A giant Soviet skimmer ship poised to assume an heroic role in scooping up oil from the Gulf of Alaska was forced to delay its debut Saturday because its mighty skimmers weren't working.
"They are on a learning curve, just like we are," said U. S. Army Maj. Sherrel Mock.
The Vaydaghubsky, a 425foot vessel under contract with Exxon for $15,000 a day, got its first real trial Saturday in the oildrenched seas about five miles southeast of Gore Point, site of the heaviest floating concentration of sheen, foam and tar balls. The mass of deteriorating muck is inching southwest but is under attack from stinging winds, rising waves and, last and least, a hightech fleet of skimmers crippled by frequent breakdowns and delays in unloading their oily haul.
After the failure of the Vaydaghubsky's suction heads to swallow the crude, Soviet crewmen are "in the process of modifying the dredge suction head," a process which could take a day or more, said Mock.
About 190 barrels of crude had been corralled by the booms flanking the ship, but just 12 barrels were recovered, he said.
The oil is part of what has escaped from Prince William Sound since the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef March 24, spilling more than 10 million gallons of North Slope crude oil. The failure so far of the Soviet skimmer to live up to its billing is consistent with the stumbling, ineffective containment and cleanup effort since the spill, run by Exxon and criticized by a number of federal and state officials.
The main body of the escaped oil is sloshing back and forth around Elizabeth Island and the Chugach Island group, near Gore Point at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
Exxon redeployed its main force of skimmers from Resurrection Bay to the island chain, hoping to corral these heaviest slicks where they are now before the oil can be whipped away in the heavy currents running all the way out to the Aleutian Islands.
Many of the smaller skimmers were hampered Saturday because of the rising seas and winds. Others could not pump out the "weathered, thickened" crude and had been inoperable for days, said Don Seagren, of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Like the Soviet ship, two U.S. Navy dredges enlisted in the fight are having trouble sucking crude, said Mock.
On all sides of the dead zone, people are fearing the winds, tides and a capricious mass of crude will turn against them. It is like watching a slowmotion explosion, and all they can do is hope the big pieces hit somewhere else.
In Homer, where the residents have installed dozens of log booms to protect salmon spawning areas, fishermen spotted what they thought was an oil slick but turned out to be a mass of dead, brown algae. It almost closed a herring opening.
"The winds are holding it back, blowing favorably to keep it out of here. If it shifts it can come right up" Cook Inlet, said Seagren.
"We've been real lucky, the winds and waves are breaking it up."
While the oil had not been reported advancing into new areas, contaminated birds have been found in Kachemak Bay, miles from any reported pollution.
About 40 oiled seabirds have been collected from the shores of Cook Inlet from Homer to Anchor Point, said Poppy Benson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Homer. Benson, cataloging dead and live oiled birds found on the lower Peninsula, speculated the birds may have become oiled farther out to sea, and then were blown toward shore during bad weather this week.
"You see them standing on the rocks, too cold to go back in the water," she said. Local citizens have been collecting the birds, she said.
By Thursday night 143 dead birds and 28 live ones, of several species, had been brought into Homer, she said.
More had been collected by vessels but had not been turned in yet, she said. The birds are being fed and warmed in Homer, then trucked to a rehabilitation center in Seward, Benson said.
But the numbers of dead birds are no measure of mortality, said Ed Bailey, biologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer. Eagles, coyotes, foxes and black bears are eating bird carcasses on the beaches, he said.
Also, sea birds favor rocky, windy and wavehammered shores that are mostly inaccessible to boats or people, he said. "That's where the birds live. Who can go out there and count them?"
In Kodiak, a spokesman for the interagency spill force said that four or five patches of foam were found Saturday on beaches of Sukhoi Bay at the south end of the island, an alarming development.
An Exxon crew exploring off of Afognak Island also found a small number of golfball sized tar balls but none on the beach.
Spill response officials here are worried the oil, if it escapes, will drift south into the Shelikof Strait "and all of Kodiak Island has to deal with tar balls," said Jim Roessler, an official in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
But tracking the drift of oil has been complicated by poor communications with field teams, he said. "The weather is sorta going gunnysack, too, so they aren't doing the flying."
To the east, the mood has blackened with the weather. Scientists are cataloging the prespill environmental abundance of the Katmai National Park and Preserve. But they must hurry.
Cordell Roy, a Department of Interior official, said that foamy oil is drifting in, dead birds are turning up and "we've seen tar balls in the bays and on the beaches in the park."
"It's important to keep in mind that Katmai is an unblemished wilderness and while the impacts are not as severe as in some places in the Sound, any impact here is serious."
Daily News reporter Steve Rinehart contributed to this story.
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