The sandy gravel of Grungy Cove was marked by a scattering of small silver sheens last week, as a handful of crumbling gray tar cakes bled into the September rain. With the tide out, this placid cove on the outer Kenai Peninsula coast looked like an empty lot where several leaky crankcases had been parked the night before.
It is the site of an Exxon Valdez oil-spill beach cleanup that even the state of Alaska calls a success.
Grungy Cove got its name from cleanup workers in 1989 shortly after a thick blanket of emulsified oil rode in on the tide from the Gulf of Alaska. The cove received heavy attention from oil spill workers last year, and by September only a few eroding tar mats remained.
Workers returned for one day this summer, scraping out a long mat and sprinkling fertilizer. As the second summer of cleanup ends, Grungy Cove is a beach that falls into an awkward position on the priority lists: not restored to a pristine state, but not polluted enough to warrant a full-scale return by Exxon crews and equipment.
A year and a half after the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, its spilled cargo has become a part of the landscape on Alaska shorelines. In stains and buried pools, oil remains, and deciding what to do about it has become only more difficult.
Spill officials are already preparing their positions for the fight next spring.
Gov. Steve Cowper said Thursday that the state will prepare a detailed list with work plans for each of the oiled beaches he wants Exxon to clean. If federal and Exxon officials decide against coming back, the state could hire a contractor to do the work and then sue Exxon for the money.
But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which successfully set the agenda for the 1990 cleanup season, is working on a study that Scientific Support Coordinator Joe Talbott expects will buttress its position that much of the buried oil the governor is worried about is better to leave than tear out of the ground with machinery.
Scientific evidence supports both sides. So does common-sense evidence on the beaches. Deciding what to do comes down to judgment; scientists, oil executives, politicians and Native hunters feel differently about it.
In 1989, more than 1,000 miles of shoreline were oiled and treated, according to Exxon figures. This year, state, federal and Exxon officials agreed to work on 154 miles, on about 520 beaches. This August, the state agreed that no more oil can be wrung out of 117 of those 520 they don't need more work. The groups disagreed on most of the rest.
Exxon's cleanup manager, Otto Harrison, said he doesn't think there will be enough oil left to bother cleaning next spring, but Exxon will be back if oil remains.
NOAA's Talbott expects that if any additional work is needed next year, it will be on LaTouche Island, in southern Prince William Sound, around Sleepy Bay.
Sleepy Bay is a small, half-moon cove facing north. It was a scoop for the oil that was flowing south from the Exxon Valdez, more than 50 miles away, in March 1989. By late May of that year, the shore was as black as outer space. Every rock and pebble was thickly coated with crude oil so thickly that the petroleum odor was sharp hundreds of yards offshore. Workers picking up the corpses of birds came every day, because even after two months they were always sure of finding plenty of dead animals.
A tiny creek with a modest pink salmon spawn meanders across the beach at Sleepy Bay. In the summer of 1989, the oil was so thick that workers resorted to digging up the creek's bed and replacing it with loads of clean gravel. It was the only spot where large-scale excavation was officially approved in the first year of work.
But the work that year was a failure, and state officials who wanted to show off the worst of the spill were able to take visitors there to show them deep, gooey, smelly oil late last fall, and even this spring, putting the lie to Exxon's happier message about clean shores and recovering wildlife.
Yet for a visitor who was at Sleepy Bay 16 months earlier, the most striking thing about the beach late this summer was how clean it was. Workers were still turning over rocks and finding brown goop, still digging up the slimy goop and dropping it in bags, and still digging deeper and finding more below. It seemed to go endlessly deeper. But most of the rocks were once again gray, a color that in May 1989 seemed an impossible memory.
A year of storms, a lot of work and some ferocious digging with a huge backhoe made it this way. The backhoe, called a berm-relocator in oil-spill jargon, was a popular tool in the Sound this summer as the methods needed to remove oil become ever harsher.
Spill officials maintain that berm relocating doesn't do much harm although some quietly dissent. The official position is that the backhoe digs up oily gravel that would wash off in winter storms anyway. The work is supposed to move the gravel to where the ocean can wash the oil off to be caught in booms. After a few storms, the beach goes back to normal, they say.
But that's not how it looks. It looks like any excavation: messy and destructive.
"It does look ugly," said Dale Gilman, a Department of Environmental Conservation field worker. "It isn't real pretty to do it this way. But you can't have your cake and eat it too. This is what you have to do if you want the oil removed."
But NOAA scientists warn that in the past, workers with that philosophy of cleanup have done more lasting damage to the environment than the oil they sought to remove.
This summer, there was at least one beach where everyone agreed that cleanup went too far. It was a beach in Snug Harbor, on Knight Island, where workers made a mistake and relocated a berm that did not contain much oil. They stopped at the edge of a creek. On the opposite side, a smoothly sloping beach bloomed with wild peas, fading into beach grass and alders, currants and spruce saplings at the top. On the near side, all that was gone there was only a rugged field of overturned boulders.
Some officials already regret blasting beaches with hot water in 1989 they have found less left living there than on oiled beaches where there was no cleanup.
The method that has shown the least signs of damaging the environment is bioremediation, the process of adding fertilizer to the beach to speed up the natural breakdown of the oil. State, federal and Exxon officials now agree that process works.
But it still takes patience oil could remain for years and after two summers, state officials and some residents of coastal communities feel they have been patient enough.
The people of the Sound village of Chenega Bay have been the most outspoken. They want the oil gone.
"We've used these areas for many, many, many years, and not to be able to use them now takes a lot out of our traditional subsistence," Chenega's Gail Evanoff said.
It is not enough to say the oil isn't hurting the environment, she said.
"The environment belongs to the people. We use the environment.
But in Kodiak, people have come to accept that oil is here to stay, and that removing it is too disruptive, borough Mayor Jerome Selby said. With the exception of heavily oiled beaches on Shuyak Island and in Katmai National Park, he said Kodiak would rather leave the oil buried than take the unknown environmental risk of digging it out.
"We're generally satisfied that . . . what can be removed has been removed," Selby said. "But there's a lot of oil still in beaches that will always be there. . . . Short of going in there with buldozers and excavating tons of beach, you're not going to get that out of there with human effort. And we don't think that makes sense."
On the Kenai Peninsula coast, a visit to a pair of beaches several miles apart last week showed how different the effectiveness of Exxon's cleanup could be.
In Windy Bay, a bouldery nook had somehow emerged from a summer of state appeals for more work with thick square-meter patches of light brown oil still lying on the surface.
Around the corner in Chugach Bay, a similar rocky beach was about as clean of oil as human beings were ever going to get it. It would take a penknife to scrape up what little sandy grunge was left in some of the boulders' cracks.
"Clean but not pristine," Russell Kunibe, a Homer field officer with DEC, said of the Chugach Bay beach. "They did such a good job in some places we wondered why they couldn't do that good of a job on every beach."
Energetic workers in well-directed crews made their mark. Less-motivated crews, sometimes hog-tied by limits on what they were allowed to do, left more oil behind. Most were working for Exxon's prime contractor, Veco. State spill chief Randy Bayliss said Veco did a good job, and he would hire it himself if he were running the cleanup but not all of its crews were equally effective.
Hot-water washing was attempted, unsuccessfully, in Windy Bay, but not much rock was washed on the Gulf coast this summer. An exception, according to DEC monitor Randy Reed, was the use of water wands to erase the word "Exxon" from a white cliff face in the Pye Islands, where someone had painted the company's name in tar.
The state is assembling a list of beaches that can be called clean, either because oil never hit them or because the cleanup can go no farther. Kunibe estimated that 25 percent to 30 percent of the Kenai Peninsula beach segments studied after the spill will be given a clean bill of health.
The Windy Bay beach won't be on the list. It's likely that the successfully cleaned beach at Chugach Bay won't make it, either, because of a small band of oil buried 18 inches below one end of the beach. If the oil is still present next summer, the state will want it dug up and removed; there may be another fight about that.
One place where there's still oil but Exxon probably won't be invited back is a lagoon on Elizabeth Island in the Gulf of Alaska.
Shortly after the spill, storm waves pushed oil into the shallow salmon- rearing lagoon, where it sank to the bottom in hard-to-see, hamburger-sized patties. Lee Glenn, a habitat biologist with the Department of Fish and Game, complained that cleanup workers tromping through the water were pushing the oil into the muddy bottom; the state will probably want to extract the oil itself, he said.
Kunibe said he doubted more cleanup would be necessary on US-10, as an oil- soaked beach on Ushagat Island is known in spill-speak. But the fighting over the beach goes on.
On Ushagat, in the Barren Islands outside Cook Inlet, high tides were lapping last week at the base of a new gravel berm bulldozed by Exxon. The state had wanted oil from the beach's storm berm removed by barge; the Coast Guard ordered it moved to the water's edge, where winter storms would presumably wash the oil away while no birds were present although without booms to catch the oil. Exxon finished the bulldozer work Sept. 5, and by Sept. 7 state officials videotaped oil leaching away in a sheen from the beach.
The scrap continued. A Homer cleanup committee wrote an I-told-you-so letter to Coast Guard Rear Adm. David Ciancaglini last week suggesting a comparison between the island, which is in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and proposals to explore for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"The standard you have set on US-10 sends the wrong message to the oil industry and may have negative implications when viewed by the public, given the controversy over oil development and protection of wildlife in other national wildlife refuges," said the letter David Kenagy, a representative from the Department of Natural Resources and the group's chairman.
But NOAA's Talbott said the treatment worked. The sheen that washed off was expected, he said.
"That is not a major problem or a major event," Talbott said.
Whether the oil remaining in the berm disappears slowly or all at once, state officials expect it to be gone by next summer.
Nothing can be done, Kunibe said, about spots of oil on the flat gray skipping stones along the beach.
"That's just part of the landscape of Alaska beaches now," he said.
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