At press conferences this week marking the end of Exxon's summer cleanup of its March 24 oil spill, Exxon, state officials and environmentalists all displayed rocks. The rocks the state and the environmentalists showed off had a lot of oil on them, while the rocks Exxon displayed were only lightly stained.
The answers never got much more sophisticated. The beaches where much of the 11 million gallons of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez washed ashore this summer are not clean, but they have less oil on them than they did when it first hit. Some rocks are dirtier than others.
How dirty they are, and why, are questions of vast complexity which the rocks brought to the press conferences, and the participants in the press conferences themselves, were unable to satisfactorily answer.
The answer is not simple, but a Daily News survey in the last two weeks of beaches where Exxon declared its work done for the summer showed an environmental disaster that touched more than 1,000 miles of Alaska shoreline is not over, and the survey raised questions about the value of much of the work.
The beaches themselves are mute, but by going to enough of them over a long enough period of time, a finegrained picture begins to develop.
Smith Island Beaches don't often have as much meaning as this one does. This beach in Prince William Sound is deeply inscribed with a tale of pollution and politics and the inability of human kind to fix nature once it has been spoiled.
Oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Smith Island three days after the ship collided with Bligh Reef about 25 miles to the north. Weeks later, pools of brown oilwater emulsion still stood several inches deep. The smell of oil was overpowering and dead birds with long necks lay twisted among round rocks the size of bowling balls.
Now, after Exxon's most intense effort anywhere in its cleanup, after the use of beachcleaning chemicals and of fertilizer to help bacteria eat the oil, after weeks of pounding with hot and cold water and the visit of Vice President Dan Quayle, the beach looks better.
But if the vice president were to again walk across this beach, he still would ruin his shoes.
Quayle came in early May, walked across a boardwalk built for him, shook hands with cleanup workers, held a hose and was gone within 15 minutes. The beach was an early priority, Exxon officials had said, because it was a seal haulout area. When it turned out that seals didn't really use this beach, but used a rocky point half a mile down, workers began calling it the Quayle haulout beach.
The name stuck, and in the weird culture that surrounded the oil spill this summer, it spread to official circles. Then, as officials rotated out every few weeks, the name died out again. The spill apparatus has no institutional memory.
But the beach does.
Where Exxon used its beachcleaning chemical, Corexit 9580M2, the oily rocks look like bald heads, clean on top but with oil streaks going down the sides. Underneath, they are solidly oiled. Where workers labored for weeks, walking back and forth, oily paths run through the clean rocks and beach grass at the top of the beach. Workers left some plastic trash behind, and those who toiled rubbing individual rocks with oilabsorbant rags built cairns and left pits to testify to their presence. Where fertilizer was spread, granules still lay scattered on top of the boulders this week.
Peter Moutasano, a Department of Environmental Conservation member of the Resource Assessment Team in the area, jumped out of a skiff on the beach Monday, took names, and warned a reporter not to touch the rocks with bare hands because the fertilizer attacks red blood cells and can cause liver and kidney damage.
Moutasano walked to an area that appeared to be clean gravel, dug his heel in and scraped away the top layer. Beneath was brown, goopy oil, just like the oil that was here at the beginning. With a boot it was impossible to dig to the bottom of it.
"The surface looks beautiful," he said, "but that is mobile oil, and it will sheen off.
Near the pilings of an abandoned dock, the rocks looked worse than they did when Quayle was here. Back then, after constant washing, they were briefly clean. Now they are black again. Nature seems to want to deal with this problem at its own pace. When a beach is cleaned, it often reoils itself.
But Smith Island is like an outpost in the middle of Prince William Sound, exposed to direct hits from waves coming in any direction. Its barren beaches are likely to be turned over and their rocks smashed together this winter. The oil is likely to wash off into the ocean, experts say.
By comparison, this summer's labors to get oil off the top of some of the rocks seems relatively insignificant.
Herring Bay The beaches on this section of Knight Island in Prince William Sound are much less likely to be washed by waves. Herring Bay is a long, elaborate folding of smaller bays and coves below tall mountains of billowing rock. The water here is always calm.
This week the human activity in the bay was relatively calm, too. The bay wasn't entirely uninhabited, as it would be in normal times, but it had only 20 vessels. There were only six barges, just two with helicopter landing pads. The hundreds of workers who lived here this summer, pounding the shore with blasts of hot water and filling the air with layers of blue diesel smoke, were gone.
One evening this week DEC's Clay Robinson played solitaire, sitting in the sumptuous lounge of a boat the agency is renting as a base to reassess the beaches after Exxon's departure. He looked out on the peaceful water, where highintensity lights mounted on an incinerator barge spread beams of orange into the gathering dusk.
"It's been like rediscovering these places," Robinson said. "I never wanted to come here, or Northwest Bay, or Upper Passage because there were so many people. "
Only one beach here was immune to the human assault. First Exxon then the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration set aside two adjacent 100yard stretches of shoreline to be left uncleaned so that they could be compared to beaches cleaned elsewhere.
The shore is marked with a pair of white metal signs. One site is a gradual beach of gravel that looks like crushed rock. From offshore it looks relatively clean. But standing on the gravel, the beach smelled like an illkept gas station. Some of the gravel was black on top. Underneath, there was fine sand. Oil came off to the touch.
The other sign marked a steep shore of big, angular rocks, like riprap. Oil was everywhere. In some places it was thin and weathered, in others it was still thick and tarry. Under the rocks, the oil was thick and brown. A few animals were alive mussels and barnacles but there were more empty barnacle shells than live barnacles, and many of the mussels were covered by oil. Some had died recently enough that they were still rotting, their flesh pouring out of their shells in a nasty, sharpsmelling soup.
A beach with identical rocks was around the corner of a small point. This was washed it was signed off by the Coast Guard as treated June 3 but it was not perceptibly different from the beach that was set aside not to be washed. Oil came off the rocks on a finger. Under the rocks, brown oilwater emulsion was fresh and liquid. An oily tide pool had some brown seaweed, and below the oil line there were a few barnacles, but little else seemed to be living here.
A test of Exxon's cleaning techniques that was done near here on July 22 showed that nearly all the living organisms hit by hotwater, highpressure washing spray were killed, said Jacqui Michel of NOAA, which ran the test with Exxon. Although Exxon still refuses to release the results of the test, saying they need more "interpretation," Michel received them, and said they showed that the hotwater spraying killed even many organisms covered by sea water during the cleanup.
Yet, without the signs, it would be impossible to tell this cleaned beach from the one next to it, which was not cleaned. Both are much better than when oil first hit and covered everything with a sticky mat inches thick; but even here, sheltered from waves, weather appears to have done as much to clean the shores as the massive work project. The two beaches look the same, except that there is more life on the one that was left alone.
Green Island In April, it was possible to see worlds of odd little creatures dying here in the tide pools smothered or poisoned by fresh oil. In July, after it was cleaned once, the oil was still on this western barrier island, although it no longer stood in puddles. On a sunny day, the air smelled like hot tar, but the oil had started to solidify and make itself permanent.
This island in the Sound was among the first to receive treatment by fertilizer intended to help in the biological breakdown of the oil. Now the oil is no longer shiny. It is dull, but it still comes off in puttylike blobs on the hand. Some of the round rocks on one beach are gray on top, but each is oily on the bottom. One could turn them all over to make it look like a freshly oiled beach.
Oil can be seen under the clear water, stuck to rocks that are uncovered only at the lowest tide. A protected gravel beach that at low tide connects a pair of islets was soaked with oil and hardened into a shell, with wet brown oil beneath the surface. The smell is gone.
A snail was glued into place by the oil. A former tide pool was full of empty mussel shells, inches deep. Oil was thick enough in places to send a streaming sheen of oil into the water.
Shoreline creatures in oily areas seem to lose their clinging grasp on the rocks. Oil poisoning has been shown in controlled studies to rob mussels of their ability to web themselves to rocks with their tiny threads. When they fall off, they die.
On Green Island, many mussels fell off to the touch. "I would say that's probably an indicator of oil," said John Karinen of the National Marine Fisheries Service Auke Bay Lab.
Barnacles also seemed to have softened their hold on the rocks, here and all over the spill. Normally a barnacle is glued to a rock; it takes a hammer blow to get it off. But all over the spill area, many live barnacles can be knocked off rocks with the flick of a finger, exposing their bodies, a tiny, wet lump of flesh that is never supposed to see the light of day.
Karinen and his colleague said they are aware of nothing in scientific literature which documents barnacles losing their hold on rocks when exposed to oil. The NMFS scientists said there is no other known reason for barnacles to fall off, and Karinen thinks examples he has seen are probably the result of oil pollution.
Even some of the small mussels and barnacles that likely colonized rocks after the spill are losing their grasp. On Green Island, the pressure of a boot is enough break the shells of a rock full of barnacles, leaving it slick with their exposed flesh.
Experts disagree on what harm eating oilsickened shoreline creatures would do to birds and other animals higher on the foods chain.
Grungy Cove Oil spill workers named this quiet Kenai Peninsula bight in the early days of the spill, after a thick blanket of emulsified oil rode in on the tide from the Gulf of Alaska. Today a kayaker might paddle into the cove and think it restored to its original unnamed splendor until he stepped ashore and poked around.
Rock faces have been scoured with hoses. The sand has been fertilized. An isthmus of cobblestones, moved and replaced by spill workers, shines gray.
Oil spill monitors were impressed. State agencies approved the area for demobilization, and the Coast Guard signed off Sept. 5. When eroding sand revealed additional tar patties, Exxon workers returned with shovels to remove them.
"If they were all this clean we'd be happy," said Dick McKean of the DEC.
Still, oil remains. A close look on the rock faces makes it possible to distinguish black lichen from thin patches of asphalt. Turn over the cobbles and their undersides are set in fudgy oil. The tide carries out small fans of sheen. Sandy tar that crumbles like oatmeal cookies continues to emerge in tiresized patties.
McKean credits Exxon with three weeks of good work in August on the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula. The problem, he says, was that it took so long for Exxon to get people and equipment to the Peninsula. In the meantime oil sank deep into the outer beaches.
Comdr. Will Griswold, the top Coast Guard official in Homer, agrees.
"Western Alaska didn't get the level of attention that Prince William Sound did," Griswold said. "Had they done more in June we wouldn't have the problem we have now."
The problem now is that oil continues to work its way out of the beaches slowly in sheltered Grungy Cove, more quickly on other beaches of the outer coast.
Exxon says it is through making trips to the Kenai Peninsula coast to pick up fresh tar patties.
"It has to be a very significant threat to risk flying people out in bad weather this winter," said Exxon's Homer operations coordinator Randy Raudabaugh.
Chugach Bay The beach at the head of Chugach Bay is backed by a gravel storm berm. A dark seam running the length of the berm drips oil like a leaky gasket. Spill monitors were willing to approve demobilizing in places with lingering oil like Grungy Cove, but here they refused.
"Our feeling is that a lot of beaches still pose some threat to wildlife," says DEC's McKean.
Exxon cleaned up in Chugach Bay and moved on, but the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and DEC opposed Exxon's request to demobilize, as did Chugach Alaska, the Native corporation that owned the land behind the berm.
When a storm cut into the beach and threatened to dump tar in an adjacent salmon stream, Exxon returned to pick up 44 bags of oily material, according to Fish and Game habitat biologist Lee Glenn.
Soon after, the Coast Guard overrode state and Native objections and signed off on the beach. The Coast Guard cited the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which concluded that leaching oil would wash back on the same beach and not threaten other areas.
"We could remove the oiled gravel but that could erode and destroy the beach," Griswold said. "A lot of people said destroy the beaches, we don't care, but NOAA had a broader perspective. The oil will still come out, almost like time release, but they said it would not cause toxic shock to the environment. The oil will be in tar patties that should wash around near the bottom like dark black rocks."
"It's a classic beach for natural biodegradation, a very highenergy beach," said Exxon's Raudabaugh. He says Exxon's activities next summer will depend on what the oil looks like. "I expect Mother Nature over time will beat it up into small bits and disperse it.
Glenn, however, is afraid the tar from beaches like the one in Chugach Bay will float, especially when warm weather returns. If it does, the tar could pose problems not just for nearby streams but for fishing boats in open water.
"I suspect we'll have the same problem with tar balls floating in the Inlet next year," he said. He would like Exxon to continue picking up tar this winter as weather permits. "If we had that kind of response during the winter it would mean that oil is not going back into the environment."
Gore Point The isthmus at Gore Point reaches south from the Kenai Peninsula into the Gulf like a fielder's glove and catches everything drifting west. The beach was hit by more oil than any other on the outer coast. Today the halfmile crescent of gray skipping stones looks relatively clean. But Gore Point is the beach on the outer coast that worries spill officials most.
In May, the beach was still calfdeep in emulsified oil. Exxon workers finally hauled away nearly a million pounds of material, including gravel and oiled driftwood. But the constant heavy surf had pounded much of the oil into the beach and piled tons of fresh gravel on top.
There are still patches of brown tar visible among the smooth stones, but nobody knows how much oil is buried deep under Gore Point. McKean said the state asked Exxon to dig a test hole on the beach with a backhoe but the oil company declined.
"What you saw there (last spring) didn't go anywhere but under the gravel," said Griswold. "(Exxon) is not going to deny it. But there's no point in digging the hole just to show it's there."
"Exxon made their demobilization request for Gore Point in June," said Fish and Game's Glenn. "It's probably going to erode out of there and then it's going to be somebody else's problem. Probably ours."
South of the Kenai Peninsula, some beaches on the Barren Islands were held to a different standard. Because Exxon wanted to leave the Barrens by midAugust, when weather was expected to deteriorate, workers did not finish even superficial cleaning. The Coast Guard approved demobilization of four beaches there as exceptions. Even Exxon's Raudabaugh says those beaches "are not stable like the others."
"Exxon will say all the beaches have been released. That implies they've been treated," said Mike Hedrick of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for the large seabird rookeries on the Barrens. "No one is breaking this into categories that make it clear to the public that there are different reasons for demobilization."
Cape Kubugakli The Alaska Peninsula is so wild and empty and the Shelikoff Strait is so fierce that the steep, rocky land feels like it wants to tip a little further and shed a human visitor off into the ocean. It is impressive that cleanup workers came here at all.
Here, as if randomly, oil landed 385 miles from the spill of the Exxon Valdez in a thick, gooey coating of oilwater emulsion. Long stretches of beach reach in each direction, with no oil or just a few oil blobs, but here, even after a summer's hard work, the beach is soaked with oil.
"It looks better than it did two months ago," said Tom Neefe, a shoreline assessment officer who watched the work here for the DEC, "but I don't think that's exclusively because of the treatment. I think it's because of the tide washing over."
On twothirds of the beach, workers turned over the armor of angular boulders that cover the gravel, wiped them off, and dug up the gravel underneath, putting it in bags for shipment to a toxic waste dump in Oregon. Workers in this area weren't supposed to dig up beaches, but many of them did because it was the only way to remove oil, officials said.
At an invisible line drawn from a small rock outcropping, the work stopped, Neefe said. The rest of the beach, which was almost as badly hit, received no attention, possibly because of a bureaucratic mistake it was across the boundary of a shoreline segment. The rocks here are well settled into the gravel, obviously not turned over this summer.
There is more oil left on the beach that wasn't cleaned. But there is enough left on the cleaned beach, that the difference may not be significant. A rock turned over at random had inches of thick brown oil under it. Shrimplike creatures common to the area wriggled and fell in the gunk, were caught in it and kept moving until it wrapped them like batter on a piece of fried chicken and they could not move. A sheet of large barnacles fell off the bottom of the rock without being touched. Mussels, detached but whole, lay between the rocks. This was on the cleaned beach.
Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula has more beaches like this, where brown oil gunk is slopped in the gravel. On a cool day, it hardens and will barely give way to the kick of a boot. On a warm day it flows again. Despite the assurances of some oil spill scientists that these beaches are hit by enough waves to wash them by winter, breaking the oil into small chunks, Kodiak residents are afraid a cold winter will store the oil like a deep freeze.
Dry Bay South of Katmai National Park, the sand at the head of Dry Bay slopes gently, at the head of a funnel of cliffs with weathersoftened perpendicular cracks that look like an art deco facade. Spawned salmon rot in the clear water against the black sand. The calm collects the detritus of humans and nature dropped in the sea within the wide reach of the Pacific currents that lead here.
Acres of driftwood logs are piled four and five deep, like pickup sticks, and between them, in large, dark spaces, evidence of civilization has gathered, too. There are a few huge light bulbs, much of the tail a plane of a longdefunct Kodiak airline, fishing floats, a magnum champagne bottle and scattered, basketballsized hunks of oil and seaweed.
In the sand, patties of oil ranging from the size of quarters to the size of record albums are strewn every yard or so, but it takes time to notice them. Sand has stuck to the top, and the oil is quickly hardening and disappearing. Exxon workers came here and collected many of the sandy pellets, and the rest are being slowly buried in the sand, joining the other permanent records of human activity that are stored among the driftwood.
Island Bay, in Jute Bay Here, near the furthest observed sightings of oil since the spill, the distances to be covered by the cleanup were so large and the beaches so rarely seen by people that oil was easy to miss. Most of the area was checked by helicopter, both when it was originally surveyed for oil and when Exxon's work was finally approved by the Coast Guard.
Neefe, the DEC shoreline assessor, sat by himself all summer at the window of a sevenpassenger, twopilot helicopter the DEC uses out here for safety. The chopper flew within a few feet of the rock cliffs that rise from the water, low to the ground, veering in and out of coves and around points so sharply the prop could be heard laboring, the world turned sideways and passengers were forced down into their seats. Neefe gazed steadily at the beach, which slipped by in a violent blur.
"Sometimes there will be real minimal impact, but it's kind of hard to see going 90 miles per hour 400 feet in the air," he said. Also, oil can be buried, but it would be impossible for workers to dig holes in thousands of miles of beach to find it.
In this little bay, the impact was not minimal. But it was not discovered until September, when treatment crews had already quit. The official records of the spill in Valdez show that no oil was reported here, and no Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Team was ever dispatched. According to the oil spill computers there is no oil here.
The helicopter set down on a heathery plateau above the beach and Neefe scrambled down to the beach. Brown and black oilwater emulsion was strewn along the high tide line, a distance of more than 100 yards. It was a mat of seaweed and grass, dried and desiccated, an inch thick in the high places. In the low places, including where a stream ran over it and carried a steady oil sheen to the ocean, the oil was 5 inches deep.
A dead bird with a white cage of clean bones and a head neatly saved whole a few feet away lay on a rock between the oil patches.
"This should have been cleaned," Neefe said. "It's pooled. You could have come in here with a shovel and get most of it in a morning."
But now it was too late. Exxon had already quit for the winter.
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