Saturday, December 26, 2009

New Spill in Prince William Sound

Photo credit: Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News

On Wednesday night, there was another oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska. This time it was not a tanker like the Exxon Valdez, but a tugboat whose fuel tanks ruptured when it ran aground on Bligh Reef. As a result this spill will be a lot smaller, but the amount of oil spilled is still unknown.

The 136-foot tug had been scouting the Valdez shipping lanes for ice Wednesday when it struck one of the most infamous maritime hazards in the world, 20 years and nine months after the Exxon Valdez came up hard aground on the same charted rock.

The six-member Pathfinder crew reported running aground on Bligh Reef at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, though the Coast Guard didn't make the incident public until about 3:30 a.m. Thursday.
None of the fuel was recovered, but the Coast Guard says that it should disperse quickly.
The Valdez Star with its skimmers was sent out in early afternoon to try to recover the fuel, but the effort came up empty-handed.

"There's no recoverable sheen," said Jim Butler, a spokesman for Crowley. "That was based on overflight and equipment operating in the area."

While diesel fuel is toxic, it gets diluted relatively quickly through dispersion and evaporation, Butler said. Though it doesn't just "go away," it doesn't persist like crude oil, which globs up on beaches and tidal pools and can continue to pollute for years. The Exxon Valdez spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of North Slope crude, and its effects are still being felt in the Sound.

The Coast Guard reported that marine forecasters didn't believe the fuel sheen would touch Glacier Island, at least for the next 24 to 36 hours, and they expected it to dissipate rapidly.
The tanks that ruptured held 33,500 gallons of fuel. The remaining fuel is currently being pumped out of the tugboat, and an estimate of the size of the spill will be available once that is finished. In the meantime, it is not clear why the accident happened. 

In the meantime, the aerial photos of the scene are gorgeous, except for the fuel sheen.

Update (12/28): The IBRRC reports that the fuel has dispersed since the spill.