Day 6 of San Juan oil spill brings new troubles

Already six days into an oil spill clean-up, difficult conditions are slowing attempts to plug a leaking fishing vessel off the coast of San Juan Island.

The Aleutian Isle sank last Saturday, going down with an estimated 2,600 gallons of diesel, and oil.

Five crewmembers were rescued, and the work quickly shifted to pollution response.

The initial work involved setting up large absorbent rope-like structures known as "booms" that can absorb diesel on the surface of water. However, as the oil spilled into the water the oil sheen quickly spread out.

The next step involves getting divers into the water and working to plug the ship, and eventually raise it to the surface. Divers went into the water on Tuesday, but the ship had shifted from roughly 100-foot deep water into a depth of more than 200-foot deep.

According to Brendan Cowan, the director of the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management, that shift in depth created new challenges: both in how they approach the vessel and the equipment needed to approach it.


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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.

"What the water is doing on the surface is often different from what it’s doing just a little further down," explained Cowan. "It’s a very dangerous place to operate, as is. And then we have a boat that has been unstable. It’s been moving on us."

Fishing nets once attached to the Aleutian Isle came loose and blocked visibility.

Work to free the nets took place late this week, but it will take a few more days until equipment is available for divers to safely approach the vessel.

As FOX 13 has reported on since news of the sunken vessel broke, a major concern has been over wildlife. The critically-endangered Southern Resident killer whales regularly swim near the area that the oil spill began.

Last week, the whales got within a few miles of the spill before turning around.

Plans were hatched to "haze" the whales by knocking on large metal tubes that create a sound barrier underwater in an attempt to keep them from getting too close if they show up.

On Friday, another type of killer whales – Biggs, or Transient killer whales – were spotted in the area. They too turned around before making contact with the spill site.

Currently, the U.S. Coast Guard, Washington State Department of Ecology, San Juan Office of Emergency Management and the Swinomish Tribe are working together in what’s being called a "unified command" that oversees the spill response.

It’s unclear how much oil remains in the vessel, or when it can be safely removed from the water.