More than a mile of oily Prince William Sound beaches will remain untreated and be set aside as a laboratory for spill scientists, under a pending agreement between Exxon and various federal and state agencies. Exxon would pay the federal government $750,000 to take responsibility for the eventual cleaning of the study beaches.
The studies are designed to learn how nature copes with oil unassisted by cleanup attempts, and would compare the untouched beaches with treated shores to evaluate the cleanup since the Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil when it struck a reef on March 24. The information could guide officials responding to future spills by showing if they chose the right course in dealing with this one.
But the agreement has come so late that federal scientists say it does them little good. They blame the state for delaying approval of study sites even while the cleanup was progressing, eliminating the opportunity to gather information.
The state maintains that it did not delay setting aside beaches. Steve Provant, state onscene coordinator, says the delays were simply a matter of the failure of researchers to comply with the state's permitting requirements, including a guarantee that beaches be cleaned after the end of the studies.
Provant no longer says the state would be sacrificing its beaches by leaving them untreated, although he once compared it to intentionally spilling oil to study its effect.
But that idea, too, is now being considered, said John Robinson, who heads National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration work in Valdez. He said there are so few sites still available in the Sound that the results of studies will not be statistically valid, and could not stand up to scientific scrutiny.
"We may be required to spill some oil not big spills, test spills to try and get some answers," Robinson said. "Since we didn't salvage enough sites from the cleanup machine, we may have to go back out and oil some sites so we can study them. But from the reaction we've gotten so far from Alaska, I think I know what the answer will be.
"Maybe we'll have to go somewhere else that is more amenable to collecting this data," he said.
Nine sites are included in the current agreement. Robinson said at least 20 sites would have been needed to produce statistically valid studies on various kinds of shore, with different exposure to waves, size of rocks, and extent of oil.
He said 43 sites were studied before the oil came ashore, in order to provide a picture of how the shore was affected, but most of the sites have since been cleaned.
"They were cleaned one by one by one because no agreement could be reached, primarily with the state," Robinson said.
"I'm not aware of the 43 figure," Provant said. "It sounds to me like an unfounded comment."
He said it is impossible to set aside enough beaches to represent every kind of shoreline.
"If you try to have a setaside for every type of beach exposure and substrate and everything else, you could have an unlimited number of setasides," Provant said.
But Bob Benda, a Department of Environmental Conservation environmental field officer working for Provant, also said the studies that come from the nine beaches will not be scientifically valid. For that reason, there can be no fear that the studies will prove that the cleanup was a bad idea, Benda said.
Provant was reluctant to approve an earlier plan because he said Exxon's studies seemed to be skewed to showing beaches should not have been cleaned.
"People can interpret numbers, and they can draw their own conclusions," Benda said. "My own feeling is that this data is not going to be able to be used in a pure scientific research study, because there just aren't enough data points."
In July, Benda fought to have beaches cleaned that had been identified as possible study sites, because many had been casually chosen and the state was afraid they would be left behind and never cleaned even if they weren't approved for studies.
The sites disappeared. Then Exxon presented a plan July 17 to set aside 11, totaling about a mile. While the plan was considered, one of the 11 sites was cleaned.
The state and Exxon were on the verge of an agreement on seven of the sites the state ruled out four when Exxon's cleanup General Manager Otto Harrison wrote an internal memo saying no commitments were to be made for work after this summer. Lower Exxon officials at the same time withdrew the company's pledge to clean up the study beaches after the studies were complete, and the negotiations fell apart.
But Bob Mastracchio, Exxon's technical manager, said the company's withdrawal of its proposal had nothing to do with Harrison's memo. He said Exxon was concerned by the openended liability of having to clean up the sites at an unknown cost sometime in the future, and that the company's lawyers said it would be legally unwise to file for a permit to discharge oil, which the state required for the study beaches.
The new agreement releases Exxon from responsibility for cleaning the study beaches, even after the studies are done. Exxon will provide a $750,000 bond to the federal government, and the Coast Guard will from then on be responsible for cleaning the study beaches, no matter how much it costs.
Mastracchio said the the price on the beaches is based on the cost of cleaning them now, using current techniques.
Coast Guard Capt. David Zawadzki, the chief of staff to the federal onscene coordinator, said he believed the price was the product of negotiations, because he does not know how to calculate a cost for cleaning the beaches.
"If someone has a better idea I'd like to hear it," Zawadzki said. "I'd like to hear their justification, higher or lower. I probably could go either way."
The new agreement includes nine sites with a total length of about 1.3 miles. Half the length is taken up by two Environmental Protection Agency tests of fertilizer that encourages oil to biodegrade. Of the remaining seven sites, one is heavily oiled and three are classified moderate|heavy. One is so lightly oiled that Robinson said it probably would not be cleaned anyway.
Benda said the heavily oiled beaches will probably bleed noticeable amounts of oil back into the water, but none is near sensitive resources that would be hurt by the runoff.
The agreement is not yet signed, and could still stumble on legal problems, Robinson said. Even after it is signed, the state could still refuse two necessary permits an oil discharge permit and a tideland use permit.
But approval is likely, since the state now favors the plan.
The value of the data to be gained is the main issue in question now.
"What we'll come up with, with the nine sites, is some general impressions," Robinson said. "And that's what we've been dealing with here all summer."
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