The transboundary fuel spill in the Bering Sea that everybody’s been waiting for has already happened, and because of chilled relations with Russia, the source of the spill will probably never be known.
Gay Sheffield of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Marine Advisory Program, gave a very businesslike rundown on the spill to an full room of villagers and others at the Alaska Forum on the Environment yesterday. In fact, there may have been more than one spill, starting in 2012, when subsistence hunters reported that oiled seals were found in the Saint Lawrence Island area and also north of the Bering Strait, around Shishmaref. Oiled seals continued to be found for two years. Samples were taken and analyzed. And there the news stories at the time ended.
The product was some kind of heavy oil, like the bunker fuel used by large cargo vessels. The Coast Guard notified their Russian colleagues, based far to the south, in Vladivostok. The Russians said they’d be in touch if they found anything out. They didn’t. Or if they did, we don’t know. The samples matched nothing known on the U.S. side.
In the spring of 2014, Russia marched troops into the Crimean Peninsula of the Ukraine. That basically froze up official communication. A scheduled Anchorage spill workshop still took place, but the Russian government officials were permitted only to deliver official statements and not to actually engage. Nobody stepped forward with any information about what vessel could have spilled the fuel. “Unsatisfactory” was the word Sheffield used.
In contrast, the tribal and indigenous organizations on both sides of the International Date Line corresponded freely. “There was great concern,” she said, in the coastal villages on the Russian side.
The verdict from the lab on the spill was “mixed sources.” Seal tissue samples in some cases showed some level of PAH, indicating the material had been ingested, and exposures could have taken place over a period of time.