ABOARD U.S.S. JUNEAU, SMITH ISLAND-
The 1,000 mismatched people crammed into this huge ship in Prince William Sound each draw a different line between what is real and what is show in the attempted cleanup of more than 10 million gallons of oil spilled March 24 by the tanker Exxon Valdez.Only one truth is firmly on the side of reality for everyone. It is hard work, and they are tired.
A few hundred workers on Smith Island toil with hoses each day to remove oil from the rocks. The oil streams away into the water, where some of it is picked up by skimmer boats. But more oil always remains, and work goes on in the same place day after day. Some workers say the job is simple and others say it is impossible. They are convinced that it means nothing or everything or both.
In a tough environment that oil has made into a tar baby, simply washing 220 people at the end of the day is a huge undertaking requiring inventiveness and lots of money. Having a vice president visit Dan Quayle and his wife, Marilyn, are due today is even more difficult.
Quayle is anticipated with obsessive fears that he will slip and fall on the lubricated rocks, as many people have.
Carpenters working for Veco, an Exxon contractor, worked almost around the clock to build a portable wooden platform over the oily part of the beach for Quayle to walk on. Naval officers planned to do the same in the bottom of a landing craft intended to carry the vice president to the shore.
Enlisted men applied fresh gray paint to the ship. Exxon managers were up late at night wondering if it were necessary for the workers to keep concentrating on the beach Quayle plans to visit instead of moving to a critical seal haul out area to the east.
All this, most seemed to agree, fell into the unreal category.
But some workers think the whole effort is a show. While it is clear that, after five days of intensive washing, the beach has less oil on it, workers are discouraged each morning to find that rocks they washed until they were gray are again black.
The washing methods workers use take oil only off the surface of the beach, and scientists digging holes easily found it to a depth of several feet. Each night the tide brings oil to the surface, or washes the oil cleaned off the day before back ashore.
"They're spending a tremendous amount of money for the little that's getting accomplished," said Joanne Klein, one of the beach washers. "It's kind of like the whole story where they spend millions of dollars rescuing three whales, when the Eskimos eat them for dinner, and nobody even knows if they really were saved."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Andy Grossman was discouraged, too, when he arrived on a helicopter Tuesday and saw a beach that had already consumed days of the workers' labor once again covered in oil.
"This is kind of a surprise," he said. "This cleanup is so ineffective. I'm not sure, ecologically, how much significance this is going to have."
There was still more than enough oil to destroy the floatation of any bird that might land there, Grossman said.
Admiral Paul Yost, the commandant of the Coast Guard, visited the beach briefly Tuesday. He was impressed by the amount of effort, but couldn't tell which parts had been cleaned.
Ed Owens, of WoodwardClyde, a contractor advising Exxon on the shoreline work, also paid a visit. He said the water washing technique the workers are using is the best technology available, even if it does leave oil under the gravel which will come up to foul the surface again.
"I'm discouraged on every spill," Owens said. "What encourages me is seeing the amount of effort that's going on this beach. This is a very rare sight. You rarely see this many people with this much equipment working this well and getting results. Now, I don't know if the results are what people want."
Owens said that removing the pools of oil that were on the surface would at least keep this beach from introducing oil into the water to hit a seal haulout area to the east. Biologists expect pups to be born there beginning in less than a week.
Workers delivered equipment to the haulout area itself Tuesday and had hoped to begin working on the rugged shore it's too rugged for a Quayle visit Wednesday. Pumps had to be lowered to the area from helicopters because the shoreline was too rocky and unprotected for landing craft to linger there.
Everyone agrees that Exxon is spending a lot of money and effort. The company is renting the Juneau, a 569foot U.S. Navy ship designed to carry troops to distant beaches, and another similar ship, which is to arrive Friday. Exxon is also paying for 50 boats to hover offshore with this ship 50 miles from Valdez. About 220 people were on shore workers handling hoses, supervisors watching them from above the tide line, security guards, medics and bear watchers standing by although there are no bears on the island and helpers monitoring the latrines set up in tents all along the beach.
In the evening, the mob returns to the ship covered with oil, a condition they call a Hazelwood tan in honor of the captain of the tanker. They go through an assemblyline process, removing their rain gear on a barge tied next to the ship and taking showers in bathroom trailers before going on board. A crew of eight workers takes the rain gear and wipes it clean. That job takes 12 hours, and is usually done just in time for the beach washers to go ashore in the morning, said Pat Hund, one of the wipers.
They eat dinner in a huge, low mess hall and go to their bunks in the troop berthing quarters at the bottom of the ship.
A maze of steel watertight doors leads down to where the civilians have taken the place of Marines. Blankets hang over the oval steel doorways to separate the men from the women. The bunks are stacked four high under the low ceilings and are set side by side so workers lie as close as lovers and can talk to each other in whispers.
Tuesday, the workers had been a week without clean clothes, and the air was stale, but the blinding stench of urine in the filthy, puddled bathrooms was worse.
"I would rather live in a bog under a sheet of Visqueen," said Robert Crane, a subsistence fisherman who came to work with two friends from their Copper River Valley homesteads. "My nearest neighbor is over a mile away, and I felt like I was closed in at the time, and now I'm living with 22 males who snore and stink and fart like me, and it's gross. I don't mind the pay, though. It's more than fair."
Beach workers are getting about $1,750 a week for their seven 12hour days. In the steel galleries of rooms, they leaned against bunks that were fit in around machinery and squeezed against corridor walls to watch a video movie about the Battle of Midway and discussed whether the suffering is worth it.
"It's late at night when people say, "Well, I can't take it anymore,' " said Paul Jasper. He said the work is the hardest job he has ever had.
Scores have quit. Their real reasons are part of the gray zone that dogs reality on this ship.
The official reason, and one that many workers subscribe to, is that the workers who left were wimps, even if some did complain of the oil fumes on the beach. James Neeley said a worker told him he was quitting because he had passed out from the fumes.
"We laughed at him and and told him he was a candy ass and told him to go home," Neeley said.
But others, such as a group of Cordova fishermen bunking together, said they were shown a film when they were hired that told them to use respirators, which never have been given to them. They said hot steam on the oil releases fumes that give them flu symptoms.
But then, many people on board have the flu, and many are not bothered by the fumes.
More workers complained of conflicts with their supervisors. Craig Baird, of Cordova, said it is difficult for a fisherman who is used to working independently, in cooperation with others, to be at the bottom of a topheavy chain of command which gives contradictory orders.
"A lot of people can't handle being screamed at like they're nothing," he said. "A lot of people feel really alone out here. They don't understand us. They don't even care."
Devan Ruel, another Cordovan, is worried about his health. He said oil comes out of his nose at the end of the day.
"A lot of people from Cordova might have bad attitudes," he said, "because they're seeing their lifestyle go down the drain. They say, "You're from Cordova, you have a bad attitude.' But I've lost my way of life."
"You can just smell the death coming out of the sea," he said.
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