ANCHORAGE, United States - An oil spill in a fragile Alaskan wildlife sanctuary following a shipwreck three weeks ago is far worse than originally feared, an environmental official said.
In this photo released by the US Coast Guard, the two halves of the Malaysian cargo ship Selendang Ayu are pounded by waves as it sits offshore of Skan Bay on Unalaska Island near Unalaska, Alaska, in the Aleutian Island chain. (AFP/USCG-HO/File)
Up to 1.28 million liters (320,476 gallons) of thick fuel oil -- more than eight times the original estimate -- are believed to have leaked into the Bering Sea since a Malaysian-flagged freighter ran aground off the Aleutian islands in treacherous weather.
Since then more than 600 birds have been coated with oil while 109 others have died, said Lynda Giguere of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
"We have not been able to determine where all that oil has gone, but there are some heavily oiled beaches and marine life," Giguere told AFP.
High winds and rough waves have buffeted the area near the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge for days, complicating efforts to assess damage.
Area beaches have been coated by a thick layer of oil and tar balls have been seen floating in the frigid waters, Giguere said.
The Wildlife Refuge is the nesting haven for 40 million seabirds and numerous marine mammals, including the endangered Steller sea lion and western Alaska sea otter.
The Singaporean-owned freighter Selendang Ayu was carrying soy beans from the United States to China when it ran aground off Unalaska Island on December 8 after losing power to its engines.
Twenty of the 26-man mostly-Indian crew were rescued before the ship broke apart, but six are presumed dead after one of the rescue helicopters crashed into the sea as it evacuated the last crewmen.
Officials at first thought only 160,000 liters (40,000 gallons) of fuel oil escaped from the freighter hull. They now believe that fuel oil from two other tanks aboard the ship have now spilled.
Efforts to siphon out the remaining fuel and to limit the damage have been hampered by bad weather in the area, Giguere said.
© Copyright 2004 AFP