Aleutians prepare for more vessel traffic as Canadian pipeline advances

The 738-foot cargo vessel Golden Seas was at risk of running aground on Adak when it lost power in December 2010. The ship was towed to Unalaska by an icebreaker that happened to be in town. (Photo courtesy Marine Exchange of Alaska)

The 738-foot cargo vessel Golden Seas was at risk of running aground on Adak when it lost power in December 2010. The ship was towed to Unalaska by an icebreaker that happened to be in town. (Photo courtesy Marine Exchange of Alaska)

Last month, the Canadian government gave conditional approval to the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia. If it’s built, it’ll bring hundreds more oil tankers through the Bering Sea.

That’s putting pressure on the Aleutian Islands to get ready for an increase in vessel traffic.

Canada’s government set out more than 200 conditions for the tar sands pipeline to meet before it moves forward. Many relate to spill prevention – but they don’t extend as far as the Bering Sea.

Leslie Pearson is project manager for the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment. She estimates the pipeline would bring about 200 more tankers a year through already crowded Unimak Pass.

As development spurs traffic across the Aleutians, Pearson’s group is preparing to release its report on how to keep the region safe.

“We’ll have a draft report from the Risk Assessment that identifies recommendations for building an optimum response system, she says. “That includes towing, offshore distances, response, salvage [and] marine firefighting capabilities for the Aleutian region.”

The report is more than five years in the making. Among other things, it’ll propose that trans-Pacific tankers stay 50 miles from shore throughout the Aleutian Islands. Pearson says that would give rescue tugs more time to reach a disabled tanker before it ran aground.

“Right now, some vessels are transiting a lot closer to the island chain,” she says. “Time is of the essence, and there’s a great distance out there, so the intent is to push them further offshore, provide more time and hopefully prevent any accidents from occurring.”

The Risk Assessment will also recommend stationing rescue tugs in Unalaska, Adak or both. And it asks for more cleanup and salvage tools on those islands – including a large tank barge to off-load fuel from other vessels.

Ships traveling to and from Northern Gateway would do so in innocent passage – if they’re not stopping at an American port, they’re not really subject to American rules for spill prevention. But Pearson says more monitoring would help keep them in check.

Tankers stopping at ports in Alaska have to join the state Maritime Prevention Network’s satellite tracking program. Starting this year, Pearson says large container ships do, too.

“They’ve been able to contact vessels when they decide that they’re going to slow down and do donuts out in the Pacific or in some sort of close proximity just to bide time,” she says. “The eye in the sky, I think, has been really pivotal.”

That program’s still voluntary for foreign vessels not stopping en route across the Pacific. But Pearson hopes tankers like those that would travel to Northern Gateway would buy in.

The Risk Assessment report won’t have much else to say about cost. Pearson says it shows the economic benefit in protecting the region’s fisheries from harm, but it doesn’t address the price of new equipment. She says they’ll use the recommendations to ask federal and private sources for help. The report is due out by Aug. 1.

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