Exxon has decided not to clean most of the Gulf of Alaska beaches fouled by the March 24 Exxon Valdez oil spill, according to a detailed new beach cleanup plan released Monday.
"Lightly oiled areas might not require cleaning," the new plan says, "if environmental considerations indicate that allowing natural forces to operate produces a better result than the mechanical process. It is expected that this will be the case for all lightly oiled Gulf of Alaska sites."
And although Exxon officials say they are beginning to relieve some skimmers from duty, several were headed Monday to the village of Chignik, on the Alaska Peninsula about 500 miles from Valdez, which reportedly has been hit by the spill.
Monday's version of the cleanup proposal fills out a sketch of beach cleanup ideas Exxon released two weeks ago, and includes technical data, place names, and a timeline showing how fast the work should be complete. It also calls for a test of dispersant chemicals on several unspecified beaches.
The earlier plan did not address the Gulf of Alaska. Now Exxon has added 86 miles of oiled shoreline in the Gulf, but envisions cleaning only 15.7 miles of it. The balance is either in areas where waves will disperse the oil, or where the oil is light, Exxon said.
But state officials have qualms about writing off those beaches so soon. Bill Lamoreaux, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation coordinator on the spill, said the beaches are too varied, and the cleanup techniques too untried, to assume that not cleaning an entire area is a good idea.
"If a lightly oiled beach can be cleaned up, and can be made better than it was, then it should be," Lamoreaux said. "It's probably reasonable to put them on the end of the priorities, but to write them off now isn't."
The plan projects work on 191 miles of lightly oiled beaches at the end of the summer, and estimates that cleaning them will be fast and easy. Those beaches would be cleaned from Aug. 1 to Sept. 15, a rate of more than four miles a day.
Parts of the plan are not as optimistic as the earlier version, which anticipated losing only 10 percent of work time to bad weather in April. About 30 percent was lost. The revised plan doubles the estimated weatherrelated lost time, to 10 percent during June and July and to 20 percent for early September. In the Gulf of Alaska, weather is expected to stop work 50 percent of the time.
The plan sets Exxon the goal of cleaning only three miles of shore by May 10, and 20 miles by June 1. Those first beaches are the hardest hit, and include seal and sea lion birthing areas which must be washed by May 10 to protect pups from the oil.
Exxon's plan expects that 55 miles of shoreline not yet surveyed will be added to the total accounted for. But from reports Monday night, much more shore may be in danger. Although clouds blocked overflights, the east coast of the Alaska Peninsula is said to be heavily hit with emulsified oil, according to Pete Weurpel of the Alaska Division of Emergency Services, including Chignik.
Jim O'Brien of Exxon said he is sending all the company's ocean going skimming equipment to the area, but the effort is being hampered by bad weather and the great distances to be covered by the ships. Also, he said, much of the area is uncharted, so the ships cannot go near shore.
The huge Soviet skimmer Vaydaghubsky is already in the area, but hasn't been able to find any oil because of poor visibility, O'Brien said. He plans to send the ship home on May 11, although he said it has recovered more oil from the ocean than any other skimmer.
O'Brien and other Exxon officials said skimmers in Prince William Sound are having trouble finding floating oil in thick enough concentrations to keep working. He plans to begin relieving vessels, he said. The state ferry Aurora has stopped work and is being cleaned up to return to its usual passenger duty in southeastern Alaska.
But Lamoreaux said Exxon will not be allowed to stop skimming in the Sound until there is no free oil left that can be recovered, and he said that point has not yet been reached.
Exxon also presented a plan Monday for dealing with the waste created by the oil spill. It hopes to set up a large floating incinerator and use smaller medical incinerators in Whittier and at the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal in Valdez to burn oily rags, clothing, and 20 tons of dead animals. Recovered oil would be separated from water and sent to refineries, while the water would be treated in the Alyeska ballast water recovery system, the plan says.
The shoreline cleanup plan calls for a test of a dispersant chemical called COREXIT 7664 to help remove oil from beaches. Environmentalists have said oil droplets mixed with dispersant chemicals are too toxic to allow their use, but Lamoreaux said he encouraged Exxon to try different techniques, and is not opposed to the test.
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