Oil spill clean-up hits new snag, as biologists raise killer whales concerns

An oil spill that began on Saturday reached a new phase on Monday, and divers were able to begin a plan to plug and recover any remaining oil that went down with the Aleutian Isle, a 49-foot vessel that sank off the west side of San Juan Island.

While the dive teams presence is good news, the Coast Guard announced late Monday night that the vessel shifted from its original location where it was roughly 120-feet underwater. It is now roughly 200-feet under the water.

The time it has taken to reach this stage has biologists who deal with the Southern Resident killer whales – a critically endangered species -- worried, while the U.S. Coast Guard called the response time "reasonably fast" given the location of the island.

"In any incident it’s going to take some time to bring more technical, or specialized capabilities, to help with that effort," said Commander Jon Ladyga, who is overseeing the clean-up efforts.

That specialized equipment includes things like decompression chambers for divers charged with plugging any leaks on the ship before it’s brought to the surface. It also includes vacuum trucks and barges that can move the heavy equipment to the location where the ship sank in roughly 120-foot deep waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard, in conjunction with contractors, state and local officials, were able to put booms in the water – devices that soak up diesel fuel that’s already made it to the water. What they couldn’t do was plug up the leak until equipment arrived that would allow divers to formulate and carry out a recovery plan.

"Biologically that’s too long," said Monika Wieland Shields, the founder of Orca Behavior Institute. "It’s shocking to hear 40 to 48 hours is a good response time."

Shields is one of the vocal scientists who has dedicated her life to the recovery of the Southern Residents population.

Since the ship first sank she was growing concerned about the threat to both the orcas habitat and the whales themselves.

At one point on Saturday the Southern Residents were not only near the island, but heading directly at the spill site. Luckily, with only a few miles left they turned and went back out to sea.

Crewmembers from the Aleutian Isle reported to the U.S. Coast Guard that roughly 2,600 gallons of both diesel and oil were onboard. That amount of oil is considered a "small" spill by standards outlined by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, but given the location of the spill the concern was elevated.

When initially listed as a critically endangered species in the early 2000s there were 88 orcas within the population. Today, that number is officially listed as 75 – though experts with the Center for Whale Research Center have recently noted that it’s "unlikely" that K44, an 11-year-old male, is alive after not being seen since last year.

The Coast Guard, along with state and local agencies dealing with the clean-up, have been in constant contact with the Orca Network and the Whale Museum – those groups have been tracking the location of the Southern Residents.

If the orcas return a group of scientists, and members of the Coast Guard, have been tasked with hazing the orcas in an effort to keep them away from the spill.

Dr. Deborah Giles, with Wild Orca, said one option are to put long metal pipes in the water that can be struck with a hammer. The sound, in other parts of the world, have been used to repel orcas.

Giles told FOX 13 News that this has been a wake-up call. She called this a "best, worst case scenario," because diesel can evaporate in the right conditions in a matter of days. She hopes that this can be an experience everyone can learn from.

"It gives us a trial run for something that might end up being a bigger situation," she said. "Unfortunately, I am one of those people who think it’s not a matter of it, but when we see a larger oil spill."

That concern comes as more vessels, including tankers carrying crude oil, are making their way onto the Salish Sea by the year.

Fred Felleman, a Port of Seattle Commissioner, told FOX 13 that as more traffic crosses the water – it only makes sense for more investments into equipment that’s critical to clean-up future spills.

"When you think about the amount of commerce going to the Port of Vancouver, Haro Strait and tankers going in Rosario Strait there’s so much money floating on the water," he said. "To have this equipment here, it’s really pocket change."

As for the U.S. Coast Guard, work will continue Tuesday with the vessel recovery. The latest update indicates that in addition to taking care of the Aleutian Isle, they’ll work to recover netting that floated free.

In the meantime, the Washington Department of Ecology is monitoring air quality on land while various partner-agencies are keeping an eye on the immediate area surrounding the site of the sunken vessel.

Groups involved in the clean-up and recovery includes the Department of Ecology, San Juan Office of Emergency Management and the Swinomish Tribe.

 The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is also asking anyone who spots animals with oil on them to report it by calling 1-800-22-BIRDS.