Exxon's much anticipated plan for cleaning up the oil-blackened shores of Prince William Sound was unveiled here Monday and given the official blessing of U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost.
But the Coast Guard approval came with "serious reservations" and a demand for more work on the plan, while the reactions of other officials ran from dutiful optimism through polite skepticism to serious criticism.
The 21 page plan is "decidedly sketchy," according to the Shoreline Committee, a consortium of nine state and federal agencies involved in the cleanup.
The plan calls for Exxon to wash 305 miles of shoreline mostly by flushing with cold seawater by Sept. 15. It estimates the workforce will peak at 4,000 people in midJune, with support from almost 200 vessels of various descriptions.
But Exxon will make its target date only if a number of rosy assumptions hold up. Exxon assumes, among other things, that very little additional shoreline in Prince William Sound will be hit by the estimated 1.2 million gallons of crude still being washed back and forth by the wind, tide and current.
The plan also assumes that the Sound's unpredictable weather will allow cleanup crews to work 88 percent of the time between now and midSeptember, when the beginning of winter is expected to shut the operation down.
"Look at the last 24 days and what's happened," said Bob Flint, an official of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. "For them to say they're going to have it geared up and ready to go with 4,000 people by midJune, to me that's real optimistic."
The Shoreline Committee complained in its written response to the plan that an Exxon estimate of only about 60 miles of additional beachoiling was "grossly inaccurate."
"The western shoreline of Prince William Sound, which is still subject to oiling, is 1,481 miles," the committee said.
Don Cornett, Exxon's spokesman in Valdez, acknowledged that new oiling or bad weather could mean some of the beaches will have to stay dirty all winter.
"If it went past September 15, it would mean coming back next spring," Cornett said.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, Yost hauled Otto Harrison, general manager of Exxon's Valdez operations, before a crowd of reporters to explain how Exxon would meet its deadline.
"Mr. Harrison assures me he can do that or he wouldn't put it in the plan," Yost said.
But Harrison, like other Exxon executives since the crisis began March 24, proved unable or unwilling to say much about what the company has in mind.
He said the cleanup would start April 22. When asked exactly what that meant, he said a vessel called an LCV would be deployed.
But he couldn't say what an LCV a landing craft was.
"I think it's better if you wait for the detailed briefing," he said in answer to that and other questions served up by the reporters.
When Yost was asked whether his confidence in the seemingly illinformed Harrison's ability to make the deadline was justified, he reiterated his faith.
"Mr. Harrison has assured me that he will do that," Yost repeated. "I say, let's give him a shot at it."
Even if Harrison shoots a bull'seye, Exxon will clean up only a fraction of the more than 10 million gallons of North Slope crude that poured into Sound's cold, clean water after an Exxon tanker tore itself open on a reef near here March 24. Exxon estimates in the plan that just over half the oil has been removed to other environments by natural forces or recovered by man. Of the 4.6 million gallons still on the loose, it estimates that 1.2 million gallons are on the Sound's beaches.
Several agencies criticized the plan for its narrow focus. It deals only with beachcleaning and only within Prince William Sound. Left unmentioned are how and when oilfouled beaches outside the Sound will be cleaned, how oil still at large in the Sound and elsewhere will be recovered, and how wastes sewage, garbage and oilsoaked materials resulting from the cleanup efforts will be handled.
The Coast Guard demanded that Exxon develop plans by May 1 for other areas hit or likely to be hit by oil and that it say how it will manage waste. The Coast Guard also wants the company to provide milestones so that the Coast Guard can gauge whether Exxon is keeping to its timetable.
Dennis Kelso, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the plan was a step in the right direction, but criticized it on many of the same points as the other agencies at yet another press conference Monday.
"Our basic message is that it falls short of providing the kind of detailed plan we need in order to have confidence the shoreline cleanup will be done effectively," Kelso said.
Kelso was particularly insistent that Exxon needs an inwater cleanup plan, as well as a shoreline plan. Otherwise, he said, beaches may be reoiled after they're cleaned.
"Is it likely that Exxon would make any other major corporate decision without a plan on how to proceed?" Kelso said. "I don't think so."
The state has repeatedly demanded such a plan from Exxon, so far without result, Kelso said.
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