- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Agence France-Presse) — Thousands of gallons of fuel oil spilling out of a Malaysian freighter that snapped in two Wednesday near Alaska have put the Aleutian Islands’ fragile ecosystem in jeopardy, fueling fears of an environmental crisis 15 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The Selendang Ayu’s 480,000-gallon stock of thick fuel was leaking into the water off Unalaska Island, threatening endangered marine life in the area, Coast Guard officials said. Officials Friday called off the hunt for survivors of the crash of a Coast Guard helicopter that went down while rescuing the crew of six from the blighted ship.

Six died in the helicopter crash and four others were rescued from the pitch-black waters by another Coast Guard helicopter and flown to a hospital in mainland Alaska.

“It is not yet known how much oil has spilled or what species in the spill area have been affected by the spill. Weather will determine how the oil is dispersed and how crews on scene are able to respond,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska said.

“This is a very serious spill,” said Kurt Fredriksson, acting commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. “It’s going to be very difficult to deal with. It’s difficult oil … and a sensitive shoreline.”

Booms were being put in place to keep the spill away from sensitive wildlife reserves, but officials said the heavy consistency of the “bunker C” fuel oil meant that much of it would sink to the bottom of the ocean.

But oil was licking the shores of Unalaska Island, killing cormorants and marine life and leaving a thick and dark coating on beaches. Wildlife in the area includes endangered or threatened species, including Steller sea lions and Steller’s eiders as well as western Alaska sea otters, the population of which is dwindling.

“The area is rich in fish and wildlife species … including sea otters, spectacled eiders, Steller’s eider, short-tailed albatross, Steller sea lions, harbor seals,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said. “Birds have been spotted swimming in the oily water. Some of these isolated islands host unique species not found elsewhere.”

And brutal weather, including 15-foot waves, 30-knot winds and snow, was not helping the fight against the fuel slick, Coast Guard officials said. “The oil can travel hundreds of miles in the form of scattered tar balls by winds and currents,” the Coast Guard warned.

Coast Guard teams backed by three commercial vessels were skimming oil off the water and setting up booms.

But the contamination it could bring about is the largest and gravest in Alaska since the sinking of the Exxon Valdez in 1989, several hundred miles to the east. On March 24, 1989, some 11 million gallons of oil sullied Prince William Sound when the Valdez hit a reef, triggering the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

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