IMAGE: Tugboat in Prince William Sound
Marc Lester  /  AP
The tug Pathfinder is surrounded by a spill containment boom Thursday in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
updated 12/25/2009 10:11:07 PM ET 2009-12-26T03:11:07

A mile-long diesel sheen spread across Alaska's Prince William Sound on Friday where a tugboat had run aground near the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the Coast Guard said.

Officials had hoped to remove the fuel from the tugboat's tanks early Friday before towing it back to Valdez, but diesel removal was halted after about 10 minutes when workers noticed a new sheen on the surface of the water, said Coast Guard Lt. Erin Christensen, a spokeswoman for the joint information center.

Helicopter flights measured the sheen at 50 feet wide by one mile long, Christensen said.

The 136-foot tug Pathfinder had just finished checking for dangerous ice and was heading back to port in Valdez when it hit Bligh Reef at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday.

The boat is part of the Ship Escort Response Vessel System, which was created after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989 and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil — the worst U.S. spill ever.

Six fishing vessels plus Coast Guard cutters and salvage vehicles worked to skim the diesel off the surface of the water as the tugboat's operator, Crowley Maritime Services, made plans to make another attempt to pump the diesel out Friday afternoon, she said.

Once the diesel has been removed, the tugboat can be towed back to Valdez by Titan Marine, a salvage company that was also helping skim the sheen off Prince William Sound.

Christensen could not estimate how long the diesel recovery operation would take, but the tank pumping has been estimated to take eight hours.

"They no longer see a diesel sheen east of Glacier Island. There have also been no reports of impacts to wild life in that area," Christensen said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska said it was troubling that a spill response vessel "managed to run aground on one of the most well-marked and well-known reefs in the Northern Hemisphere."

It wasn't immediately known how much spilled. The Coast Guard said Thursday that two of its tanks — containing an estimated 33,500 gallons of diesel fuel — were damaged.

Christensen said an estimate on how much fuel spilled couldn't be done until the fuel was off-loaded to a barge.

A dive team inspecting the Crowley Marine Services tug found damage to the hull and a 4-to-5 foot section of keel missing, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios.

The SERVS system provides two escort tugboats for each tanker traveling through the sound after leaving the Valdez Marine Terminal with North Slope crude delivered through the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Two tankers scheduled to depart the marine terminal when the accident occurred. One tanker was on its way and the other was soon to be, said Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. spokeswoman Michelle Egan. "We are assisting in the response."

Officials are investigating the cause of the grounding. The six crews members tested negative for alcohol use.

Rios stressed that the grounding of the tug was very different from the Exxon Valdez accident in which an enormous amount of black crude oil spilled.

The tug is carrying much lighter diesel fuel that will evaporate in time, Rios said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos:

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  1. An oil skimmer works on a heavy slick near Latouche Island in the southwest end of Prince William Sound on April 1, 1989, in Valdez, Alaska, one week after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground. The March 24, 1989, accident spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sound, killing tens of thousands of wild creatures and fouling 1,300 miles of coastline. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. history. (Chris Wilkins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A cleanup worker walks through the oily surf at Naked Island on Prince William Sound on April 2, 1989, a week after the Exxon Valdez ran aground. A federal court jury in Anchorage in 1994 ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to Alaska fishermen, natives, landowners and others whose lives were affected by the disaster. After several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 reduced that amount to $507.5 milion. (Chris Wilkins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A worker helps clean up the Exxon Valdez spill. (Natalie Fobes / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Three tugboats, right, push the oil tanker Exxon San Francisco, center, into place beside the crippled Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound on March 30, 1989, to begin off-loading the remainder of crude oil in the Valdez. (Chris Wilkins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A resident of Tatitlek, Alaska, holds an oil-covered bird on March 26, 1989, two days after the Exxon Valdez ran aground. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rescue workers hold a cormorant that was caught in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. (Gary Braasch / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tugboats tow the crippled Exxon Valdez off Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound on April 5, 1989, to a harbor near Naked Island for repair and salvage efforts. (Chris Wilkins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Former Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood, left, is escorted to his arraignment inside the Suffolk County courthouse in Hauppauge, N.Y., on April 5, 1989, on charges stemming from the Alaskan oil disaster. Hazelwood was cleared of a charge of being drunk at the time of the accident. He was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of negligent discharge of oil, fined $50,000, and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service. (Bill Swersey / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Sujatha Jahagirdar, from the California Public Interest Research Group, holds oil-covered stones at a March 24, 1999, press conference in front of an Exxon gasoline station in Los Angeles on the 10th anniversary of the environmental disaster. At left is CalPIRG member Margot Broaddus. (Mike Nelson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A rock covered with crude oil tar from the wreck of the Exxon Valdez is displayed on April 4, 2004, near Valdez, Alaska, 15 years after the disaster. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. An iceberg drifting from Columbia Bay and past Glacier Island, on the same path as the icebergs that caused the Exxon Valdez to change its course before hitting Bligh Reef, is seen on April 6, 2004, near Valdez, Alaska. Fifteen years after the oil tanker ran aground, legal fights continued and oil still clung to rocks on once-pristine beaches. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Scars and large chunks of reef on the underside of the Exxon Valdez are still visible, nearly 20 years after the oil-spill disaster. Oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau looks at the ship on March 11, 2009, as it is being repaired in dry dock in San Diego. The vessel will be renamed the Exxon Mediterranean before it is put back to sea. (Earl S. Cryer / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
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