Alaska's Bulk Freighter Oil Spill Update

The main engine of the bulk Malaysian freighter "Selendang Ayu" has broke down for unknown reasons. The U.S. Coast Guard and tugboats tried to halt the drifting ship, but the tow broke and the freighter was split in two by heavy weather, spilling some of its 480,000 gallons of heavy fuel off the remote Alaskan Aleutian Islands.

The Malaysian freighter was on a voyage from Tacoma to China when it lost power last Monday. It drifted until the ship went aground. The vessel was on the transit lane called the Great Circle Route, which shortens the distance between North America and Asia by first heading north through Alaska and then west to Asia. The 738-foot freighter is owned by the Singapore-based IMC Group.

The "Selendang Ayu's" heavy "Bunker C" fuel oil is hitting the shoreline of Unalaska killing various birds and marine life. The area where the freighter lays is rich with salmon, halibut, sea lions, otter, sea birds, and crab. Therefore, booms are being put up to protect the salmon-bearing waters that feed into Skan Bay.

"This is a very serious spill," said Kurt Fredriksson, Acting Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. "It's going to be very difficult to deal with. It's difficult oil and a sensitive shoreline."

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crashed into the sea as it attempted to rescue the ship's crew. The three-person Coast Guard crew and one crew member from the ship were rescued from the water. However, six crew members from the ship that were onboard the helicopter when it crashed, are still missing.

The geography, the bad weather, and the remoteness of the oil spill in the Aleutian chain of islands have slowed the oil spill response. Along with its 480,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil, the ship was also carrying 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

The Coast Guard has dispatched two cutters to the scene, including one with a vacuum to suck up the oil. The Coast Guard cutter "Alex Haley" is already at the scene. Twenty crew members from the ship have also been rescued and evacuated.