Nudged and pulled by a fleet of seagoing tugboats, the tanker Exxon Valdez was finally freed last week from the rocks of Bligh Reef, 25 miles south of the Alaskan port of Valdez, where the off-course ship went aground on March 24 and caused the largest oil spill in North American history. After workmen emptied its cargo tanks of most of the remaining one million barrels of crude oil and pumped the tanks full of compressed air, six tugs pulled the 987-foot tanker 30 miles through the icy waters of Prince William Sound to a secluded—and already contaminated—bay on Naked Island. The same day, the Exxon Valdez’s former captain, Joseph Hazelwood, surrendered to the district attorney’s office near his Long Island, N.Y., home. Hazelwood, 42—who was fired from Exxon after the accident for violating company rules on the use of alcohol—faced criminal charges in Alaska, including charges of operating a vessel while intoxicated and negligent discharge of oil. An extradition hearing was set for May 5 for the former skipper, who was freed on $30,000 bail after spending a night in jail.
In the meantime, rescue workers and environmentalists took stock of the damage inflicted by the black tide of oil that had seeped across an area larger than Prince Edward Island, soiling nearly 1,000 miles of coastline with a thick, mottled scum and killing thousands of birds and animals. After complaints by Alaskan residents—including Republican Senator Theodore Stevens—that Exxon’s attempts to clean up the spill were inadequate, President George Bush authorized military aid for the cleanup, which Stevens estimated could take another 1,000 days.
It may already have been too late for the U.S. fishing industry in the area, which pumps about $200 million into the local economy each year. With fish and shellfish already heavily contaminated, the Alaska government closed the herring, sablefish and shrimp fisheries. About 120 million pink salmon fry that had begun hatching in the Armin Koemig Hatchery were held in feeding pens in the hope that the waters of Prince William Sound will be clean enough for their release within the next four weeks. Hatchery manager Eric Prestegard said that if the oil is still there in a month, or has killed the plankton on which the young fish feed, the fry will be put aboard tank trucks and shipped to clean waters for release. “But that’s when we would admit defeat,” said Prestegard. “We’re really trying to keep them here.”
Rescue workers were putting in 15-hour days in an effort to save animals and birds that were caught in the oil. Volunteers helped to capture and clean fouled birds, including cormorants, loons, grebes and several species of duck. The matted and tarry birds were wrapped in blankets or towels, placed in boxes and scrubbed with dishwashing liquid. Other workers tackled the difficult job of cleaning contaminated sea otters—animals that can weigh up to 90 lb. and have sharp teeth and claws. Lewis Kleinhans, a volunteer from Golden, Colo., said that some of the otters cleaned last week were later shipped to aquariums in U.S. and Canadian cities.
U.S. Coast Guard commandant Paul Yost estimated that the cleanup could cost anywhere from $100 million to $200 million. The Exxon Shipping Co. of Houston—which last week formally apologized for the catastrophe—last month set aside $12 million for claims against the company. At week’s end, however, Alaskan residents had already launched 17 lawsuits for more than $1 billion in damages. Said James Lethcoe, who with his wife, Nancy, runs a Valdez travel firm: “All of Exxon’s billions could not compensate us for what we have lost.” Clearly, the final tally for the wreck of the Exxon Valdez will not be measured in dollars alone.
BARBARA WICKENS with BOB ORTEGA in Anchorage, Alaska
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