Three fishermen sitting in a pair of rubber rafts and picking up oil with buckets and flour scoops are doing about as well at cleaning up Prince William Sound as the elaborate skimmers used by Exxon.
Tom Copeland said he didn't know the first thing about cleaning up oil, but a week ago he became fed up with Exxon's lack of success at removing the more than 10 million gallons the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled into the Sound March 24. He took to the water in his seine boat with a few friends, two inflatable skiffs, a bunch of buckets intended for herring roe, and flour scoops.
With those tools, they have recovered 5,500 gallons of oil, and say they could have gotten more but they kept running out of buckets. They sold the oil to Exxon for $5 a gallon.
Wednesday, Copeland's group got 1,500 gallons and had buckets stacked five deep on the back deck of his 47foot boat, the Janice N., when it came into Valdez Harbor.
The same day, Exxon's 47 skimmers gathered an average of 2,175 gallons a large improvement over last week. But that average is high, because Exxon includes in its recovery figures all the oil gathered by itself, the state's operation, and the fishermen.
On one day recently, the state's own operation which it has now turned over to Exxon recovered more than half the oil that came out of the Sound, said Pete McGee, coordinator for the Department of Environmental Conservation.
The state's work, centered on the ferry Aurora, used vacuum trucks and absorbants most of the time, because Exxon's skimmers could not be relied on to show up, said Dennis Kelso, commissioner of the DEC. He described volunteers working by hand for the state while nearby an Exxon barge full of workers stood idle because they were waiting for a pump.
"The lowtech is real flexible, and if you use it with local conditions and local people, then you can do things somebody from outside can't," Kelso said.
Copeland's explanation was simpler.
"All you need is a little boom material, gather up some oil till it's 4 or 5 inches deep, and scoop it up with a bucket," he said. "Nothing could be easier. Everybody in Alaska should be here doing it."
Copeland is a sturdy, outspoken man who has fished for 28 years and won't take a lot of guff. He ate an Italian dinner in the sunshine Thursday, standing over a fish tote of about 50 gallons of oil which the fishermen filled after running out of buckets.
Copeland said he and his crew are slower than the skimmers, but the skimmers have nowhere to put the oil once they get it out of the water. The expensive machines line up at tanker barges for hours waiting to unload while the fishermen are still steadily filling buckets, they and DEC officials said.
Besides, most of the skimmers aren't working most of the time. Of 47 skimmers Exxon listed as "deployed" Wednesday, only 21 were also listed as "skimming." Many were broken down, full, being moved, or waiting for oil to arrive. The skimming apparatus tend to become fouled by the thick, weathered oil, and the skimmers can't work when the water is rough unlike fishermen with buckets.
But there is no clear picture of how the skimming is going, because Exxon officials refuse to tell the state or the Coast Guard how much oil each skimmer recovers. The government officials were rebuffed in a request for the information Wednesday night at a meeting.
"I don't know what that number is going to give you," Exxon's Jim O'Brien told Kelso. He also said the information would be too difficult to obtain, and that it would be "unfair to the device" to compare skimming operations.
Currently, Exxon only provides one number the total number of barrels recovered without breaking it down as to where or how the oil was picked up, who did it, or how much water it contained.
DEC coordinator Jeff Mach said he saw the fishermen working with buckets and was impressed. Their oil had very little water in it, he said.
Christine Karlson came from Seattle to work with Copeland on the herring fishery for the first time this year. She is a slight woman with metalrimmed glasses and a thick blond ponytail that trails through the hole in the back of her adjustable baseball cap.
Karlson spent the last week in the Zodiac inflatable boat, digging goop so thick it would leave a dent when she picked it up with the scoop.
"You scoop around the back of the skiff, and make a hole where you scooped it out, then you scoop around the other end until the hole in the glop has filled in," she said.
She is worried about her health when she works with the oil. One of the crew members got a rash on her face.
"It's kind of scary," Karlson said. "It's really scary. But you can't stop, because there's a lot of oil left, and we're making a difference."
Jim Gray and Christine Rogers are using the 40foot seiner Sea First to pick up the full buckets from the Janice N. and supply them with clean, empty buckets. But they couldn't keep up with the work. Gray, a tall, balding man with a booming voice, said he wandered the Sound looking for someone to take the oil and give back a receipt for the $5agallon bounty.
"We're in this big bureaucracy mess. "What about form seven?' As soon as we're on this Exxon barge, it's all this paperwork," he said.
"Our greatest scam was we put 400 buckets on the . . . garbage barge. We just kept loading them on as fast as we could before he realized he didn't want it. Then we said, "We can't take it, we'll sink.' I don't know what he finally did with it."
The Sea First has carried most of the buckets to the container dock in Valdez a trip of half a day from Perry Island, where the Janice N. was gathering oil from the tide rips. Empty buckets were plentiful, because they are used at this time of year for delivering herring roe on kelp, the fishermen said.
"Cordova is chock full of them, and it's also chock full of fishermen waiting to do something," Copeland said.
He was a member of the board of Cordova District Fishermen United until he became disgusted with that group's inaction and quit to go bounty hunting for oil.
On the dock Thursday, he was working on another scheme. Red Starr, a sewage hauler from the Matanuska Valley, has been trying to sell his services unsuccessfully to Exxon in Valdez for weeks, he said, but found Copeland willing to listen, and soon they were making arrangements for Starr's pumps to be placed on a boat to suck oil out of the booms where Copeland would corral it. Then the oil could be forced into a 112,000gallon agricultural silage bag belonging to Copeland.
Copeland couldn't stand still. He was too anxious to get back out on the water, gathering up oil.
"I've given up on civilization," he said.
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