Despite what many may think, the Alaska marine salvage industry’s primary goal—outside of ensuring the safety of people—is to protect the environment. Salvaging actual cargo is a much lower priority than safeguarding Alaska’s many sensitive and important marine ecosystems.
Though salvors might not prioritize recovering assets, the maritime community at large, and particularly vessel owners, operators, and their underwriters, recognize the value of highly-trained, versatile professionals who protect their interests. This recognition has led to open communication between groups through organizations such as the International Maritime Organization, the International Salvage Union (ISU), and American Salvage Association.
“The most important thing salvages do that is probably misunderstood by the public is that we keep millions of gallons of pollutants out of the sea, out of the ocean, every year,” says Dan Magone, operations manager for Resolve Marine Services. Magone was previously the owner of the renowned marine salvage business Magone Marine, which operated in Western Alaska for more than forty years until he sold it in 2013. “The [government] agencies don’t really care about the owner or the owner’s values involved or the underwriter’s values involved. They’re out representing the state and the people in terms of how might this incident damage the environment and cause harm to the waters and the state.”
Prevention and Response
However, Alaska’s sprawling, remote coastline and fierce weather create a challenging landscape for salvors doing their best to protect the environment.
Regulations in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which streamlined and strengthened the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills, are particularly problematic for vessels moving through the Aleutian Islands, which are distant from the infrastructure necessary for compliance if a ship runs aground, Resolve Marine Services Alaskan Region Director Todd Duke says. Due to this, ships must take additional precautions, such as remaining fifty or more miles offshore.
“That way, if they have a mechanical difficulty or casualty, there would be time to get a vessel out there,” Duke says.
Though Resolve Marine specializes in salvage and wreck removals, the company also provides emergency response measures, tracking thousands of boats to ensure that they don’t need to take a plunge and put their other skill sets to work. In fact, a lot of what Resolve Marine does is attempt to prevent incidents from occurring, or mitigating risk.
“We monitor the traffic moving through there [the Aleutians] using AIS technology, make sure they are complying with routing measures and everything,” Duke says. “And then, if we see an anomaly drifting, we’ll contact that vessel, we’ll determine if she has a potential problem, and, if they do have a problem, that’s when we start launching some of our resources and our assets out of Dutch Harbor.”
Of course when there is a casualty, it’s never in a convenient place in Alaska. The incident is inevitably out near a rural village with limited resources or somewhere there are no resources at all, notes Duke. For much of the Lower 48 it’s possible to base a crew at a local hotel, but that’s rarely an option here.
“Most of our job is basically logistics, especially in the Aleutians,” Duke says.
Marine salvaging companies need to figure out where they are going to house the team, how they are going to feed them, and how they’re going to get personnel and equipment to the incident.
“Those are all the big challenges right off the bat, getting to a casualty, getting our people there, sustaining an operation for a multitude of days,” he says.
Expertise and Planning for the Unexpected
Global Diving & Salvage Director of Business Development Eric Rose concurs.
“The state of Alaska, simply in terms of its sheer size, the thousands of miles of primarily remote shoreline [34,000 miles], the wide variety of sea conditions, and the physical topography of the land, presents enormous challenges with regard to logistics when deploying personnel and equipment to a casualty,” Rose says. “[The] keys to successful salvage work in the remote parts of Alaska are access to vessels of opportunity and people with intimate local knowledge of the waters and prevailing conditions.”
This expertise is one of the reasons Global has Salvage Master Kerry Walsh as part of its eight-person marine casualty group.
“My job, my specific job, is that I travel wherever I am needed to be a project manager for a marine casualty event,” Walsh says.
In mid-May Walsh was just returning to Oregon from an unusual job in Alaska: Global was hired through a standing contract with the US Coast Guard to recover a cannery building and associated debris that fell into the waters at Port William on the southern end of Shuyak Island, about fifty miles north of Kodiak.
After assessing the situation with a team member, Walsh mobilized a crane barge and a material barge by tug to tackle the issue.
“Once we [recovered the building], we also recovered some of the debris that was covering up some of the oil that needed to be cleaned,” Walsh explains.
Officials suspect that 3,000 gallons of fuel oil were released when a fuel bladder—a rubber tank used for storing fuel—located inside the building fell into the water along with the structure, which was positioned on a dock.
According to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the area is designated as a critical habitat for two marine mammals listed in the Endangered Species Act: northern sea otters and Steller sea lions. Additionally, it’s a habitat for Pacific herring, Pacific cod, Pacific halibut, and walleye pollock, as well as eagles, seabirds, and waterfowl.
Once the hazardous materials were removed from the site, they were shipped out of state to a hazmat dump in Oregon, says Walsh.
Establishing what pollutants are present is one of the top priorities when assessing a casualty. Once that’s established, salvors must determine the most prudent method of removal. If a vessel has run aground and the assessment team thinks it’s possible to remove it without a protracted salvage effort, they’ll often argue against removing fuel ahead of time—better left in than taken out.
“It’s the safest way to get it out of risk, so we don’t want to get distracted doing oil removals,” says Magone. “Let’s get this salvage operation underway. Get the boat off the ground, off the rocks, or whatever, and get it to a port where it can get repaired.”
If the team can demonstrate, to everyone’s satisfaction, that floating the ship and getting it to a safe harbor immediately is the most judicious way forward, that’s what is done.
“If we think that’s going to be a protracted problem, that we’re going to be there for a while, then everybody is going to want to lighter the fuel out of this thing as quickly as possible because there is always a risk that a big storm is going to come in and break it up, and we’re going to have a great big oil spill. The magnitude of those problems depends on the size of the vessel and what the location is like,” Magone says.
Handling a Spill
Once there is an oil spill, “you’re not going to get much bang for all the tremendous dollars you’re going to spend to help the environment,” Magone says.
Some places, such as high-energy beaches that can naturally and quickly break down some oils, are less sensitive to salvage efforts and pollutants than others, he points out.
However, many other areas are incredibly fragile, in some ways setting Alaska apart from the rest of the nation.
“Some of the Alaska coastline is much more environmentally sensitive, especially when you start discussing marine mammals, so that just increases some of the challenges you have to work with,” says Duke.
Pollutants aren’t the only concern marine salvors need to manage when working in environmentally sensitive areas. To minimize the impact on animals, Duke says, “It’s get in, get out. Be careful how you run your boats around; be careful where you put your boom and your anchor. Make sure you aren’t disturbing their natural habitat or disturbing it as little as possible.”
Though mammals can be a primary concern, so are waterfowl, especially given Alaska’s role in the life cycle of millions of migratory birds.
“Some places are way more sensitive than others. We’ve had wrecks that were full of fuel in areas like Izembek Lagoon [near Cold Bay], which is where 80 percent or more of the Pacific Flyway [a major north-south flyway for migratory birds] waterfowl are in the fall. It’s an extremely sensitive place in the fall. It would be any time of the year, but certain times of the year it would be a terrible place to have an accident, right?” Magone says. “You get something happening in that kind of environment and everybody just goes out through the roof worrying about the potential damage. So, it’s important that we’re able to respond quickly and mitigate what’s happening.”
Possibly more detrimental to the state’s economy than impacts on migratory birds, however, are casualties that threaten parts of the multi-billion dollar seafood industry. With first wholesale values of about $4.2 billion in 2016 and a total economic output of $5.2 billion that year, marine hazmat issues can be detrimental.
“There are all these salmon streams we have everywhere. They are very sensitive to pollution and that, especially depending on the time of the year that it happens, can really devastate a fishery. So those things are a big issue when it comes to wrecks,” Magone says.
Walsh is also no stranger to protecting salmon streams, recalling a particular project in Alaska: a tugboat had fallen into disrepair and eventually sunk downstream of a salmon hatchery.
“That was a mess,” Walsh says, explaining that the old-style construction of the boat with its narrow doorways prevented surface-supplied helmet divers from safely entering the wreck. The US Coast Guard ended up giving the green light for re-floating the barge, from which nearly thirty batteries were safely removed and disposed of.
Alaska’s Unique Challenges
Hazmat issues aren’t always what you expect, says Magone, recalling an issue with frozen chickens on a flaming ship in waters beyond Alaska a number of years ago.
“As the fire burned and we were extinguishing it, the heat was heating the container and the chicken was melting and the water was turning into steam. And then the containers were blowing apart once they were over-pressurized,” he says. “We had flying chicken everywhere. This is just one of those—you look at a cargo vessel and you’re like, ‘frozen chicken, no big deal.’”
Another major challenge salvors in Alaska face is the weather, as it determines when it’s safe to put a team out and what sorts of efforts are even feasible.
“Weather is a big deal just as far as safety is concerned. You’ve got to be able to get into these casualties with a crew and get back to shelter or whatever without getting people hurt,” Magone says.
“You have to be careful; you can get your crew or yourself stuck in a position where nobody can come get you quickly.”
Weather, particularly in the Aleutians, is often a contributor to many incidents. Big storms can generate eighteen- to twenty-five-foot waves, which can mix up poorly maintained fuel tanks, causing debris to eventually shut the engine down, Duke says. Resolve Marine annually handles from twenty-five to thirty-five casualties worldwide, with some five or six of them in Alaska waters.
As it turns out, there is no typical marine salvage project: from old canneries releasing pollutants as they crumble into the water to exploding containers of chicken, the marine salvaging business requires people to think creatively. Especially in Alaska.
“As you can imagine, we have a really big toolbox with a bunch of different types of tools depending on what the situation is,” Duke says.
Among those tools are aircraft owned by Resolve Marine, a heavy lift crane barge, and a large tank barge, as well as a multitude of pumps for pumping liquids of different viscosity. Contaminated liquids and offloaded fuel are moved into containers of a wide range of sizes including anything from 55-gallon drums to 25,000-gallon tank barges, depending on the circumstances.
He continues, “There is a whole lot of outside-the-box thinking that goes on because you’re taking a damaged vessel and trying to make it float again. In Alaska, you don’t have a lot of the assets available that you have anywhere else in the world so therefore out-of-the-box is pretty standard operating procedure here.”