Hot-water washing of Alaska beaches saturated with oil after the Exxon Valdez spill two years ago did more harm than good, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday.
The agency said the high-pressure washing of hundreds of miles of beaches "cooked" creatures living in the rocks and sand and will add years to the time it takes the beaches to recover.
Sylvia Earle, the agency's chief scientist, said saturated beaches that were not treated are recovering faster than those that were. "Where there was hot- water treatment, the abundance and diversity of life is significantly lower," she said.
John H. Robinson, chief of the agency's hazardous materials branch in Seattle, Wash., said "the indication is that the treatment process (caused) most of the problems."
The spill occurred after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. About 11 million gallons of thick oil gushed into the waterway.
As that oily mess washed up onto beaches, Exxon Co. and the state and federal governments searched for ways to quickly end the environmental carnage that followed. Hundreds of thousands of birds and mammals perished in the goo.
State and federal scientists agreed with Exxon Co. that hot-water washing of the beaches was a way to clean up the mess and preserve vital wildlife habitat.
As a result, Exxon equipped vessels with steam-generation plants that combed the sound, spraying hot water at high pressure to wash away the oil into the sea where it either could be picked up by skimmers or swept out to the Pacific Ocean by tidal action.
"On balance, it was a mistake," said Robinson.
Nine, 100-yard-long areas in the Sound that were heavily saturated were set aside from any treatment. Recent studies indicate that those areas are recovering more quickly than those that were treated with the pressurized hot water, he said.
Robinson said the agency has not been able to quantify how extensive the damage is. He said, however, that it may take treated beaches three or four years longer to recover than those that weren't.
Such predictions are uncertain and depend in large measure on where the beaches are, he said. Those that are subject to heavy wave action recover more quickly than those in more protected areas where the recovery period may be 10 years or longer.
He said, however, that the untreated areas within the spill zone now more closely resemble those that escaped contamination than those saturated and cleansed by the hot-water hoses.
Exxon was not to blame in the decision to use the hot-water treatment, the NOAA officials said.
Exxon immediately assumed responsibility for the spill cleanup following the tanker grounding, but the cleanup operation was directed by the Coast Guard, which relied on NOAA for its scientific assessments.
"In this instance, we used the best technology that was available," said NOAA general counsel Tom Campbell. "What we are doing now is going back and critically analyzing what we did so that we can do a better job the next time."
Earle said that hot-water washing of oil-polluted beaches had been tried before but not on the massive scale employed during the $2 billion Exxon Valdez cleanup.
"If we had predicted the negative impact, we would not have recommended it," she said.
Many of the populations of tiny, tidal creatures that were scalded to death by the 150-degree water are the life forms that other sea birds and marine mammals depend on for their food, the NOAA scientists said.
Among the hardest hit were clams that Robinson said would take "many, many years to come back to pre-spill condition."
"Sometimes the best, and ironically the most difficult, thing to do in the face of an environmental disaster is to do nothing," Earle said.
"Certainly, as far as Alaska's shoreline is concerned, the environment would have been better off if there had been less aggressive hot-water treatment and we had let nature take it course," she said.
But Earle said the experience in Alaska has not been in vain.
She said scientists believed the hot-water treatment would speed the environmental recovery. Now that studies have proved otherwise, she said "it is probably not a system we'd recommend in the future."
story 225 of 380
story 36 of 40