Unknown Oily Sheen off Shishmaref Coast Returns

Unknown product visible under nearshore ice on Dec. 12, 2014. (Photo: Sharon Nayokpuk, Shishmaref Environmental Program via Alaska DEC)
Unknown product visible under nearshore ice on Dec. 12, 2014. (Photo: Sharon Nayokpuk, Shishmaref Environmental Program via Alaska DEC)

An oily sheen of unknown origin discovered along the northeast coast of Shishmaref this summer has returned.

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The sheen was first discovered in June on the nearshore icepack by the Shishmaref Village Public Safety Officer. The VPSO reported the yellow liquid smelled like gasoline. That led to cleanup efforts and an investigation by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to determine exactly what the substance was, and where it came from.

Samples of the sheen—and from the community’s fuel tanks—were collected for testing at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Lab in Connecticut. But the summer cleanup efforts ended with results still pending, and no source for the sheen ever identified.

Now the sheen is back—noticed by a local store owner and the VPSO last week. DEC officials say the unidentified substance again has the strong scent of gasoline. The unknown petroleum product was visible under nearshore ice as early as last Friday.

DEC spokesperson Ashley Adamczak said the agency is sending someone to Shishmaref Thursday to investigate. Adamczak said those samples collected over the summer will come in handy.

“We will be able to do a direct comparison with the substances that were leaching from the shore line last summer, and this event, and compare [them both] to the tank farm,” she said.

Adamczak said locals in Shishmaref have offered input on where the oily substance is coming from, and DEC is following up.

“There’s a lot of people there that have a lot more history of that site than we do,” she said about the investigation just now getting underway. “There’s a couple different floating theories that we have, and we are actually taking a metal detector device out there to do some investigation, to see if there’s any subsurface tanks or buried drums that are in the area.”

Adamczak said the idea of forgotten oil drums or fuel tanks was offered over the summer. “We’ll be working very closely with the people who reported that those might be there to determine those exact locations.”

The Coast Guard has hired waste treatment company Emerald Alaska to perform an on-site assessment.

Last summer’s cleanup resulted in about 30 bags of oily waste from absorbent materials laid out over an area of 1,200 square feet. About 100 gallons of the fuel-like substance were recovered, according to DEC officials on the ground in Shishmaref in July.

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Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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