Adm. Paul Yost, the commandant of the Coast Guard, went to Herring Bay and stuck his hand in some oil Thursday, and by Friday had decided how to clean the fouled beaches of Prince William Sound.
Yost said the Sound needs massive high pressure, hot water blasting to clean the oil off beaches and rocks, even if the work kills everything in its path, because organisms would then have a clean environment to recolonize.
The decision was a swift kick to a tree where a flock of scientists and officials had been roosting, thinking they would decide what would be cleaned and how. For the first time, public relations officials screened National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientists from questions while they prepared a position.
By Friday evening, the NOAA experts had talked to the admiral again. Scientists landed again on their perch, and said a variety of methods would be used, as in their original plan. And state officials said they, not Yost, have final authority over what happens on the beaches of Prince William Sound.
Life continued its unsteady but not unpredictable course here, on Day 22 of the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
As the days have flown away since the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and sent more than 10 million gallons of North Slope crude marauding through Alaska waters, President George Bush has been stung by critics for the federal government's slow response to the disaster. The spill has cost Bush his plan to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for this year at least and has put his offshore oil leasing program in jeopardy. The president has responded by sending fact finders, offering troops, and dispatching Yost to take control of efforts to deal with the spill.
Since his arrival, Yost has raised the Coast Guard's profile considerably.
Evidence of Yost's presence surfaced at the state Department of Environmental Conservation's daily early morning press conference Friday.
"I believe there's a consensus developing for hotwater, high pressure flushing," said Larry Dietrick, the DEC's director environmental quality.
That was news, because at a large meeting of scientists 12 hours before the consensus was for cold water, low pressure flushing, as it had been for more than a week.
"I believe that there's a consensus that (hot water) would be a tough technique for the biological life on the beach, but I think there's a consensus that it would be better to do that and destroy the biological life on the beach and let it recolonize," Dietrick said.
The consensus, it turned out, had come from Yost, who had declared at a another meeting of higher officials Thursday night that hot water was the way to go. As for the plans of the scientists, he said Friday morning he would listen to them, but the final decision would be his.
"You can't do it by committee, and we have a number of committees here," Yost told reporters gathered in the Coast Guard mess hall. "I told them last night, "I'm not here to run it by committee. I'm here to fight a war.' "
And his decision: "The only way to clean up the beaches is with highpressure, hightemperature salt water. You're not going to be able to do it with lowpressure, cold salt water, because it won't work."
A video tape of the coldwater flushing technique provided by the Coast Guard appeared to confirm what observers have said about it: The washing gets up the thin oil on the surface, but appears to leave some of the thick brown goop.
On the tape, a flexible yellow hose was placed along the top of the beach. It had holes along it, creating a cascade that dug channels in the beach. Four men with hoses stood below, looking like suburbanites washing their driveways. Their strong jets of water were intended to agitate the surface rocks to get the oil off. A boom and an oil skimmer were intended to pick up the oil washed off the beach and into the water.
Exxon presented the various agencies involved with a plan April 8 calling for the cold water wash on most sensitive beaches and hot water spraying on rocks where there is not much life and it is important to get rid of oil before sea lion pups are born.
But Yost said Friday morning the oil has become too sticky for cold water. "He went out and walked the beach and stuck his hand in the stuff," said Lt. Commander Jim Simpson. "He's saying that the time of cold water and rags has passed."
Yost's talk at the press conference was tough and quotable. Though he wouldn't criticize Exxon, he did say only "seven or eight or nine" of the company's skimmers were working effectively on the thick, weathered oil. Exxon has been claiming it has 40 skimmers. And he said he had given the company until tomorrow to finish its plan for dealing with the oil spill, but wouldn't say what he'd do if Exxon didn't meet his deadline. The press conference was garnished by a brief call from Bush, who Yost said was able to understand the need for air support of oil skimmers because he had been a fighter pilot in World War II.
But by the end of the day, it was unclear if Yost's decision would carry any weight.
After talking to Yost Friday, NOAA beach specialist Jacqui Michel said the coldwater washing will still be used first, to be followed by the hotwater method in a week or two. She said teams of biologists will go to each beach to decide what will be done there.
"I think (Yost's) strategy is to get the oil off the beach one way or the other," Michel said. "I don't think anyone knows exactly what he has in mind."
She said Yost added impetus to the hotwater technique, which was previously unpopular.
There is little scientific knowledge on what happens when hot water is used to clean shores like those of the Sound, scientists said. Steam cleaning was used heavily on the Amoco Cadiz spill in France, and in some places did more harm than good, said Lance Trasky, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Bruce Baker, deputy director of the department's habitat division, discussed the tradeoffs of using hot water with Yost at the Thursday night meeting.
"The reason this should be done is for biological reasons, and when you go past the point where the biological costs outweigh the biological benefits, then you're not making the decision for biological reasons," Baker said he told Yost.
Baker still likes the old plan that all the agencies agreed to April 8. And, as it turns out, he probably has more to say about it than Yost.
The beaches belong to the state of Alaska, and the Department of Natural Resources has the right to decide what will happen there, said Rick Thompson, of the DNR's Division of Land and water management. Thompson said the DNR will issue permits for whatever the departments of Fish and Game and Environmental Conservation agree to for the beaches.
"Ultimately, in terms of our authority, we would get to say yes or no as far as cleanup activities in the tidelands," Thompson said.
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