• Harbormaster Hawkins sent Leading Lady from Homer Harbor because it wasn’t seaworthy; owner parks it at Jakolof
By Naomi Klouda
The Coast Guard plans on overseeing work to get the sunken F/V Leading Lady to the surface today or Thursday, weather permitting, but more than two weeks has now passed as fuel spilled into the sensitive waters of Jakolof Bay.
The 53-foot Leading Lady and the F/V Kupreanof sank in Jakolof Bay on Christmas day. Since then, Leading Lady continued to spread an oily sheen in sensitive oyster farming waters while the plan for removing the vessels was being formulated. Owner Tim Barkley, of Valdez, told officials only about 50 gallons of fuel was onboard and 35 gallons of other lubricants. The F/V Kupreanof had no engine or fuel on board at the time of the sinking.
Coast Guard officials say the situation calls for caution in extremely hazardous conditions: It will take divers to install floatation equipment beneath the vessel to lift it while cranes raise the FV Leading Lady off the bottom. It took more time to put together a plan on the part of the clean-up contractors due to safety concerns. Ultimately, the Coast Guard must approve the plan and equipment used.
“When you have divers and cranes, lifting vessels isn’t that big of a deal, but a vessel on top of a vessel is a whole different aspect,” said Petty Officer Jonathan Alexander.
The plan, as of Monday, was for divers to put float bags under the vessels and then inflate the bags and raise the boats with a crane.
The lift bags alone wouldn’t do the job, said David Simonds, U.S. Coast Guard Marine Science Technician 2nd Class. “With the cranes, its a controlled ascent where you are reducing most of the risks to your divers. Then they can tie off the vessels and remove the pollution,” he said.
Global Salvage and Diving is the cleanup contractor under the supervision of the Coast Guard, with funding paid for by the National Pollution Fund.
Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said the Leading Lady had a number of problems that made him decline to let it remain in the harbor. The 1950s vintage wooden commercial fishing vessel hobbled into the harbor Oct. 1 with a number of issues, he said. It came here from Sand Point.
“Harbor officers alerted me that it was a standout to them because of its condition. We made an appointment to go on board to inspect it,” Hawkins said. “We have a policy or guidelines that if a boat presents a potential nuisance to the harbor and presents a threat or danger, then I can write a letter and list the reasons why we can’t accept it in this harbor.”
In this case, the Lady’s engines functioned fine, but her hull, wiring and batteries were poor.
“The condition of the hull was my biggest concern. The planks looked suspect at the waterline. The corking was short. It looked to me in overall poor condition,” Hawkins said. “There were attempts to seal out water from the cabin using products that didn’t look like they would work very well. It didn’t leak but I suspect four feet of snow pushed it down in the water where the corking wasn’t adequate to keep it from leaking. It was an easy call for me to say it wasn’t seaworthy.”
State law currently allows for anyone to moor a boat in state waters. Even though Barclay is a resident of Valdez, rather than of the Lower Kenai Peninsula, he moored both the Leading Lady and the Kupreanof in Jakolof because neither Seldovia’s harbor nor Homer’s would allow them moorage, Hawkins said.
How non residents can store boats in areas they neither live in nor work is a problem the state is trying to work out.
“That’s the bigger question,” Hawkins said. “The DOT Coastal Engineering Division is working with the state on a rewrite of the statute to regulate vessels in state waters. It’s not an answer to just let non-working boats sit in state waters and the state recognizes that.”
Tim Barcley has not returned calls to the Homer Tribune.
Both vessels sank sometime during the night of Christmas Eve or the following day, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said in an incident report. The sunken vessels were discovered at 2:47 p.m. on Dec. 25 and were immediately reported to the Coast Guard.
After The oily sheen from a sunken commercial fishing vessel has spread to a 100 by 100 foot sheen 16 days after the sinking. Now three weeks later, officials had believed the bulk of spillage would be dissipated in the air. Coast Guard officials say they need to be in the area before they can confirm further oil sheens.
The cause of the sinking is believed to be from the 48 inches of snow falling that day, another causality of the immense storm that swept through the region. The vessels were apparently pushed down and lodged a top of one another when crews inspected the situation on Dec. 27.
Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Sullivan said at the time that the first weather window for traveling to Jakolof was Dec. 28. At that point, a unified command for clean-up had been formed with ADEC, placing the Coast Guard in charge of oversight.
Around the same time period, Coast Guard focus switched to Sitkalidak Island where Shell’s rig, the Kulluk was grounded with 150,000 gallons of fuel aboard. Hawkins said he suspected that there are only so many Coast Guard resources, and that was the more pressing case at the time.
Here, the Coast Guard said it was waiting for a safe plan of attack for removing the fuel from the sunken ships. The owner was not always in communication with the agency. If the owner fails to take responsibility after the boats are raised, he will receive a trespass letter. The Department of Natural Resources then takes control of the vessels for disposal if that action isn’t followed up on, Simonds said.
Residents in Jakolof Bay were watching as the sheen of fuel spread across the bay, and anxiously awaited the cleanup. A week ago, residents were reporting a 100-by-100 foot slick clearly visible on the water.
In an appeal to officials, Margo Reveil first described diesel spreading all the way in the back of the bay on an outgoing tide, and documented it with photos the same week as the vessels sank.
“The sheen extended at least a nautical mile out past the red buoy off MacDonald spit. The last three images attached are back by the Northern Pride Farm,” she wrote. “They also fished out one, 5-gallon sealed bucket of oil floating in the bay, so debris is working its way out with the tides. I hope the seals hold as well on any other buckets. It is possible that diesel is being released in bursts and not a steady flow, but I would hope spill response teams are familiar with such potential fuel flow patterns from sunken vessels.”
Reveil’s husband and brother were the ones who called in to report the vessels had sunk. The Reveils operate an oyster farm in the bay and were immediately concerned about the impact of the spill.
“The oysters will be fully tested before they are allowed on the market, but our bigger concern is whether or not the longer-term exposure will cause a higher rate of mortality in the immature oysters and we just won’t know that till we start sorting and cleaning in spring,” Reveil said. “There have been no containment efforts on site. It sounds like there is a long list of reasons as to why it’s taken this long to get salvaging started, everything from weather and powerlines to how the boats sank and legalities around ownership and responsibility.”
Now that more time has passed – three weeks – the anxiety is growing. But Coast Guard officials say even if they were able to boom the area to collect the fuel, they wouldn’t be able to boom deep enough to collect it all.
“That’s the nature of an underwater spill in winter. The spreading sheen can’t be boomed,” Alexander said. “We’re not going to be able to put out a boom until we do a lift operation.”
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