat the smaller skimmers so far trying to clean up oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez on March 24.
But according to the Coast Guard and Veco, the Exxon subcontractor that hired the Soviet vessel and crew, the great Red hope has never done this before. "It has been tested in the field, but this is its first spill," said Jim Kross, an Anchorage environmental consultant hired by Veco to arrange for the ship's services.
The ship will get its first test on a real oil spill today when it goes after slicks and patches of North Slope crude floating in Resurrection Bay near Seward.
The Vaydaghubsky's main attribute is its size, Kross said. At 425 feet long, 70 feet wide and about 12,000 tons, it provides a stable work platform and a lot of storage capacity, he said. Built in Wartsila, Finland, in 1986, it can sail anywhere in the world and can work in winds to 30 knots and seas to 8 feet.
By comparison, the U.S. Navy skimmers that comprise most of the skimmer fleet now working in Prince William Sound and Resurrection Bay are about 36 feet long, according to Navy Commander Marc Jones.
The Soviet vessel is primarily designed for dredging and firefighting, Kross said. But it has equipment fit to pump thick weathered oil, to separate oil from water, and to store the oil until it can be pumped onto other vessels for disposal, he said.
"The Soviets recommended the ship to us in the first week after the spill," he said. The time since has been taken up by paperwork, and the 10 days it took the vessel to steam here from a port on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan.
The ship was due to leave port at 6 a.m. today, said Coast Guard Lt. Matthew Carr, who is going along as an observer.
"We'll do the mouth of Resurrection Bay first. They are still seeing sheen and patches of mousse (oil foam) out there," Carr said. Small skimmers working that area the past week have found that beneath surface oil sheen there are often thicker accumulations of oil, he said.
If the ship works, he said, after a few days it will be moved south along the Kenai Peninsula coast toward Nuka Bay, where slicks and patches of oil that have drifted out of Prince William Sound during the past three weeks are concentrated.
Carr said the ship and its Soviet civilian crew will be under the control of its master, Sergey Rekin, and its operations will be directed by Exxon, whose tanker spilled the oil after running aground near Valdez. The Coast Guard will monitor the operation, and provide aircraft to find oil for the ship, he said.
Other equipment intended for the oil recovery operation also is arriving. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has sent two dredge vessels, the Yaquina and the Essayons, to Prince William Sound to help with skimming operations. The Yaquina was supposed to reach the Sound Wednesday, while the Essayons was scheduled to arrive later this week.
The dredges are usually used to keep harbors clear along the Pacific Coast, dropping their 45 to 80foot arms to the sea bottom and sucking up sand to keep harbors deep.
In the Sound, the dredge cargo holds will be used to collect oil sucked up by smaller skimmers. That should speed up the process, because the skimmers will not have to travel across the Sound back to Valdez to dump their own, small cargo holds.
But the new equipment hasn't changed the level of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the cleanup. At Elmendorf Air Force Base, a commandant, two admirals and a general met with a several mayors from communities affected by the spill behind closed doors. Afterward, mayors repeated what they've been saying since the tanker ran aground: Exxon isn't doing enough to clean up the mess.
"I think a lot of us feel like we haven't been treated very well by the company," said Valdez Mayor John Devens. "They don't tell us what they're doing . . . We haven't even seen this new cleanup plan."
Several mayors complained that while the company has developed a plan to scrape oil from shores in Prince William Sound over the summer, not enough has been done to try to skim oil still on the water stretching from the Sound to near Kodiak Island.
Despite the presence of more than two dozen skimming vessels, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost said the operations have been erratic and slow.
"It hasn't gone as well as I wanted it done," Yost said. "I still find oil sloshing around in the water of Prince William Sound. I'm not happy about what I've seen. It needs to come off the water."
Yost, who was to return to Washington late Wednesday to brief President Bush about cleanup efforts, said again that he was hopeful about Exxon's plan for scraping and washing oil from shores in Prince William Sound by the end of the summer. But he said it's possible with a "level of commitment and management that we only hope is there."
Daily News reporters David Hulen and Larry Campbell contributed to this story.
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