Lack of Dedicated Rescue Tug Causes Concern in Aleutians

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

On Tuesday the 738-foot bulk tank ship Golden Seas was successfully towed into the Port of Dutch Harbor, four days after issuing a distress call. Now, the state of Alaska and conservation groups alike are reconsidering emergency preparedness in the Aleutian Islands.

The Golden Seas had lost power and went adrift 70 miles north of Adak. There was initial concern that the vessel, which was carrying approximately half a million gallons of fuel and oil, could run aground and cause a spill. Though the Golden Seas ultimately regained partial power, an ocean-going tug was still needed to assist the vessel and tow it to a port of refuge. The icebreaker Tor Viking had been moored in Unalaska, and was able to reach the Golden Seas within a day.

But usually, there aren’t any ocean-going tugs in Unalaska. The Tor Viking was there under contract with Shell Oil, which is preparing for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea. No dedicated rescue tugs are stationed in the Aleutians region. There is one rescue tug available in Cook Inlet on standby for tankers, and there are a few in Prince William Sound. Leslie Pearson, a member of the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment facilitation team says these could take a week to get to a distressed vessel near Adak or Atka. She says there’s also one other possibility.

Lack of rescue tugs have been a consistent problem in the region. In 2004, the vessel Selendang Ayu went aground and caused an oil spill partially because the tugs available were not powerful enough to prevent it from running aground. Gary Folley is the on-scene coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and he says that the Golden Seas incident could have been worse and might have substantially affected the areas fisheries.

Right now, the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment team is drafting a report on emergency response. The risk assessment is part of a cooperative effort between the state, the Coast Guard, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Their goal is to reduce the number of accidents in the Aleutians. Right now, they are considering the possibility of maintaining a dedicated rescue tug in the Aleutians on a permanent or seasonal basis. They are also looking at the possibility of stationing an all-purpose tug in the region that could be used in case of emergencies. The problem, says Folley, is finding the resources to do this.

According to a traffic study report by the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment project, more than 2,000 vessels pass through the region on annual basis.  Shawna Larson, who works with the non-profit Pacific Environment says that number will only increase.

A new Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment report should be forthcoming in the spring, the state’s Folley says. In the meantime, the cargo vessel Golden Seas is undergoing repairs in Unalaska. It is expected to depart for the United Arab Emirates by the end of the week.

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