Aleutian Risk Assessment Unveils Spill Prevention Plan

The Selendang Ayu broke apart a decade ago just off Unalaska Island. (Courtesy: USCG)
The Selendang Ayu broke apart a decade ago just off Unalaska Island. (Courtesy: USCG)

For years, shipping safety advocates have called for better protections against oil spills in the Aleutian chain. Now, the plan for a new response system is finally finished. The Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment’s draft report recommends some familiar solutions in new places – all at a cost of almost $14 million a year.

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The Risk Assessment started in response to a major disaster just off Unalaska’s shores. Ten years ago, the bulk carrier Selendang Ayu ran aground near the island, killing six people and spilling fuel into the Bering Sea.

It was the worst shipping accident in the region’s history – and the Risk Assessment was designed to make sure it couldn’t happen again.

Since 2009, researchers and stakeholders have been studying everything from tugboat locations to shipping routes to weather conditions – all while marine traffic in the Aleutians continued to increase.

“I certainly wish it hadn’t taken as long as it has,” says Tim Robertson, a lead author of the new report. “There’s been frustration, I think, from all levels, that — why aren’t we doing more, and studying less?”

But he says they wanted to make sure they had all their bases covered before they came out with their recommendation: create a nonprofit organization to manage better monitoring systems, spill response plans and salvage tools in the Aleutian Islands.

“We think there should be one organization that essentially provides all of these services,” Robertson says.

The nonprofit would hire contractors to run equipment like a dedicated rescue tugboat or a heavy-duty helicopter. And it would manage the cost of the whole system. It comes out to about $13.6 million a year.

Robertson says about half of that cost would come from the users themselves: the operators of big vessels heading through places like Unimak Pass, the busiest channel through the Aleutians. In 2012, for example, operators would have had to pay about $13,000 for each ship they sent across.

The Risk Assessment report says that would be lower if they could charge every ship that used that route. But a little less than half of those vessels are only passing through on their way to and from foreign ports – and there’s no way to make them chip in for a domestic response system.

So Robertson says it should fall to the federal government to cover that part of the cost – about $15 million.

“We think it’s probably most feasible if there was a one-time appropriation, instead of trying to get ongoing operational funding,” he says.

Their first purchase would be an emergency towing vessel, which would be permanently stationed in the Aleutians to head off shipping mishaps. The idea’s been on the table for years – but now, researchers are saying it should go in Adak. It’s a town of about 300 people in the western Aleutians.

That recommendation came as a big surprise to Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt. She’s been involved with the Risk Assessment from the beginning.

“When we started first looking at this, we were focused on the marine traffic that is compressed into a part of the region,” Marquardt says, “primarily because they’re either coming or going from our port, or they’re all transiting directly through Unimak Pass.”

The pass is right next to Unalaska, along the popular Great Circle Shipping route. As that track curves around the globe, it leads vessels through the Aleutians a second time – near Adak.

And that’s where they can run into trouble. There are more crossings to choose from in the area, and Adak city manager Layton Lockett says some are too sensitive for commercial traffic – like Buldir Pass. Lockett says it’s an important spot for fishing and seabird habitat.

“If something were to, say, happen in Buldir Pass, through no fault of anyone but the vessel, it could have profound impacts in a number of different industries that we’re all reliant upon, just because someone decided to take the scenic tour,” he says.

To address that, the Risk Assessment wants to close down some offshore zones to shipping traffic. And it calls for expanding the vessel tracking systems that are already in place.

But Lockett says that hosting the dedicated tug in Adak would give him the greatest peace of mind. The Risk Assessment report says if something went wrong in that area, there probably wouldn’t be tugboat close by to assist.

In Unalaska, there are tugboats working near the port year-round. But Mayor Shirley Marquardt isn’t convinced that’s enough. She says Unalaska started out as the Risk Assessment’s priority — they had several residents advising the study over the years.

Now, Marquardt’s afraid they’re getting left behind.

“It just seemed like the focus just kind of shifted — to, we’re no longer trying to prevent this happening in the first place, as to, ‘Well, gee, response out far West might difficult,'” she says. “I was really cognizant of that, this whole way through, all these years doing this, that we don’t shift. If that’s an important issue, then it needs to be addressed on its own.”

It’s concerns like that that researchers are hoping to hear before they go any further with their work. They’ve started taking public comment on their draft report. And they’re planning to visit Unalaska soon to present it in person — and explain how it’ll come together to cover the entire Aleutian chain.

UPDATE: The Unalaska meeting set for this weekend has been canceled and will be rescheduled.

The public can read the Risk Assessment report and comment online through the end of the month.