PORTLAND, Ore. — A crude-oil tanker being towed to China for scrap metal broke its tether and was drifting Thursday in rough seas about 60 miles off the southern Washington coast.
The U.S. Coast Guard said there was a slight danger the 906-foot Atigun Pass, which is contaminated with about 20,000 gallons of left over fuel oil, would be blown ashore in the coming days.
Winds Thursday carried the ship north and slightly farther out to sea at about one mile per hour, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Amy Gaskill.
"The worst case scenario is it makes landfall," she said.
She said officials had several options left. The shipping agent, Netherlands-based Smit International, dispatched a crew of six people on a helicopter to rappel onto the storm-tossed boat Thursday evening.
That was after a first attempt to regain control of the boat failed during the day.
The whole operation is complicated by one of the first strong storms of winter off the coast, with swells of about 18 feet and winds of up to 25 miles per hour.
The tanker broke free Tuesday morning about 8 a.m. when a steel cable several inches in diameter connecting the Atigun Pass to a Chinese tug boat, the De Da, snapped in a storm about 100 miles off the coast.
Bobbing in the high waves, the crew of the De Da struggled but failed Tuesday and Wednesday to grab hold of a light and buoyant nylon rope that is tied to the steel tow cable.
That rope is used to haul in the cable and regain control of the boat, said Gaskill.
The situation worsened Thursday when another tug boat, the Barbara Foss, based in Neah Bay, retrieved that line — which then broke.
That left the steel cable dangling over the side of the tanker and deep into the ocean water with nothing attached.
"We were hoping it wouldn’t go this far," said Gaskill.
Gaskill said the Barbara Foss would try to maneuver close to the tanker despite rough seas and hook the cable using special equipment.
In the meantime, Smit International hired the airborne salvage crew as a backup option.
They carry a rifle capable of firing a slender "messenger" line to a tug. That line can then be used to haul in thicker ropes and eventually a cable, Gaskill said.
The Atigun Pass, a single-hulled tanker condemned as unsafe by the Oil Protection Act of 1990, had been docked in Portland’s harbor since 1995, Gaskill said.
The 20,000 gallons of fuel oil were caked into a tar-like paste on one of the ship’s tanks and couldn’t be pumped out before the cross-Pacific journey, she said.
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