Sunken tug Challenger to be raised and destroyed

Cmdr. Patrick Hilbert

Coast Guard Cmdr. Patrick Hilbert describes how the 96-foot tug Challenger will be raised from the bottom of Gastineau Channel. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Salvage operations are getting underway to raise the large World War II era wooden tug that sank in Gastineau Channel last September.

U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Patrick Hilbert, incident commander for the operation, said the sunken vessel poses a substantial threat to the environment.

Dive vessel above Challenger wreck

A dive support vessel positions itself above the wreck of the tug Challenger in Gastineau Channel. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

A containment boom still encircles the area above the wreck, across the channel from the Juneau Yacht Club. Hilbert said a small amount of sheen — what they call unrecoverable oil product — appears at the surface every day. There could be as much as 9,500 gallons of fuel and lube oil still on board the vessel.

“It’s a very beefy tug,” Hilbert said. “That was one of the reasons why, during efforts in September and early October, when diving on the vessel and trying to remove the fuel at the time, we were not successful in getting all of the fuel off the vessel.”

After contractors Global Diving & Salvage and Southeast Alaska Lighterage finish their dive assessments planned for this week, a crane will be barged in over the wreck.

“They’ll be taking the steps to rig the vessel such that they’ll be able to refloat the vessel or dewater it close to refloating, then tow it to another area here in Juneau ultimately, then, to remove any oils or hazardous materials on board,” Hilbert said.

Hilbert hopes to have the vessel raised and dismantled within two months. Any wood contaminated with fuel oil will be disposed according to hazardous materials procedures.

The $900,000 operation will be covered by the national Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Authorized by the Oil Pollution Act following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the fund is largely maintained with an 8 cent per barrel tax on oil imports. Hilbert said Capt. Shannon Greene, commanding officer for Coast Guard Sector Juneau, started working on a plan to tap the fund since the Challenger sank in September. Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft, approved Greene’s plan in mid-January.

The top of the Challenger still protrudes above the water (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

The top of the Challenger protrudes above the water in September 2015. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Hilbert said federal authorities will seek reimbursement from the owner.

The Juneau Police Department has loaned their mobile incident command center for Coast Guard personnel to monitor the salvage operation from the Yacht Club parking lot.

Hilbert said they’ll have a marine mammal specialist on site at all times to monitor potential impacts to local species, and they’ll place a deflection boom to protect the Douglas Island Pink and Chum facility in case of an unplanned discharge.

For now, traffic in Gastineau Channel will not be restricted, but Hilbert said they will likely establish a no-wake zone during the actual salvage operation.

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