Source of Shishmaref Sheen Remains Unknown, Locals Work to Absorb Substance

Local responders in Shishmaref are working to absorb the oily sheen discovered off the island’s north coast last week. The source of the substance remains unknown.

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Richard Kuzuguk is with the Shishmaref Environmental Program. He said a gasoline-like odor from the sheen can be smelt throughout the community.

“You can smell the odor from the Native Store to the other store, which is three-quarters of the village’s length as far as houses,” said Kuzuguk.

Last Thursday June 5, 2014 Shishmaref’s Village Public Safety Officer Barret Eningowak reported “a sheen on the nearshore icepack” to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The next day a team from the DEC, the Coast Guard, and Spill Response Coordinator Emerald Alaska arrived on the island to investigate.

Paul Lhotka is an Environmental Program Specialist with the DEC and said the sheen “looked to us to be some type of weathered petroleum product, such as a gasoline or a diesel.”

Contaminated nearshore sea ice. (Photo courtesy Barret Eningowak, DEC)
Contaminated nearshore sea ice. (Photo courtesy Barret Eningowak, DEC)

Lhotka said no source has been identified and no volume estimation of the product has been calculated. However, a situation report estimates the sheen covers a 1,200 foot area of near-shore ice.

Closeup of absorbent pad collecting product. (Photo courtesy Barret Eningowak, DEC)
Closeup of absorbent pad collecting product. (Photo courtesy Barret Eningowak, DEC)

U.S. Coast Guard Chief Eric Vogel with the Incident Management Division at Sector Anchorage said this ice is hindering clean-up efforts. Local responders are maintaining an absorbency boom and pads along the coast of the affected area to soak up and confine the substance. But with the ice in break up, responders cannot venture more than five feet offshore by foot or skiff to absorb the product.

“Responders are unable to work out on the ice,” Vogel explained, “so most of the recovery operations are from shore—the absorbent boom and pads that are anchored to the shore with rebar and passively collecting this emulsified oil.”

DEC’s Lhotka said the ice is thawing at a rapid rate and should be melted in a few days. Both Lhotka and Kuzuguk said “no known wildlife impacts” have resulted from the sheen.

Samples of the oily substance are being shipped to the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Lab in Connecticut. They are being compared to petroleum samples from the Shishmaref tank farm.

The Coast Guard personnel are returning to Shishmaref this Friday June 13, 2014 to continue their investigation.