Alaska 2009 Exxon-Valdez Bioremediation Project - Part 1

We were all packed and ready to roll for Alaska with students flying out on Tuesday the 16th and Wednesday the 17th of June, 2009.  This particular trip would have 5 graduate students and 3 undergraduate students along with our advisor, and a boat crew of 3.  After two months of preparations and practically living in the civil engineers lab of the college, it was finally time to put all the hard work into action.  All items were sent by freight weeks in advance to be picked up when we arrived in Anchorage, with last minute stuff being held at UPS.  Preparing for this trip was no picnic, with students working long and very late hours at the college, making frequent trips to Home Depot for equipment and supplies.

Some of the equipment on palettes at Temple University, ready for freight shipment to Anchorage.  The large box was completely filled, and also not pictured are two generators on a palette.

Upon arriving in Alaska we stayed at a hostel, and by no means were all the preparations finished.  We ended up buying more supplies at a local Lowes and Home Depot.  We worked out of the back of our Uhaul at the hostel parking lot, until we realized that it was actually approaching 11PM, when we had to stop.  The funny thing about it was that we didn't realize how late it was since it stayed daylight there all night.  So we packed up and got ready to do more the next morning, with hopes of finishing before checkout time.  Come morning time, we split into two teams, one working out of the truck, and the other going around Anchorage for supplies and last minute equipment.  It wasn't until later in the day that we headed for Whittier, the port town where our boat would be.

Left:  Some of the crew at the Hostel upon arriving.  Middle:  The road to Whittier.  Right:  The deck of the boat loaded with supplies and equipment.

About one hour later we arrived in Whittier we found out the boat was actually still at sea, by the time the boat arrived it was late evening and after meeting the captain, first mate, and cook, we loading the boat up with our equipment and were off.  We all slept on the way out to our first beach, known as SM006C1 on Smith Island, which we refer to in the lab as "beach 6" from previous years research.  For those of us who had not been to Alaska before, we were all introduced to a very difficult beach surface made up of very large round rocks.  This made walking anywhere on the beach very difficult, and working especially hard in our rubber boots.  Within an hour we unloaded equipment from the boat with the skiff, and had scoped out where we were going to dig.  The entire group was split into two teams, one to dig on the left, and the other on the right.

Left:  Unloading the equipment off the skiff onto our first beach.  Middle:  Scoping out the pond behind the beach.  Right:  A view of the slippery rocks at low tide.

Immediately we all found out how difficult the digging was.  We had shovels, pry bars, pick axes, a two man gas auger, and a jackhammer.   Even with all this equipment, the digging was still very difficult.  Below the surface we had problems with large rocks at every pit.  Removing some of them was a team effort.  Many times the pits would fill with water as we were digging, and had to be emptied out with buckets every 10 minutes or so.  At one side of the beach we had thick oil below the surface which would make things slippery and difficult.  The oil had to be drained continuously since you couldn't see through it to the ground we were digging.  Each pit would take a few hours at a minimum, and since we had to work with the tide in order to get holes as far out to sea as we could, we found ourselves racing against the tide at times.

Left:  Digging the left transect of beach 6.  Middle:  Digging the right transect of beach 6.  Right:  Oil in the left transect.

While digging was going on, samples of sediments were taken at various depths depending on the depths of the holes for all the pits.  These samples would be sent back to Temple University for analysis of grain size, density, and permeability later on, among other tests.  Also, samples were taken for TKN (nitrogen), SOD (oxygen demand), sediments for biological studies, SEM (Scanning electron microscopy ), and DO (Dissolved oxygen).  All these samples were taken with very specific protocols, and were also shipped back to Temple for analysis at a later time.  All samples were labeled, with records as to where each sample came from recorded in log books.  Of course, everything had to be documented as well with pictures and video.

Left:  Preparing for sampling.  Middle:  Taking samples from a pit and storing it.  Right:  Logging the sample label along with date and location of sampling.

When we were satisfied with the depths of the pits, we installed our proprietary DOB's (Dissolved Oxygen Boxes), which were actually two PVC cylinders, one inside the other, both wrapped with screens, with a specific type of sand packed between them, with plates placed on top and bottom to hold the sand in place.  We had pipes running to the surface from the DOB's, where we placed tubing down into the DOB's to pull samples out with a pump.  The idea is to have these DOB's stay there for a length of time, so that we can return to them later and get readings.  We also placed multiport wells and PVC wells at all locations.  The multiports are what we used in previous trips to pull samples, and will be used for backup this time.  The PVC wells are slotted, allowing water to pass through, but not sediment.   These PVC wells hold certain sensors for recording data over long periods.

Left:  Filling the DOB with sand.  Middle:  Filling the pit carefully around the DOB's, PVC well, and multiport well.  Right:  A completed pit, filled in, and cut to manageable length.

Two trenches we dug at opposite ends of the beach for injection well tests, where we will do tests at a later time.  These were by far the largest pits we dug at either beach, with monitoring DOB's, multiports, and PVC wells around them.  You can see the horizontal injection piece we built being installed in the pictures.  It consists of a soaker hose inside of a perforated PVC pipe with a mesh wrapping it all up.  The left transect was more difficult due to large rocks and the presence of thick oil filling the pits.

Left:  The Injection well setup for beach 6's right side.  Middle:  The installation of the injection setup.  Right:  Chilling after digging the beach 6 left side injection pit.

When we wrapped up at the first beach, we headed to our next location, B1-EL056C on Eleanor Island, known in the lab as "beach 1".  We were all treated with a nicer work surface (no more large boulders covering the entire surface) which made everything easier.  Digging was easier as well, on the other hand though, the pits filled with water much faster.  One pit in particular needed a trench to take the water out, as it was filling with water as fast as it was draining, and it looked like a stream emerging from the ground.  Another particular difficult dig at this beach was for our "consolidation columns" which required a very large and deep pit.  Lastly, at this beach we dug for injection tests, which we capped with bentonite (clay).

Left:  A comparison between a clean sample and an oily sample.  Middle:  Working at a rather difficult pit, which had a trench dug out to drain it.  It filled in as fast as it drained.   Right:  Celebrating after the consolidation columns were installed.

The last day of the trip at sea provided us with some sightseeing.  Porpoises,  Orcas, Bears, Glaciers, and just beautiful scenery were all over.  We couldn't have asked for a better day either.  For many of us, this was the final day, as some students would be leaving early in the morning the following day, with some staying back to sort through equipment and material to be shipped back, and some to be stored in Alaska until the next trip.

Some of the sight on the final day of the trip.  Glaciers and a porpoise swimming at the bow of the boat.

Everyone would especially like to thank the boat crew.  Billy (Captain), Jon (First mate), and Ryan (Cook), and lets not forget Jon's dog Cuba, took care of us.  They made the trip enjoyable for us and gave us all the help we needed.  We couldn't have asked for a better crew.  We all agreed that we ate some of the best food of our lives while on the boat.  Thanks again guys.  Everyone enjoyed Billy's 72 foot boat, the Pukuk, very much.  For more information about the Pukuk and Billy's business you can contact him through the Alaska Marine Expeditions website at

Left:  Billy chilling out on the beach.  Middle:  Jon prepares a fish he caught.  Right:  Ryan bringing a hot meal to us all on the beach...which was awesome!

Additional pictures of the trip