A storm in Gulf of Alaska Sunday chased the giant Soviet oil skimmer Vaydaghubsky and smaller vessels away from the area where most of the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez a month ago has congregated.
"We sent them out to take a look, and decided it was too dangerous," said Coast Guard Lt. John Kwietniak. He was aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric research ship Rainier, which was directing the cleanup effort and which was itself holed up in safe waters.
Even when it was working on Saturday, the Vaydaghubsky found the thick, weathered and debrisladen oil too much to handle. Cleanup officials have called the vessel the best hope for picking up oil on the high seas, but its pumps clogged after sucking up about 12 barrels. Plans were made Sunday to try to use the vessel as a oil collector, relying on other vessels to skim up the accumulated oil scum.
Sunday's storm, kicking up 35knot winds and 18 foot seas, will make that free floating concentration of weathered oil even harder to find. "It's really churning and stirring," said NOAA oceanographer Jerry Galt, in Valdez.
The storm probably will break up and scatter the floating oil, he said. And the waves and surf could scour clean some of the rocky points and exposed beaches that have been coated by oil drifting southwest out of Prince William Sound, where the tanker ran aground March 24.
Homer based observers flying over part of the area at midday Sunday reported that the tarry remnants of the 10 million gallon spill of North Slope crude oil appeared to be breaking up, said Don Seagren, of the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Homer.
NOAA plotted the oil in a halfmoon shape, covering an area about 50 miles long and 30 miles wide. The wind change to the southeast raised the chance that some of that oil will move up into Cook Inlet, Seagren said.
Currents have carried oil into coves and onto beaches along the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula, down the length of Kenai Fjords National Park and up Resurrection Bay as far as Seward. That migration, in mileslong patches through Montague Strait, peaked almost two weeks ago, Galt said.
"Now, most of what is getting out, is out," he said.
What's left in the Sound, mostly concentrated in the northwest corner, was oil that initially trapped by islands when the spill drifted south, but has in the past several days been pushed northwest by the wind, he said.
With time and distance from the Sound, the nature of the spill and the damage it causes has changed. Where beaches in the Sound were painted with a thick coating of black oil that is proving almost impossible to clean up, those along the Kenai coast have have been generally covered with a thinner film and blobs of tar, ranging from peas to cow pies in size.
On the broad beach near Bear Glacier in Resurrection Bay, oil like pond scum coats the flat terraces pounded into shape by the waves. It coats the kelp and seaweed at the tide line, turing it from yellow to dark brown. Splotches of tar, like smelly, sticky brown gelatin, coat the pebbles, the driftwood and the plastic trash. Turn over a stone, and tar balls coat the bottom like small brown snails. Dig several inches deep in the sand, and your fingers come up stained.
"We'd call this one lightly oiled," said Jennifer Roberts, a DEC hydrologist who was surveying the beach Saturday to record oil deposits. Other beaches down the coast are designated as having medium or heavy oilings.
Except near Seward, no cleanup effort has been directed to beaches along the the Gulf coast. At present, Exxon is concerned more with getting oil out of the water, said Amos Plante, the company's spokesman in Seward.
As the oil has changed form, according to industry and independent scientists, it has become less poisonous than in the early days of the spill. Most of the benzene, toluene, xylene and other especially toxic components evaporated in the first several days, according to Jim Payne, a San Diego researcher working for NOAA. Payne's study of the weathering of North Slope crude has become part of the standard reference library for research on this spill.
Yet, weathered and less toxic it may be, biologists and officials with the National Park Service, the DEC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service note that the oil is proving very capable of killing creatures on land and sea, and fouling beaches.
If nothing else, said Doug Lockwood, the DEC's Seward supervisor, "It can smother them."
By Saturday evening, 1,220 dead sea birds birds had been collected along the Gulf coast southwest from the Sound to Nuka Island near the southern tip of the Kenai, according to Tom Early of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said 31 dead otters have been recovered so far from the same area, which biologists estimate is home to more than 400.
Even though the oil has thickened, as its solvents evaporated and dissolved into the water, and has turned into turned into a puddinglike oilwater emulsion and into tar balls, it is still coating fur and feathers, Early said. Diving ducks are especially vulnerable, because in diving for food they they coat their entire bodies.
"They are proving to very effective wicks," Early said. The oil mats the birds feathers, robbing them of insulation; they die from hypothermia.
Similarly, he said, the oil mats and gums up otters' fur, making it useless insulation against the icy water.
Otters groom themselves, licking oil off their coats, said Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Dean Cramer, who is convinced the oil itself is poisoning the animals. "They are also picking oil up from what they eat," he said, such as shellfish in the intertidal areas coated with oil.
Most of the dead birds are murres, Early said, though more species are being found as the seasonal seabird migration gets into full swing.
Exxon's bird rehabilitation center, open just a few days, has cleaned 37 birds, Plante said. That number will rise as more boats bring in birds, he predicted.
As officials, biologists and rescue crews bring in otters and birds, dead or alive cataloging them all carefully to back up financial and legal claims that are sure to result from the spill attention has turned to a new category of animals threatened by the spill.
They are the scavengers, including bears, foxes, coyotes and bald eagles. "Many of the birds are being scavenged almost as soon as they wash up," said Bud Rice of the National Park Service.
The national bird, for all its noble bearing, loves to eat carrion, even carrion coated in oil. By Sunday, one eagle had been reported dead, though the cause was undetermined. Another, sighted in a shoreline snag by State Parks Director Neil Johannsen, was reported as being obviously ill. Those numbers will mount, said biologists, though the eagles will probably be found dead at the base of their roosts instead of on the beaches.
"Many of the (sea) birds are being scavenged almost as soon as they wash up," said Bud Rice of the National Park Service.
According to Cramer, "The otter (recovery) boats find otters by looking for eagles on the beaches."
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