Coast Guard Adm. Paul Yost got his cleanup plan from Exxon on Saturday, Day 23 of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, and said he liked it.
Then he said it would take a while to get the cleaning going.
"I don't think with a plan of this magnitude that you can school up, hire the people and train the people and bring in the support vessels in less than one or two or three weeks," Yost said.
The oil has been marauding through Prince William Sound since March 24, when the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled more than 10 million gallons after running aground on Bligh Reef. Efforts to contain it or clean it up have been ineffective.
Scientists estimate that, based on the record of other major spills, no more than 20 percent of the oil will ever be recovered. So far, Exxon claims to have recovered about 8 percent.
While federal, state and oil company officials have engaged in three weeks of preparing, interspersed with trying to place and avoid blame for the ineffectiveness of their efforts, the oil has spread far and wide. It has stained hundreds of miles of coastline in the Sound. It has killed creatures as small as snails and as large as sea otters. It has killed birds by the thousands. A precise count of the types of creatures dying and their numbers is not possible.
In that time, officials credit themselves with successfully removing the 42 million gallons of oil that remained on the tanker and refloating the vessel, and with protecting four Sound salmon hatcheries from the oil.
At a news conference in Valdez, Yost, the man President Bush sent from Washington, D.C., to take charge of the spill, said he was happy to have Exxon's plan.
"I'm very encouraged by the plan. That doesn't mean I've approved it or accepted it or agreed with it, but it does mean that I think they have spent a lot of time on it . . . and it's at least a start." He said he would review the plan over what remained of the weekend.
Yost, who said Friday that steam cleaning was the way to get the oil off the beaches, also said Saturday that he had promised Exxon Co. USA President William D. Stevens that he would get approval from various scientific advisers before using the technique, which kills everything in its path.
Some oil has escaped from the Sound and is fouling shores and killing creatures along the Gulf of Alaska. Among the places it has gone are the shores of two national parks.
Boats and spotter aircraft were dispatched Friday and Saturday from Homer to track the oil being deposited on the shoreline of Katmai National Park, on the Alaska Peninsula, famous for its brown bears and volcanic ruins. Coast Guard helicopters cruised around Kodiak Island, searching for oil advancing into Shelikof Strait or washing up in island bays.
Katmai Park Superintendent Ray Banes, in King Salmon, said he particularly feared for the big bruins, just now coming out of winter hibernation. The bears are hungry, he said, and they are heading for the beaches to scavenge for carcasses washed in by the waves and the tides.
"Bears are notorious for eating almost anything, especially in the spring," Bane said. "If those carcasses have been coated with oil, or animals that have ingested oil, they could be toxic."
The big coastal brown bears also dig for razor clams, Bane said, which could also expose them to oil washed ashore. "It's an amazing sight. They wait for the tide to go out. They are better at it (digging clams) than any person I've seen."
On Saturday, oil had come ashore at Cape Douglas and south at Big River, said Garey Coatney, the National Park Service spill response coordinator in Homer.
The slicks and oilwater foam and patches of tarry blob oil, and the surface sheen that heralds their presence, appeared to be rounding the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, then swinging across lower Cook Inlet to bend southward along the shore of the Alaska Peninsula, according to state and federal spill trackers.
Bane said that earlier this week he spotted "countless" sea birds near Cape Douglas, on the west side of Cook Inlet. He did not know how many had been caught up or coated with oil.
One boat was dispatched from Homer Friday to the Katmai coast to begin surveying oil deposits and collecting samples of oiled birds or marine mammals, Coatney said. Another was scheduled to depart Saturday evening, and a third on Monday, he said.
Bane said the Katmai coast varies from high cliffs to nearly flat salt water marshes and estuaries. Some beaches are broad and sandy, he said, while others are rocky and steep.
At least for the moment, much of the park coastline still appears free of oil. The Saturday Coast Guard helicopter flight from Kodiak spotted no signs of any oil on the coast, said Cmdr. Ed Page, a Kodiakbased oil spill coordinator.
"We flew right down and were looking at bear tracks up and down the coasts, but saw no indications of oil," Page said.
In the Kodiak area, the only signs of oil were small pockets stuck in a few bays of Shuyak Island, the northernmost island in the Kodiak archipelago. "It's not very heavy oil on the lee side."
Page said that boats equipped with oil absorbents would head out to the island to mop up the oil.
In the meantime, a fleet of Kodiak fishing boats is dragging herring nets through Gulf of Alaska slicks, in an attempt to break up the oil, Page said.
By Saturday evening, oil had not pushed farther toward Homer than the entrance to Kachemak Bay, according to the Homer spill operations center. Two U.S. Navy skimmers were stationed Saturday at Port Graham, near the mouth of the bay, and an Army helicopter had arrived for use as a slick spotter to direct the skimmers, according to Coast Guard Commander William Morani Jr.
"We're looking at this as an offensive, not a defensive move," Morani said. The skimmers would probably be moved farther around the tip of the Kenai Peninsula to Port Chatham, he said, where they could move into the path of oil drifting down the outer coast.
The oil from the March 24 spill also has coated many of capes and headlands along the shore of Kenai Fjords National Park, which stretches south down the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula from Seward.
Chief Ranger Peter Fitzmaurice said dark brown, oily foam has washed onto many of the east and northfacing shorelines in the park. Lighter slicks and sheen have worked into several bays, including Nuka Bay and Resurrection Bay, he said.
The outer shores those facing the full brunt of wind and waves have collected the most oil, he said. Those also are areas where natural washing forces may help clean the oil away, he said. Lighter depositions in sheltered areas may prove longerlasting.
Spotting and tracking oil has proved a less than exact science. There have been consistent reports of oil just below the surface. Fitzmaurice said a skimmer vessel working in Resurrection Bay near Seward collected about 5,000 gallons of oil in 90 minutes from an area that was marked on the surface only by light sheen.
"Submerged oil is going to be one of the challenges," said Gary Baldwin, of the Anchorage firm Chempro Environmental Services, working out of Homer as an adviser for the state. He said oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico sank and resurfaced more than 100 miles away.
"Oil takes many forms and is very unpredictable," he said.
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