Crews work to contain fuel spill after tugboat runs aground north of Sitka

A Coast Guard member looks out the open door of a helicopter at a container barge surrounded by smaller vessels
Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Daniel, an aviation maintenance technician at Air Station Sitka, observes an oil sheen surrounding the Western Mariner, an 83-foot inspected tug, in Neva Strait March, 21, 2022. (USCG Photo)

Salvagers are attempting to contain a diesel fuel spill after an 83-foot tugboat ran aground in Neva Strait early Monday morning while towing an Alaska Marine Lines barge.

Four crew members were aboard the Western Mariner when it ran aground shortly before 3 a.m. Monday, about 15 miles northwest of Sitka. All were safely taken aboard a Good Samaritan vessel.

The Western Mariner was towing the Chichagof Provider, a 286-foot container barge. According to a situation report from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the Western Mariner was heading southbound when a steering failure caused the barge to collide with the tug, pushing it onto the beach.

The grounding ruptured one of the tug’s fuel tanks, which can hold around 13,000 gallons of diesel fuel. The DEC says that a sheen was observed on the water covering an area of around 4 nautical miles, north to Salisbury Sound.

Efforts to offload the fuel and stop the spill are underway, and containment boom has been placed to reduce the spread. The Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation have set up a unified command, and the tug’s owner, Western Towboat, has retained Sitka-based salvagers Hanson Maritime.

The oil spill response vessel Neka Bay has been mobilized from Juneau, and the Southeast Alaska Petroleum Response Organization has been activated.

The barge has been anchored in Neva Strait outside of the main navigation channel.

The DEC says that the cause of the accident remains under investigation. The DEC is coordinating its response with the state Department of Fish & Game, which could potentially hold a seine opening for herring on March 22 in Hayward Strait, eight miles to the south of the grounded tug.

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