An explosion and subsequent fire on a 99-foot barge Alaganik from Cordova that caught fire at the Whittier harbor on July 8 spread to the pier and left one man missing is under investigation by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
An air and water search for a 49-year-old Cordova man aboard the barge was suspended late on July 8.
Initial reports from the Coast Guard indicated that there was an explosion and fire aboard a barge, which spread to Whittier’s Delong Dock and then to the Alaganik, but DEC later confirmed only one barge was involved. The initial report also said that there were two people on board the Alaganik at the time of the explosion, but Whittier police later confirmed that one of those two was safe aboard a different vessel enroute to Whittier at that time.
The Alaganik sank at the end of the pier in 60-80 feet of water. Robert Eckley, of Cordova, whom DEC identified as the responsible party, has contracted with Alaska Chadux Corp. and Global Diving and Salvage for spill response and salvage operations. Diving operations were expected to begin on Wednesday, July 10 to assess the condition of the barge and determine the remaining pollution threat. Chadux is monitoring containment boom around the barge, and DEC and Coast Guard responders were in Whittier to coordinate the response.
The city owned pier was damaged by the fire, which also impacted commercial interests operating at the pier, but the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry Terminal to the west of the pier was not impacted, nor was the small boat harbor west of the pier.
DEC said there was 1,000 gallons of gasoline, 2,800 gallons of diesel and some hydraulic and engine oil on board. The maximum capacity of the barge is up to 5,500 gallons.
Coast Guard personnel established a safety zone around the pier and asked everyone to stay 100 yards away from the site to allow for response operations to continue. Meanwhile DEC Division of Environmental Health Food Safety Program personnel were working with commercial fishing operators on the pier to assess whether seafood stored at pier facilities had been contaminated. The state fire marshal and Alaska State Troopers were also on scene conducting investigations.
A light sheen from the release of fluids from the sunken barge was observed in both areas on July 8, but dissipated on July 9 in the small boat harbor and DEC determine no response actions were required. That area has high use by both commercial and recreational fish harvesters.
DEC noted that a number of marine mammals listed under the Endangered Species Act were likely to be present, including humpback whales, Stellar sea lions and possibly fin whales were likely to be present in the area. A number of area streams support coho and pink salmon and there are numerous seabird nesting and feeding areas found in Passage Canal, but DEC has not reported any adverse environmental impacts from the explosion and fire to wildlife.
On scene commander Brian Hicks, chief of Whittier Fire Department, said responders included the Whittier Fire Department, Whittier Police Department, Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel Fire Department and Girdwood Fire Department, including crews aboard Tender 41 and Tender 42 from Girdwood.