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Shielded by a rocky crust, Exxon Valdez oil still on Katmai beaches

Craig Medred

Twenty-two years after the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef outside of Valdez and began gushing oil into Prince William Sound, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist said this week, blobs of North Slope crude can still be found buried in the beaches of Alaska's Katmai coast more than 250 miles to the west and south. The oil, ecologist Gail Irvine said, has become an oil-spill hidden beneath beaches armored with rock.

Crack the crusty outer cover, she said, and inside is oil little changed from the condition it was in two weeks after the spill of March 24, 1989. On that fateful day, drunk skipper Joe Hazelwood left the bridge of his massive ship to sleep off a day of partying in the port of Valdez. He left the ship under the control of a bumbling crew who promptly ran it aground on Bligh Reef. Oil immediately started leaking.

Hazelwood was summoned to the bridge. He tried to power his ship off the rock, but instead the reef ripped bigger holes in the ship bottom. More oil gushed. Before it could be stopped, an estimated 11 million gallons had poured into the Sound, but it didn't stay there. Moving steadily south and west, the oil fouled beaches on dozens of islands as it forged on toward open sea.

When it finally broke into the Gulf of Alaska -- the volume having by then significantly increased as crude bonded with water in an oily emulsion called "mousse'' -- the spill began to wreak real environmental havoc. Of the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 birds killed by spill, 88 percent died in the Gulf.

Scientists believe an entire colony of some 129,000 murres in the Barren Islands off the tip of the Kenai Peninsula was wiped out by the oil.

Murres, however, weren't the only birds to die as the black goo spread across the Gulf. Gulls, sea ducks and a lot of cute puffins perished as the Alaska coastal current sped the oily mousse toward an eventual grounding on the Katmai coast. Irvine and other scientists have been studying that Katmai oil, and some left on the shores of Kenai Fjords National Park to the east, for more than 20 years.

They had not expected to be at it so long. As a description of Irvine's presentation to the 2011 Southwest Alaska Science Symposium noted that "prior to this study, oil on exposed, rocky shores was thought to have short residence time, being removed within weeks to a few months by wave action.'' A different scenario has unfolded on the bouldered beaches of the Katmai coast, however.

Oil appears to have infiltrated soils beneath the rock, and there it has been protected against natural weathering. Beaches appear clean, and the oil "is subtle'' but present, she said. Look closely, and you will "see the unexpected,'' she added.  Scoop up some of the unexpected and analyze it, and there is even more unexpected.

That oil, she said, "has weathered almost not at all.'' She called the phenonenon "remarkable,'' adding that the chemists who analyzed it reported that samples match the chemical profiles of Exxon Valdez crude collected only 11 days after the spill. Certain light, aromatic components of the oil evaporated away in that time, but plenty of noxious chemicals remain, locked in the Katmai beaches. For how long, no one knows. The oil, Irvine said, "could still be there a long time.''

Scientists marked boulders on the beaches to study how much they move. Very little, they discovered. It was Irvine's believe this will make it hard for natural forces to get at the oil in order to degrade it further. Some of the gooey balls of oil buried beneath the rocks still contain chemical components that, in other waters, would have been devoured by microbes in weeks or months.

"Our results,'' she said, "I don't believe there are any others like this.''

The good thing, she indicated to the crowd at a National Park Service-sponsored symposium in Anchorage, is that the beaches don't seem to be leaking any of the old oil. Rather, it seems to be preserved in them. There are indications it might well remain there until well after the oil that gushed from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is gone. Deepwater oil poured from a blown-out BP well almost a mile beneath the sea from April 20 to July 15 last year. No one knows exactly how much oil entered the ocean, but the best estimate is in the range of 210 million gallons -- almost 20 times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spilled.

But in the warm, microbe-rich waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the impact of oil in the ocean was far different than what happened in the cold waters of the north. "The Gulf spill is so different,'' Irvine said, and in more ways than one.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com