Independent critics of Exxon's efforts to clean up the 10 million gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound have grown quieter and less willing to provide first hand views of the action since they began cooperating with the company in the work and joined its payroll.
The cozier relationship has not brought foul ups and confusion to an end, but it has made them more difficult to find out about.
Jack Lamb, a spokesman for fishermen who used to be a fiery critic of Exxon, now refuses to place blame for what he says are inadequate cleanup efforts. Lamb is vice president of the Cordova District Fishermen United, whose members are being paid by Exxon and which recently received a $250,000 check from Exxon for it's expenses.
"Being cozy about it is your guys' impression," he said. "Our point of view is that there's a job to be done, and if we're going to do it, we all have to work together. It's not being cozy, it's keeping a line of communication open, and we don't want to hurt that. If we have things to say about Exxon, we'll wait till we're done working with them."
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is also working with Exxon in a way that helps shield cleanup work from the scrutiny it received early. Last week, the DEC regularly sent reporters all over the Sound on helicopters and float planes, some of which were put entirely at the disposal of the reporters.
Now the agency has reduced the number of seats it provides to reporters and agreed to warn Exxon before sending flights to the sites of their work.
And Wednesday, DEC removed reporters from the roster for a flight to see Exxon's still undeveloped attempts to wash a beach with water pumps. The flight was intended to carry Steve Haavig of the DEC to see how Exxon's work was going, and he did not want to show up with reporters in tow.
"There's been disagreement all along between what Exxon says they're doing and what they're really doing," said Barbara Holian, a DEC spokeswoman. "So (Haavig) was out to do an inspection, so that's why he didn't want to take a bunch of press people along and embarrass Exxon."
Exxon officials earlier Wednesday had granted a reporter permission to observe beach washing operations on Naked Island.
Reporters were unable to get their own aircraft, although many stood idle on the ground, because most are leased to Exxon or the state.
David Hall, who has handled the dispatch of aircraft since he was hired by DEC 12 days ago, said the cutbacks on flights carrying reporters is partially caused by fears of justifying the bill when it is presented to Exxon for reimbursement.
"Personally, I don't have a problem with sending a plane full of reporters," Hall said. "But if we can't justify that to Exxon, then they may say, "No, state, you have to pay for that.' So in a very sick way, it's all coming around to Exxon."
Helicopter pilots returning to Valdez are not allowed to provide information about what they see to reporters, said Dave Baumeister of ERA Helicopters. "We don't want them talking to you. If you need information, you should be getting it from the proper sources," he said.
The largest U.S. oil spill occurred March 24 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in clear weather 21|2 hours after leaving the Valdez pipeline terminal with 53 million gallons of North Slope crude oil in its hold.
On Wednesday, the 20th day of the spill, wind out of the south pushed some oil onto the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park, and pushed surface sheen past the tip of the Kenai Peninsula into Lower Cook Inlet.
Federal oil spill trackers in Seward said surface sheen and heavier oil patches had not drifted into the bays and coves that give the national park its name. However, "Oil is touching all the the points and headlands down the coast," said Mary Karraker of the federalstate Incident Command Team in Seward.
Windy weather and waves in the Gulf have pounded and scattered the slicks and patches of oil migrating out of Prince William Sound. That dispersion is making the oil harder to spot from the air or the sea, but is not making it go away.
The oil tossed about on the open ocean will eventually be broken into smaller and smaller pieces, said Tim Reilly, environmental chemist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Valdez.
The surface sheen, a thin film, is broken down quickly by waves into tiny pieces that will sink and no longer be seen. Waves will also break the heavier oil slicks into ever smaller pieces. As the lighter solvents in the oil evaporate, the pieces get stickier and rounder. They end up the consistency of asphalt and range in size from a golf ball to a softball, Reilly said.
These tar balls float, and bob along the currents until they hit a beach, Reilly said.
In time a few months to a few years much of the oil will be eaten by bacteria and other tiny organisms, Reilly said.
Despite the closer ties between various cleanup workers, foulups continue to hamper the effort.
Six planes took off for the Gulf of Alaska Wednesday to drop dispersant chemicals on a large area of emulsified oil that is threatening Nuka Island, near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. But no one told a boat that was to sample the effects of the drop where it was to take place. The dispersant mission was finally scrubbed.
John Whitney, of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said a message from a spotter plane to the fishing vessel Baltic Sea, which was to be relayed by the Coast Guard, never arrived. He wouldn't say who dropped the ball.
"Tomorrow, the spotter plane will be in direct contact with the boat," Whitney said.
The DEC complained of another mixup. After moving the state ferry Aurora to Herring Bay for cleanup work, DEC workers waited for skimmers and other equipment from Exxon which never arrived, said Jim Hayden, an operations coordinator for the state. The equipment had been sent instead to deal with a slick that turned up in a previously clean area to the west, Port Nellie Juan.
"Maybe the equipment was needed in Nellie Juan, but it would have been nice if someone had told us," Hayden said.
But the state was guilty of its own mistakes. A statechartered helicopter was sent to refuel on a barge earlier this week only to find that the barge was gone, Hayden confirmed. The helicopter made it back to Valdez without running out of fuel.
Confusion continues to surround Exxon's "floatel," a barge loaded with residential trailers that was to act as a floating beach cleanup camp. It was to be anchored with 90 workers aboard last Sunday, but since then there have been conflicting reports about where the barge is and what it is doing.
The barge, it turns out, is in Valdez, said Ed Owens, who was running the beach cleanup for Exxon Wednesday evening. He said it is being inspected and will go out today.
A new spill at the Alyeska Pipeline terminal that was reported cleaned up Monday afternoon is not completely removed, said Joe LeBeau, of the DEC. Also, he said, the spill was larger than originally reported.
The spill from British Petroleum's Keystone Canyon was 252 gallons, instead of the 168 that was reported, LeBeau said. It came from a cracked pipe on the ship. The tanker was cleaned and allowed to leave Wednesday morning, but the dock and other exposed areas still had to be cleaned, LeBeau said.
Daily News reporters Stan Jones and Steve Rinehart contributed to this story.
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