September 15, 2022
What’s known, not known about Aleutian Isle recovery
San Juan County Emergency Management

At most, divers have two half-hour windows per day to work on recovering the sunken Aleutian Isle, 200 feet below the surface of Haro Strait off San Juan Island. (Photo courtesy Washington Department of Ecology)

September 15, 2022
What’s known, not known about Aleutian Isle recovery
San Juan County Emergency Management

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This FAQ prepared by the San Juan County Department of Emergency Management was released Sept. 14, 2022.

What is the current situation with the wreck

The sunken vessel remains in place on the west side of San Juan Island in over 200 feet of water. The boat is resting on its side, perched bow facing uphill on a slope that runs steeply down into the deepest waters of Haro Strait. Divers have secured the fuel tank vents, however occasional small and rapidly dissipating sheens have been observed over the site of the wreck, which indicates that pockets of fuel have likely collected within the hull of the vessel.

The third lifting mechanism needed is at the rear of the vessel and was placed using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to perform the work given safety risks to divers at the stern of the boat — in particular concerns that a sudden shift of the boat would not allow the divers any clear path of escape and that the increased depth (due to the angle of the boat) makes for narrower operating windows.

A large crane barge is on scene, facilitating much of the ongoing work, and will be used to eventually lift the boat. A number of smaller tugs and workboats are also supporting the operation. The three cables that will be needed to lift the hull have been rigged. The first two were installed using divers, which been a significant undertaking, complicated considerably by the strong tidal currents at the site, and the inherent challenges of working in pitch dark and cold waters on a wreck that presents numerous hazards to the divers due to stability, entanglement risks, and depth.

It is important to note that the challenging conditions of this response have necessitated a flexible and innovative operation, with numerous adjustments and adaptations required throughout. It is expected that need will continue until the operation is concluded.

Why is it taking so long, when will this be over?

Keeping the divers and other personnel working this response safe has been the top priority throughout.

That means being methodical, careful and considered with each step of the effort.

This response is occurring in an environment that is extremely challenging for a number of reasons, but primarily due to the strong, swirling and difficult-to-predict currents found on the site. Divers are limited to just 30 minutes of bottom time during each slack tide, and even with careful monitoring of current using a current profiler, and with sophisticated modeling support from NOAA, unpredicted surges have caused some dive windows to be aborted in order to keep the divers safe.

It is difficult to convey the sheer scale of the complexities but imagine standing underwater next to a 58-foot commercial fishing boat balanced on a steep rocky slope that drops off 500 or so feet behind you.

Now picture it being completely dark, and cold enough that the only way you can work is to have hot water pumped through your dry suit. On top of all of that, you’re in a location where you need to constantly monitor the speed of the current, because if it becomes too strong, you will struggle to return to the dive bell that takes you to the surface, and risk literally being swept away. Assuming conditions are acceptable, your first job is to cut free the net and rigging that is drifting near the vessel and poses a risk of potentially entangling you or the umbilical cord that keeps you tethered to the air, heat and communications links that are keeping you alive. Once that is done, you need to find and shut off fuel tank vents. Finally, you can work to slip small messenger lines under the hull that you will use to feed through the massive steel cables used to lift the boat. Once you wrestle those cables into place, they need to be carefully rigged and connected so that the crane lift will be smooth and balanced. Best case for each dive, you’ve had about 30 minutes of time to work safely before your window of good conditions starts to close. 

You return to your diving bell, and then take about 90 minutes to return to the surface, stopping periodically to ensure your body adjusts to the changes in pressure along the way.

Once out of the water, you’ll spend several hours in a hyperbaric chamber to ensure you’re fully acclimated to surface pressure. With luck, tidal conditions permit two dives a day, but often it is just one, and on some days, there is no dive window safe enough to allow a diver to go down.

Some work has been able to be accomplished with the ROV, but the submersible is subject to the same dive windows as an actual diver, as strong currents make it impossible to operate the ROV with the precision required for these complex tasks.

Bottom line: Marine salvage is one of the most complicated things that people do, and anyone who knows the field will tell you that rarely do things proceed without both complication and meticulous care.

It is difficult to know the exact timeline for a lift. As always, variations in weather, tides, and unexpected complications can shift the timeline drastically. Based on the assumption that operations continue as planned, preparations are being actively made for the lift, but it may be some time yet before it happens.

Is there any chance the boat won’t be lifted? What if it cannot be raised?

Absolutely. As explained above, there are many reasons that mission might not succeed — nearly all of which are tied to the decision that the operation has simply become too risky.

That said, the response team is feeling good about the likelihood of the boat coming up — but there is no guarantee.

In the event the boat cannot be raised, a plan would be developed with the intent of minimizing any future leaks, and to have strategies and equipment in place long term should any releases occur. The depth of the site makes pumping fuel off the boat extremely difficult and likely impossible. It is important to note that in most similar situations around the United States and the world, no attempt would have been made to lift the boat, and the entire plan would be to minimize and control pollution.

This current operation to fully eliminate that risk by lifting the boat is a testament to the importance of the Salish Sea ecosystem, and this location in the San Juans in particular. It is also the result of an extremely proactive approach from the U.S. Coast Guard and Washington Department of Ecology, in addition to many other participating agencies.

Assuming all goes well, and the boat is lifted, what is the spill risk?

It is impossible to know for sure, but given the small sheens that have been observed, there is an expectation that there is fuel collected in areas of the boat that will likely release when the vessel is moved. There is no way to know exactly how much fuel might come out, but the best guess is that the volumes are probably enough that they could cause a moderate sheen, but not so great that there will be a significant environmental risk. Regardless of that estimate, preparations are being made for a much larger release.

What steps are being taken to minimize the spill risk during and after the lift?

A number of strategies have been deployed already or will be in place during the lift to help quickly contain and control any potential spill. These steps include:

  • Proactive booming of sensitive habitat closest to the location of the response.
  • Staging of large quantities of boom and response personnel and vessels to deploy additional boom strategies if required.
  • Aerial survey capability in the form of aircraft and drones to carefully monitor the site for any sheening during lift.
  • A large barge with skimming and storage capability, working with smaller boats to collect and retrieve any spilled oil found in quantities large enough for recovery.
  • A team of response vessels and responders on stand-by to initiate whale deterrence strategies should the Southern Resident killer whales be headed in the direction of a spill.
  • A team of oiled wildlife experts to look for any wildlife impacts of any kind.
  • A team of oceanographers available to quickly assess tidal conditions and forecast the direction of movement of any spilled product.
  • Department of Ecology air quality equipment and personnel to monitor air quality from any spilled fuel.
  • A team of ecology and habitat experts to quickly assess any impacts to the environment.
  • A perimeter of boom will be placed around the boat once it is safely on the barge, and that barge will be tied to an anchor and boomed off to further contain any potential spill.

It is important to remember that small quantities of diesel fuel spread quickly and unlike heaver oils, diesel can be very difficult to recover. However, the high volatility of diesel makes it much less persistent in the environment. The goal of course is to prevent any spilling, but large quantities of people and resources are being deployed just in case there is any release.

Where does the boat go once it is lifted?

Once on the barge, any recoverable fuel remaining on the boat will be removed. The barge will then be towed to a shipyard on the mainland for transfer to drydock or shoreside facilities for assessment.

What is this going to end up costing, and who will pay for it?

It is too soon to know the cost of the response. That said, suffice to say that the size of the response team, the use of specialized vessels and dive equipment, deployment of spill response equipment, the use of aircraft to monitor the site, and the numerous complexities of the incident make this a challenging and intricate response.

The U.S. Coast Guard has authorized the use of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF) to ensure a rapid and aggressive response. The OSLTF is funded through a tax on the petroleum industry. It is standard practice for the OSLTF to work with vessel owners and their insurers to reimburse the fund for response expenses after the fact, but the intent is to have a readily available pool of funds that allow responses to proceed quickly without needing to sort out the question of who will pay on the front end.

What caused the boat to sink in the first place?

While there may be speculation from the public or media, determining the cause of an accident is a very careful process that takes time to complete. Both the Coast Guard and Ecology have ongoing investigations. 

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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