Vitus Energy says 203 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into Kuskokwim River in Steamboat Slough spill
Vitus Energy, the company that owns a tugboat, the Frances Snow, now known to have leaked diesel fuel into the Kuskokwim River, told state authorities that the the boat spilled 203 gallons into the water.
A large sheen was first observed on Oct. 30 in Steamboat Slough, roughly 3 miles upriver from Bethel. That same day, a strong fuel smell was reported at the Bethel seawall and as far downriver as Napaskiak, approximately 7 miles away.
It wasn’t until the following day that Vitus was able to respond with a tugboat to dewater the vessel, deploy absorbent booms, and prepare the Frances Snow for haul-out at the Port of Bethel. On Nov. 2, the vessel was pulled out of the water and the company measured the fuel tanks.
Vitus estimates that 250 to 300 gallons of diesel fuel were on board at the time the Frances Snow became partially submerged in Steamboat Slough. According to Vitus, the vessel sank due to a 1.5-inch crack in the hull. It is not clear when the crack developed, but it has now been patched.
"The boat has been removed, the oil sheens are no longer visible on the water or the shore. The smell of fuel at the seawall is no longer evident," Bernie Nowicki, the Western Region on-scene coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said.
"I did inquire with Vitus Energy about downriver, and I was told through them that they did not notice any sheen downriver below Bethel as of [Nov. 1]," Nowicki said.
According to Nowicki, Vitus, as the responsible party, will be handling the cleanup effort itself. He doesn’t foresee state or federal agencies stepping in to manage the response now.
"At this point right now, I'm satisfied with their response actions in their cleanup operations for this event," Nowicki said.
A "small" spill
At a reported 203 gallons, the spill fails to even meet the threshold of 500 to 5,000 gallons the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) refers to as a “small” diesel spill. According to a NOAA factsheet, these types of fuel spills tend to naturally evaporate or disperse within a few days, leaving little if any fuel on the surface for responders to recover.
The factsheet also notes that a significant amount of fuel can be trapped in sediments when spills occur very close to the shore, as was the case with the Frances Snow in Steamboat Slough. Diesel fuel is one of the most acutely toxic types of oil, and high mortality of plants and animals can occur when large amounts of fuel soak into wetland areas, according to NOAA.
Vitus Safety and Environmental Manager Kevin O’Shea said that Vitus crews reported seeing no sheen on the water or the shoreline on multiple passes through Steamboat Slough on Nov. 2.
O’Shea said that the 203-gallon figure was based on the high end of Vitus’s initial estimate of 250 to 300 gallons of diesel fuel on board the Frances Snow at the time of the spill.
The state is relying on residents to report any signs of fuel contamination on the Kuskokwim River. Nowicki said that he can be contacted at 907-269-8149.
"I'm really relying on assistance from the community because I'm not out there. I don't have boots on the ground," Nowicki said.
It is still not clear whether Vitus Energy will face punitive actions for the Steamboat Slough spill. Nowicki said that such action would likely come from a third party, if at all.