A losing battle

Oil spill workers fight against futility

BARRY CAME May 8 1989

A losing battle

Oil spill workers fight against futility

BARRY CAME May 8 1989

A losing battle


Oil spill workers fight against futility

Douglas Welch spends his days patrolling the tidemarks along the shores of Resurrection Bay, near the Alaskan port town of Seward, where he was born and raised. Armed with a small spade and clad from head to foot in yellow rain gear, he toils from dawn to dusk scooping up globs of crude oil and balls of tar from the dark sand and pebble beaches. He wipes the viscous mess onto white pads of absorbent material and stuffs the pads into plastic garbage bags. He tries to ignore the birds, both the dead ones littering the shore and the live gulls wheeling and screaming overhead. The work is cold and tedious but profitable, earning the 23-year-old Welch more than $1,970 for a seven-day, 12hour-a-day work week. It may also be largely futile, as Welch suggested after a long day on the job. “We got two beaches clean today,” he said, “but with the tide coming in, I’m sure tomorrow those beaches will be just the same.” More than a month after the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled about a quarter of a million barrels of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the controversy over the disastrous spill—and the cleanup efforts— continued. The tanker’s owners, Exxon Corp. of New York City, launched a prodigious effort to deal with the damage inflicted by the largest oil spill in North American history. By last week, the company had spent at least $50 million on the cleanup, deploying 368 vessels—including oil-skimming boats and 25 aircraft—and enough trucks, pumps, generators and other equipment to fill a 17-acre parking lot outside the town of Valdez. As well, more than 2,800 people were hired to help in the cleanup. But despite the scale of the campaign to recover the spilled oil, some observers expressed doubts about its effectiveness. After a visit to Alaska last week, U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan commented acidly that many aspects of the cleanup campaign struck him as looking “like make-work for appearances’ sake.”

At the same time, there were wide differences of opinion over what should be done between Exxon and a coalition of interests that included state and federal officials as well as environmental groups. Typically, Alaska’s governor, Steve Cowper, last week charged that claims by Exxon that state officials interfered with cleanup efforts were “demonstrably false.” Cowper said company officials suggested that the state had prevented Exxon from using chemical dispersants immediately after the March 24 spill. Cowper denied this, adding that the company simply did not have sufficient

quantities of dispersant available. Declared Representative Don Young, Republican of Alaska: “It’s been totally chaotic, totally disorganized. Nobody’s been in charge. There have been a lot of bad errors made.”

The disagreements even extended to the question of how much oil had been spilled. Exxon continued to stick with its original figure, insisting that 240,000 barrels of crude oil were spilled when the Exxon Valdez struck a reef and began hemorrhaging its cargo. For its part, the Alaska Department of Environmental

Conservation (ADEC) released its own estimates last week, adding another 26,000 barrels to the quantity of crude oil that it claimed had been spewed into the chilly waters off the port of Valdez. State officials claimed that oil continued to leak from the Exxon Valdez for several days after it ran aground on Bligh Reef and said that more was spilled when the ship was finally moved off the reef. According to transcripts of audio tapes released last week of conversations between the U.S. Coast G’^rd and the stricken tanker, Capt. Joseph h^elwood may have increased the leakage by attempting to rock the ship off after it first ran aground.

As well, state conservation officials said that they viewed some other Exxon statistics with skepticism. According to Exxon, two-thirds of the spilled oil had disappeared by last week. Company officials said that the cleanup effort at sea and on Alaska’s beaches had succeeded in recovering 43,000 barrels, or about 17 per cent of the spilled oil, while another 127,000 barrels—or 53 per cent—had either evaporated or been dispersed by burning and natural causes. According to company officials, only 12 per cent of the spilled oil was still in the water and 17 per cent—or 43,000 barrels— was spread over huge stretches of shoreline. But critics said that no more than 30 per cent of the spilled oil had evaporated. “Their numbers are just plain wrong,” said ADEC Commissioner Dennis Kelso.

While the two sides disputed numbers, it was clear that ^ large amounts of oil were still § fouling the Alaskan shoreline § and polluting the once-prisD tine coastal waters. Officials I of the U.S. National Oceanic

0 and Atmospheric Administraos tion said that by last week $ about one-third of the spilled

1 oil had floated out of Prince ^ William Sound into the Gulf of

Alaska. Experts said that the leading edges of the travelling oil slicks had moved more than 300 miles from Bligh Reef. Long, wide ribbons of “mousse”—oil industry jargon for the chocolate-colored emulsion of oil and water that results when crude oil is spilled into salt water—were curving around Kenai Peninsula, west of Prince William Sound, toward the bays and deep fjords lying at the mouth of Cook Inlet, south of Anchorage. At the same time, other floating masses of crude oil were approaching Kodiak Island, 100 miles to the south.

In the meantime, cleanup workers grappled

with the task of trying to remove thick black crude oil from the beaches and water. Exxon officials said that 73 “skimmers”—waterborne craft that employ conveyer belts, whirling discs and suction to scoop oil from the surface of the water—were being used to recover spilled oil. Along with the smaller skimming vessels, Exxon was also paying $15,000 a day to charter the 425-foot Soviet skimming ship Vaydaghubsky from Sakhalin Island off the west coast of the Soviet Union.

Still, skimming operations were frequently hampered by the unusually viscous nature of the spilled Alaskan crude oil, which in many places became mixed with seaweed and other aquatic plants and animal life. “The oil is so viscous that it’s very difficult to handle,” said James Nalls, an Exxon operations supervisor.

Mervin Fingas, an Ottawabased oil spill expert at Environment Canada who was acting as a consultant to Exxon at the scene of the spill, said that the problems were compounded by matted kelp ^

“that keeps burning out the pumps on the skimmers.”

The company had more -

success with five machines known as “supersuckers”—they are actually giant vacuum cleaners—that were flown in from the Prudhoe Bay oilfields on the northern coast of Alaska, where they are normally used to clean out oil sludge pits. Still, some experts said that the most efficient system of recovering spilled oil was proving to be local fishermen in skiffs, who simply scoop it up in buckets and sell it back to Exxon at about $6 a gallon.

Attempts at using high-tech equipment to clean Alaska’s fouled beaches were generally disappointing as well. To remove oil that had washed ashore, Exxon for the most part was using streams of hot and cold water to clean the shoreline. The sprayed water washed oil into the sea where it could be collected behind Vshaped booms and scooped up by belt-equipped skimmers. Still, the system suffered from the disadvantage of being painfully slow. So far, Exxon officials said that only a mile or so of beach had been cleaned—out of more than 300 miles of fouled shoreline. As well, the water treatment was ineffective on some beaches, where the spilled oil had sunk into the soil—or become so weathered that it clung to the rocky surface and could not be shaken loose by the sprayed water.

The oil spill had already taken a heavy toll on wildlife in the region. Several thousand of Prince William Sound’s estimated population of 15,000 sea otters were believed to have perished. As well, pollution forced the closing of the sound’s herring, shrimp and black cod fisheries. State officials said that they also

planned to close the crab and smelt fisheries, which earned local fishermen more than $17 million last year, by the end of the month. The $83-million salmon fishery was also in danger of contamination.

Other creatures were threatened on land and in the air. Wildlife experts said that large numbers of bald and golden eagles were likely to die from eating the oil-covered corpses of

seabirds. Experts feared that a similar fate awaited black and brown bears who will soon leave the dens where they have hibernated for the winter. Kodiak Island, in the path of the slick, has the highest concentration of brown

bears in the world. Millions of migratory birds—including ducks, swans, loons and geese—were also beginning to arrive in the area from their southern wintering grounds. “They’ll definitely be ingesting oil,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Thomas Early. “They nest on the rocks and mud flats where they eat worms and other intertidal organisms.”

As Exxon struggled to meet a self-imposed Sept. 15 deadline for cleaning spilled oil from Alaskan beaches, local residents welcomed the high wages being paid to cleanup crews. Still, some Alaskans harbored suspicions about the usefulness of the work they had been hired to do. “They’re just trying to buy people off by giving them high-paying jobs,” said Lynn Spence, a construction company employee in the small port of Homer, 200 miles west of Valdez.

Walter Meganack Sr., an Aleut tribal chief in the village of Port Graham, expressed similar concerns. Meganack said that an Exxon subcontractor had hired virtually every adult in his village to build log booms and clean beaches. But the jobs gave the villagers little pleasure, said Meganack, because they were worried about the long-term effect of the spill. “The job is not going to last too long,” said Meganack. “The oil impact will.” Indeed, coastal ecosystems in northern France have yet to recover from the 1978 wreck of the tanker Amoco Cadiz, which spilled 1.6 million barrels of crude oil into the English Channel. Despite a massive cleanup campaign following the spill, scientists say that it may take decades for the environmental damage to be repaired. As the Alaskan cleanup continued, it was clear that it could take the region years to recover from the devastating black tide that flowed from the Exxon Valdez.