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Concerns swirl above tanker that sank off Va.
By BRIAN IANIERI Staff Writer, (609) 463-6713

Tar balls and oil slicks splotch a section of water 50 miles off the Virginia coast.

Two-hundred and sixty four feet below the surface, the 570-foot Bow Mariner rests upright and may still release some oil and ethanol into the water after an explosion Saturday night sank the ship and killed at least three and maybe as many as 21 crewmen.

Two units from the Coast Guard's Group Air Station in Atlantic City flew to the scene after the Bow Mariner crew signaled distress following a fire and explosion on deck.

The Atlantic City Station pulled from the ocean one of six survivors, and one swimmer from the station sustained minor injuries from contact with the oil and ethanol, said Lt. Rodney Rios, the station's public affairs director.

Coast Guard spokesman George Nelson said an oil-recovery vessel from the Marine Spill Response Corp. has been skimming oil from the water since Monday, but the oil is too dispersed for it to gather much at a time. Nelson estimated that most of the oil was in a 9-square mile area, in which about 25 percent of the surface is still coated with oil.

The Bow Mariner also carried about 3.2 million gallons of ethanol, a highly concentrated alcohol, that poses no immediate hazard to human life and no significant hazard to marine life, he said.

Ethanol easily dissipates, he said, but "no chemical in the water is an acceptable situation."

The total amount of oil and ethanol the ship has released into the water is unknown, he said.

"We don't have any number on it. It's not quantified and the reality is we can't really quantify it," he said.

The Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies and contractors hired by Ceres Hellenic Shipping Enterprises Ltd., which managed the tanker, are determining how to reach the submerged tanker and remove any remaining fuel or ethanol.

It will take days of study and investigation, he said.

On Monday afternoon, the Coast Guard suspended its search for the 18 missing crewmembers.

"The decision to call off a search when there are still people missing is one of the most difficult decisions I have to make," Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, commander of the Fifth Coast Guard District, said in a statement Monday.

Coast Guard aircraft are still watching for survivors, Nelson said, but they now are focusing on spotting oil patches.

The Tri-State Bird Rescue of Delaware is on call in case birds contact the oil patches.

Boats were advised to stay clear of the area because of floating debris fields, which include ropes reaching to the surface that are still attached to the tanker. A boat's propeller could snag a rope and "unless they're planning to tow a sunken ship, they're going to come to a pretty quick halt," Nelson said.
 

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Bow Mariner oil spill recovery operations underway
Weather expected to deteriorate over the weekend

The Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) oil recovery vessel VIRGINIA RESPONDER recovered approximately 25,000 gallons of an oily water mix about 18 miles from where the T/V BOW MARINER sank Saturday night. A helicopter is flying over the area to locate pockets of oil and direct the oil recovery vessel to skim them from the water.

Thursday's weather is favorable for skimming and sonar operations, winds are out of the South, Southwest at 10-15 knots, waves 2-5 feet. Conditions for Friday are forecast to deteriorate with winds 20-25 knots and waves 5-10 feet. Saturday's forecast winds 25-35 knots and waves 7-15 feet continuing through Monday. Weekend weather may impact operations.

Today, the Norfolk, Va., based NOAA Ship RUDE will again sweep the area where the T/V BOW MARINER sank with side scan sonar to acquire additional underwater imagery. Previous scans completed on Tuesday were inconclusive, underwater imagery from sonar scans are expected to prove useful in assessing potential recovery of fuel oil from the vessel. The RUDE previously used side scan sonar during the search and recovery of TWA flight 800 in 1996 and search and recovery operations of John F. Kennedy Jr's aircraft and Egypt Air flight 990 off the Massachusetts coast in 1999.

A vessel will mark the wreck site with a radar reflector, warning vessels transiting the area of the hazard. As a precaution, air monitoring will be conducted to ensure that conditions are safe for workers.

The T/V BOW MARINER, a Singapore-flagged chemical tanker, left Linden, N.J., for Texas City, Texas, carrying a partial cargo of 3.2 million gallons of ethanol when it exploded and sank 50 miles off the Virginia coast Saturday night. The Coast Guard rescued six crewmembers, three deceased crewmembers were recovered and 18 crewmen are still missing.

Floating debris from the wreck is in the area, mariners should maintain a sharp lookout and monitor marine information broadcasts when transiting the area. Clean Harbors has been contracted to recover debris to reduce hazards to navigation. Ethanol released in the accident has dissipated. Oil in the slicks could pose an irritation hazard if it comes in contact with the skin, otherwise it does not appear to be a health concern to people or fisheries at this time.

Operations to secure the source of leaking oil and remove it from the wreck are being monitored by the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Norfolk, Va., and an inter-agency Unified Command including the Coast Guard Captain of the Port, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Virginia Dept. of Environmental Quality, Maryland Dept. of Environment, and representatives from the vessel owners and managers.
 
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