The giant Soviet oil skimmer Vaydaghubsky spent most of Thursday getting ready to skim, but by Thursday evening had yet to encounter its first sheen, foam or tar balls in Resurrection Bay.
The 425 foot vessel, which is costing Exxon $15,000 a day, is counted on to pick up oil in the Gulf of Alaska, where wind and waves are often too much for smaller U.S. skimmers. But it is untested, having yet to work on an oil spill.
The plan had been to test its capabilities Thursday in Resurrection Bay. But most of the day was spent rigging the vessel with tugboats and other gear required to scoop oil from the water.
A couple of hours before dark, the fully rigged Vaydaghubsky went in search of oil, said Coast Guard Commander Stephen Heath in Seward.
"It could hit oil any time," he said Thursday evening.
The ship was headed toward an area of the bay where heavier oil sheen has been reported, Heath said. If it finds none there, the Vaydaghubsky will probably head southwest down the outer Kenai Peninsula coast toward Nuka Bay and Gore Point, where currents and wind have concentrated oil that has drifted out of Prince William Sound during the past three weeks.
The ship is being guided by observers in airplanes and helicopters, Heath said, and he expected it to search for oil until dark. The skimmer would probably not work at night, he said, unless its crew knows in advance the exact location of oil.
Oil in several forms was reported offshore and on some beaches as far south as Kodiak Island and along Katmai National Park on Thursday. There were no confirmed reports of oil migrating into Kachemak Bay near Homer.
Tar balls sticky, weathered oil ranging up to basketball size were found on six beaches in the Kodiak Island group, said Bill Ashton of the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Kodiak. About 70 tar balls, ranging from the size of a marbles to grapefruit, were reported on Seven Mile Beach on the west shore of Kodiak Island Thursday, he said.
He described one tarball brought in for a sample as being like "soft playdough."
Coast Guard Lt. Jerry Wilson, after flying low over beaches along the end of the Kenai Peninsula Thursday afternoon, said the oil sheen and foam had pulled back from the shore in several areas. Windy Bay, which had been 75 percent covered with oil early in the week, had only about 5 percent cover Thursday, he said.
Wilson was at a loss to explain the shift. "It was nothing like we've seen the past two days."
A few areas of shoreline at the mouth of Kachemak Bay have been fouled by oil, he said.
The oil drifting southwest in the Gulf of Alaska is swinging west across lower Cook Inlet then south again through Shelikof Strait, which separates Kodiak from Katmai National Park on the mainland.
Cordell Roy, a park biologist working with the statefederal response team in Kodiak, said an aerial survey Thursday found "what appeared to be oil sheen" along several areas of the coast. The sightings must be qualified, he said, because close physical inspection is needed to distinguish oil from natural discoloration in the water.
In at least one location, Kukak Bay, a boat crew reported the tide was carrying tar balls toward the beach, Roy said.
In the Sound, the Coast Guard said Thursday it will now allow empty tankers to make the run into Port Valdez at night. Loaded tankers still must wait for daylight before leaving the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. terminal. All tankers still will be accompanied by tugs, as has been the practice for the past several days.
David Ramseur, a spokesman for Gov. Steve Cowper, said the state is in agreement with the plan because oil spill equipment and tug escorts now are in place, among other safety requirements.
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