President Bush's decision Friday morning to throw troops at the largest oil spill in U.S. history had, by Friday night, sputtered as badly as all previous attempts to deal with the situation.
Bush announced the plan at a White House press conference. At the same time, he made official what largely had taken place already: a move to the top of the troika running U.S. Coast Guard efforts to deal with the spill. The move had been requested by, among others, Gov. Steve Cowper and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
The troika is made up of Coast Guard Adm. Edward Nelson, state Commissioner of Environmental Conservation Dennis Kelso and Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi.
While news of the Coast Guard's increased role was greeted happily by state officials, their response to the idea of using troops was less enthusiastic.
"When we asked for tanks, we meant oil tanks," Kelso said Friday afternoon.
Nelson met much of the day in Valdez with Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerney, head of the Alaskan Air Command, and said afterward that he saw little need for troops now.
"I think that would only occur if we run out of people," he said. "The plan is to use local people."
In a prepared release earlier Friday, Cowper praised Bush's elevation of the Coast Guard, but expressed concern about using troops.
"We prefer that Alaskans be used to the greatest extent possible before calling on military man power," he said. "Alaska Native firefighters, for instance, are accustomed to living in remote locations and have a long history or working together on disasters."
That put him somewhat at odds with Stevens, who had been pushing hard for federal intervention and welcomed the use of troops.
"Some people said the locals would be unhappy about the military coming in," Stevens said Friday afternoon. "Let's not forget that after the earthquake we had the military involved and we were damn glad to have them.
"We are going to hear some bitching that the military is going to do some jobs that some local people could be hired to do, but if it gets the Sound cleaned up faster and the fisheries rehabilitated sooner and tourism restored faster, I think it is worthwhile."
The first step in Bush's plan is the dispatch of an "assessment team" to Alaska, according to Lt. Col Jim Simpson, a top aide to Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost. The Defense Department team includes engineers, air traffic controllers and others.
In Valdez, Nelson said the Air Force offered use of planes and other equipment support, but he said it hasn't been decided whether it's needed. By the end of the day, all that had been agreed to is that four staff members from the Alaskan Air Command would remain in Valdez to serve as liaisons between the Coast Guard and military.
Already, Simpson said, six Coast Guard cutters are on the way to Alaska: the Midget, Yocona, Sweet Briar, Iris, Storis and Plain Tree.
"The goal is to get as much oil up as quickly as you can," Simpson said. "Nobody believes that any amount of federal troops or helicopters will make this a quick and easy cleanup. This will go on for months and anyone who thinks otherwise isn't paying attention to what is going on up there."
Simpson said the president was responding to pressures to help in Prince William Sound and he did not think it was too late to help. "He's responding to the people who are up there and complaining that not enough has been done."
Whatever the president was responding to, his announcement did not silence his congressional critics, who labeled it too little and too late.
Even though Bush said "our ultimate goal must be the complete restoration of the ecology and economy of Prince William Sound," the president didn't sound confident that federal intervention would make complete restoration possible.
"I think we've got to hope that it is," Bush said.
Though Bush is sending Yost, the head of the Coast Guard, to coordinate the federal response, the action is not a federal takeover of the cleanup from Exxon. The company is running things and, so far, paying for them, because its tanker caused the spill when it ran aground March 24 on Bligh Reef.
But that arrangement leaves questions about whether Exxon, which is financing the cleanup, can be forced to follow the Coast Guard's directions. The company has been criticized by state and federal officials for being uncooperative after the spill.
Bush said his action was calculated to leave Exxon fully liable for the cleanup costs. But there was a financial incentive for the White House, too, since the plan also frees the administration from having to pump much federal money into the cleanup.
The president said military personnel would be used for logistics and "direct cleanup activities." But Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said he didn't know how many troops would be moved to the Sound or what their duties would be.
It appeared that the level of troop involvement, other than for support services, will depend upon how many workers Exxon can be coaxed into hiring (Friday, the company said it has 400 people on the payroll) and how many volunteers can be recruited. Bush said the administration is working on both.
The president acknowledged that both his plan and its goal are optimistic.
"We should not be under any illusions," he said. "The job of cleaning up the oil from both the sea and the affected land areas will be massive, prolonged and frustrating. We must be prepared for a long, sustained effort."
William Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said it will be years before the duration of the damage or its permanency will be known.
"It has obviously suffered a very serious blow," Reilly said. "We have no way of assessing at this time how enduring the impact will be."
Reilly said top international scientists who are experienced with oil spills will be brought in. He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will have a preliminary assessment in several months but a more complete analysis of the ecological damage will take at least three years.
Stevens characterized the administration's decision to become involved in the cleanup "like day turning into night."
"It has gone a long way toward meeting the requests we've made," Stevens said. "We've got a lot of assistance coming now from the federal government and it is going to be properly coordinated."
But Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell blasted the administration for not federalizing the cleanup sooner, adding that while Bush's announcement is welcome, "I fear that it is too little and too late."
Rep. George Miller, DCalif., chairman of the House Interior Committee panel investigating the spill, said the administration dragged its feet for two weeks because it "utterly failed to understand the severity of the crisis."
The clear impression was that the administration was reluctant to get involved but was dragged into the process only by the angry insistence of Stevens.
The state's congressional delegation had met with Bush and top administration officials Wednesday to discuss what Stevens described Friday as the administration's "lack of involvement."
Delegation members said they weren't fully satisfied with the plan either, even though they said it met most of their concerns.
The chief weaknesses of the White House response are the enforceability of Coast Guard orders to Exxon and the failure to provide a direct source of government loans to affected communities and businesses through a federal emergency declaration.
Cowper and Alaska's congressional delegation have sought such a declaration, which the administration is resisting.
On the enforceability issue, the delegation said it anticipates no problems. But when pressed on what would occur if Exxon refused to cooperate as it has been accused already having done, Stevens said, "The Coast Guard will do it and we will bill them."
That is exactly what would occur under the federal Clean Water Act had Bush decided to federalize the cleanup.
While the administration response holds the promise of lowinterest loans from the Small Business Administration, those loans would be available only "to those persons who may not be eligible for loan programs provided by Exxon or other sources," according to a White House fact sheet.
Reached after Bush's press conference, Valdez Mayor John Devens, a Democrat, said the response "shows a real lack of sensitivity," particularly to the hardpressed fishing communities around the Sound which have seen the 1989 season ruined by the spill.
He said fishermen are concerned that to get emergency assistance from Exxon they will be forced to sign waivers with the oil company that could impair their rights.
"If fishermen want any relief, they ought to join the Army," Devens said of the White House response.
Devens' comment outraged Stevens, who called him a "petty politician."
Daily News reporters David Hulen and David Postman contributed to this story.
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