Alaska cleans up spill

The cleanup continues after a tanker ran aground off the coast of the small Aleutian Island of Unalaska.

BY HEATHER MOYER | UNALASKA, Alaska | December 30, 2004

"The real difficulties will last until spring or summer."

—Shirley Marquardt

The cleanup continues after a tanker ran aground off the coast of the small Aleutian Island of Unalaska.

In early December, when the Malaysian shipping vessel ran aground, the ship's fuel tank ruptured. The ship later split in half, spilling more than 150,000 gallons of fuel and diesel oil. Six members of the ship's crew also perished when a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crashed while attempting to rescue them. The Coast Guard crew was rescued.

According to Lynda Giguere, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the tanker has yet to be towed out of the area due to rough weather conditions. Another half a million gallons of fuel and oil were in the ship and officials are working to see how much was released.

Cleanup operations are underway, with hundreds of bags of oily waste being removed daily from beaches in the Makushin and Skan Bays. The harsh winter weather may hamper further response, though.

"We're working up a winter operations plan," explained Giguere. "The weather is bad out there right now and we may have to stand down during the winter. We don't have a complete timeline yet."

Shirley Marquardt, Unalaska's mayor, agreed that the winter weather will hinder the cleanup. The affected areas are hard for response workers to access due to rough surf and the winter's rapidly changing weather systems. "The real difficulties will last til spring or summer," she explained. "Summer is really when things will calm down."

Since the spill, hundreds of response workers have descended upon the little island community of just over 4,000, and the town has welcomed them with open arms. Many residents have joined the workers in the cleanup as well.

"You don't have to encourage our community at all to get out there and help," said Marquardt. "People are really coming out of the woodwork here to help, and we've always been like that."

Because of its location near the Bering Strait, Unalaska sees thousands of ships pass through every year. "Many folks don't know that we're the number one fishing port in the United States," added Marquardt.

Yet that designation does not always bring the best to town. Marquardt was able to list a number of oil spills that affected the area in the past decade. Many of the area's sensitive wildlife refuges have been affected in the past, and this recent spill is no different. Hundreds of birds have been found covered in oil, and wildlife officials fear the impact on the animals in that area may be worse than initially thought.

This most recent spill will have an effect on some of the fishing industry in Unalaska. One crab fishery that was supposed to open in mid-January will not open due to the slick, said Giguere. Another section of the Skan Bay is now closed off to commercial fishing.

Marquardt said those closings do have an effect on the community, but that the owners of the vessel are responsible for reimbursing the lost wages of the fishermen and women. This time around, the owners are moving very quickly with that, she added, and they expect many of the workers to receive reimbursement checks around February or so - when the workers would normally receive their wages for the season's work.

Meanwhile, the community is doing all it can to make the response workers and the wrecked ship's crew feel like they are at home. Last week they held a Christmas dinner for everyone. "We must have cooked up 20 turkeys and five or six hams," laughed Marquardt. "We fed 150 to 200 people. The whole community made food and brought it in."

During the dinner, some of the children handed out Unalaska souvenirs to the workers, who come from all over the United States. Marquardt noted that the dinner become very emotional as everyone shared their thanks. "Everything really touched those folks, they thanked the community and we thanked them, it was very teary at times."

That hospitality was extended to the wrecked ship's crew as well. While the 20 surviving crew members waited in limbo in Unalaska until the Immigration and Naturalization Service sorted out their visit, the residents made food for the crew. "We made sure they were comfortable, got them clothing, phone cards so they could call home. Some residents even got those guys disposable cameras so they could take pictures of the town."

She added that when word came of the ship's crew who died in the Coast Guard helicopter crash, the townspeople were crushed. "The city is like one big family, so that loss of life was devastating. It was the hardest news to hear."

That community spirit is always present in Unalaska, where many of the now permanent residents originally came to town briefly to make money in the fishing industry.

"That happens a lot, people come here thinking they'll stay for a little while to make money, then they see how great this community is and decide to stay," Marquardt said.

And that's exactly how she ended up in town 23 years ago.

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