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Huge Soviet Skimmer Joins War on America’s Worst Oil Spill

April 20, 1989

SEWARD, Alaska (AP) _ A Soviet ship that can skim oil on the high seas joined the war against the nation’s worst oil spill Wednesday, docking in a town named for the man who bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.

The 11,400-ton Vaidogubsky, 425 feet long, steamed 30 miles up fjord-like Resurrection Bay under a cloudy sky, flying the Soviet hammer and sickle from its stern and an American flag from its towering white superstructure.

It tied up at a railroad dock, its decks strewn with heavy equipment, smoke spewing from its stacks.

About 100 yards away, crews unloaded oil-soaked booms and absorbent material from the cleanup at Nuka Bay, one of the most polluted sites on the southern coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

″It’s pretty impressive for a skimmer,″ said Coast Guard Petty Officer Ken Safford, who snapped photos as the ship arrived a little before 8 a.m. ″It’s huge.″

By midmorning, a stream of tourists were driving up to the dock to take pictures and wave to the crew.

The ship came to Seward for refueling, and probably would be in port all day, said Coast Guard Capt. Rene Roussel.

The oil spilled March 24 by an Exxon tanker is becoming very thick and difficult to deal with as it weathers, Roussel said.

″We don’t know how it (the Vaidogubsky) is going to work in the kind of oil we’re skimming,″ he said. ″Our goal is to get in the oil. We’ll probably use it in Resurrection Bay for awhile.″

The Vaidogubsky works with two motorboats that drag a boom to corral the oil. Then two pipes working like 100-foot straws dip into the oil and suck it onto the larger ship, said a Soviet crewman who spoke in halting English.

The vessel is capable of gulping 200,000 gallons per hour, and has a storage capacity of 2 million gallons.

If there’s not enough oil there to justify its continued use, the Coast Guard will move it ″to where the oil is. Nuka Bay is our most likely plan,″ he said.

The Vaidogubsky probably will be available for 30 days, Roussel said. It’s unclear who will pay its fuel and operating costs, he said.

Exxon has promised to pay the costs of the total cleanup effort.

The Soviets have had an interest in Alaska’s fisheries for more than a decade, with U.S. fishing boats delivering cod and flounder to Soviet processing ships.

Though the joint venture is expected to phase out over the next few years because of ″Americanization″ of the bottomfish catch, the Soviets received 176,000 tons last year and are expected to take less than 110,000 tons this year, said Bert Larkins, general manager of Marine Resources Co. in Seattle, the Soviets’ U.S. partner in the joint venture.

In Washington, Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner told the Senate on Wednesday that industry plans for dealing with an Alaskan oil spill had been a ″zero″ on a scale of one to 10, and one senator said the initial response to the March 24 disaster reminded him of ″the Keystone Kops.″

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the environmental protection subcommittee, said the response to the spill has demonstrated ″a complete breakdown″ of the procedures that were supposed to have been in effect since the federal government approved the Alaskan pipeline 16 years ago.

William D. Stevens, president of Exxon Co. USA, denied that his company has been slow in responding to the crisis, but acknowledged that the industry’s preparedness was inadequate. This type of accident was ″so highly unlikely that the consequences of it ... were viewed as acceptable,″ he told the subcommittee.

Seward this week became the first town outside Prince William Sound to have oil wash up on a beach.

″If they (the Soviets) can capture oil out there and pick it up before it blows on shore, that’s much to our advantage,″ Seward deputy city manager Darryl Schaefermeyer said.

″Our goal is to get the oil picked up and not wait until it gets on beaches, and then have to clean beaches.″

The oil that washed ashore near Seward was a taffy-like goop mixed with seaweed, and was cleaned up Tuesday. But more oil was in Resurrection Bay, and still more reported on nearby islands and headlands of the Kenai Peninsula, including at Kenai Fjords National Park.

The oil has been streaming into the Gulf of Alaska from Prince William Sound where the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef and spilled 10.1 million gallons of North Slope crude oil.

Skimming in the often stormy gulf has been hampered by high seas because small boats in operation can handle seas only to about 5 feet. Seas recently have run as high as 12 feet.

Cleanup contingency planners didn’t expect oil to get outside Prince William Sound, which is largely protected from rough waves by a series of islands.

Exxon has about 20 skimmers working in the sound and the gulf. Two operate out of Seward, ″and of course we have several booming operations involving a whole armada of fishing vessels,″ said Coast Guard Lt. John Kwietniak.

It was the second time in less than a year that a huge Soviet ship aided rescue efforts in Alaska. Last October the Soviet icebreaker Vladimir Arseniev smashed its way through the frozen waters off Point Barrow to help free two California gray whales trapped in the ice.

Seward is named for former Secretary of State William Seward, the man who bought yet-unexplored Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867. Doubters dubbed it ″Seward’s Folly.″

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