Large sheen on Kuskokwim River seen following Steamboat Slough spill
On Oct. 30, a pilot flying over the Kuskokwim River shared an image with members of Bethel Search and Rescue. It showed a large sheen, hundreds of feet long, from what appeared to be spilled fuel or oil coating the lower end of Steamboat Slough just upriver from Bethel.
By the afternoon, the sheen had made its way from the slough into the mainstem of the Kuskokwim River. Its source was the Frances Snow, an assist vessel owned by fuel distribution company Vitus Energy. It had been tied up in Steamboat Slough since at least September.
Shortly after the discovery of the spill, Bethel Search and Rescue member Earl Samuelson, who was about 7 miles downriver in Napaskiak, heard that ice and poor visibility were blocking fellow volunteers in Bethel from heading out to investigate.
"They were concerned of oil in the water noticeable at the seawall, and they weren't able to respond," Samuelson said.
While Samuelson and his son were ultimately turned back in their attempt to navigate the ice-choked river near Napaskiak, something else caught their attention.
"What we did notice also was the smell of diesel fuel in the air right there. I say diesel because gas has a different smell, and you can really tell the difference between gas and diesel fuel," Samuelson said.
Whether Samuelson was smelling fuel that had made its way miles downriver from Steamboat Slough is still unknown.
It wasn't until Oct. 31 that Vitus was able to send one of its tugboats, the Chena, to assess what had gone wrong on the Frances Snow.
According to Bernie Nowicki, Western Region on-scene coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Vitus crews found the stern of the approximately 60-foot vessel roughly one-third submerged and the engine room flooded. They placed absorbent booms around the vessel to contain any additional release of contaminants into the slough. They also began the process of trying to right the Frances Snow.
"Vitus Energy went on to state that there is a pocket of diesel fuel within the vessel, size has not been determined at this time," Nowicki said. "Estimate of the fuel onboard the vessel is 250 to 300 gallons at the time the vessel was moored."
Barbara Anvil, who owns a property just a couple hundred feet from the site of the spill, said that she was shocked that fuel had been left on board the unoccupied vessel.
"Why wasn't that taken out of there? You know, they had all summer to do it," Anvil said.
It is still unclear how much, if any, of that fuel may have spilled into the Kuskokwim River. In a phone call on Oct. 31, Vitus CEO Mark Smith said that crews were no longer seeing a sheen trailing from the Frances Snow. Smith said that the vessel was in the process of being de-watered and prepped for transit and haul-out in Bethel.
Smith declined to speculate about how the vessel may have ended up partially submerged. Anvil said that she had noticed something was wrong with the Frances Snow back in July.
"I noticed that this summer when I was up there that the Frances Snow was tilting. I know something was happening with it," Anvil said.
For years, Anvil said that she has been trying to bring more attention to the need to clean up the barges littering Steamboat Slough, a tug of war that has been playing out between state and federal agencies. Unfortunately, that attention could end up coming in response to, rather than in anticipation of, cases like the Frances Snow.
As of Oct. 31, neither Vitus Energy nor state and federal agencies had released public statements regarding the spill and its potential environmental impacts.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the time period the Frances Snow was tied up in Steamboat Slough and that there were dozens of barges in Steamboat Slough. It also incorrectly stated that the Frances Snow was a retired vessel.