Up to 3,000 gallons of dense fuel oil spilled near critical marine habitat in Alaska

Hurricane-force winds near Kodiak have resulted in an oil slick forming near "critical habitat" for sea otters and sea lions.

An oil slick near Kodiak Alaska threatens sea otters and sea lions. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.
An oil slick near Kodiak Alaska threatens sea otters and sea lions. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

Up to 3,000 gallons of fuel oil spilled from a tank near Kodiak, Alaska in an area designated as “critical habitat” for marine life.

Hurricane-force winds exceeding 80 miles per hour caused a dock to collapse in the morning of February 26. On top of this section of the dock was a building containing a rubber tank used to store fuel — known as a fuel bladder. The structure fell into the water, where the tank ruptured.

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According to the incident report issued by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), “the entire contents of the bladder are suspected to have been released.”

As pictures taken by the coast guard show, this oil spill has formed a slick on the water.

The spill occurred on private property at Port William on the southern end of Shuyak Island, 49 miles away from Kodiak in southern Alaska. The area is home to northern sea otters and Steller sea lions. Other species that may be affected include eagles, waterfowl, and seabirds along with pacific halibut, pacific cod, walleye pollock, and pacific herring.

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“Impacts to wildlife are a definite high concern,” Mike Evans, an environmental program specialist at DEC told Anchorage Daily News.

According to officials, the type of fuel that was in the tank — fuel oil No. 6 — has been sitting on the site for “a very long time.” This type of fuel isn’t sold very much anymore they said. The facility holding the oil has been used as a steamship depot, a floatplane base, and a cannery — it’s likely the fuel is related to at least one of these activities.

It is a dense, viscous type of oil. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describes: “When spilled on water, No. 6 fuel usually spreads into thick, dark-colored slicks, which can contain large amounts of oil.”

While not as toxic as lighter fuel oils, the oil can coat marine life, and the “direct mortality rates can be high for seabirds, waterfowl, and fur-bearing marine mammals,” NOAA’s website states.

Response efforts are being coordinated by the Coast Guard with the DEC. Alaska Chadux will be leading the clean up efforts and plans to use a water boom — effectively a long, plastic rope — to contain the spill on the surface of the water. It will also retrieve the fuel bladder the DEC incident report states. According to Anchorage Daily News, however, clean up operations were delayed on Tuesday due to continued high winds which prevented the team from reaching the affected area. They are currently on standby in Kodiak until weather conditions allow them to work safely.