HERRING BAY, KNIGHT ISLAND-
Everyone sees the finish line, but only in their minds. When they try to find it on the 700 miles of shore oiled by the Exxon Valdez, the goal is invisible and indefinable. Cleanup workers, scientists and admirals have been made into sleuths by the search.
But oily rocks and cold waves are not a good subject for a mystery. They are stubbornly mute. Even after $600 million has been spent in pursuit of the finish line, not much more is known about where it is than when the work started.
For a time after the March 24 oil spill of the Exxon Valdez, government and Exxon officials talked about cleaning off every drop of oil and restoring Prince William Sound, but scientists who had seen spills before knew cleaning would stop much sooner. They defined the finish line as the day when the pounding efforts to wash oil off the shore caused more destruction than leaving the oil behind.
It would be time to stop when the cleanup was doing more harm than good.
A few observers now say that the finish line has been reached. The ugliness of seeing uninhabited bays turned into industrial work sites is enough to discourage them. Others still want every beach as clean as it was before the spill, even though that appears to be impossible without dismantling the wilderness.
Opinion divides geographically, as well as between agencies and interest groups. In Kodiak and the western Kenai Peninsula, residents have never been happy with the amount of work being done on the spill. They ask how the work can be declared done when, in their view, it never really started.
But as time passes, the oil everywhere is becoming harder to pick up, and the methods at work are growing harsher.
Officials with the state and federal governments and Exxon now concede that washing beaches has limited usefulness, and that the limit will probably come before next summer. The end of beach washing would mean the end of the massive employment surge brought by the spill, and would be cheaper for Exxon.
Most officials involved in the spill now are pinning their hopes on new methods that could simplify the cleanup and be easier on the shore. Solvents and oileating microbes could still help clean up the oil, and the state is under pressure to speed approval of their use before summer ends and winter reduces their effectiveness.
Solvents have been tested twice and didn't work. Exxon has invented a new, stronger solvent with a kerosene base that is stripped of its most toxic compounds. But it would have to be reinvented to be even stronger if it were to be used next year.
The oileating microbes hold more promise. The Environmental Protection Agency has tested fertilizers on a shore on Knight Island that aid the growth of the organisms, which are naturally present in the environment. The results were good, and the negative impacts would probably be limited to such sideeffects as promoting the growth of algae along with the oileaters.
But EPA officials warn that the technique, called bioremediation, should not be seen as a panacea, even if it is spill scientists' last hope. It will hasten the stabilization of the oil by helping it turn to asphalt, but is not expected to leave shores clean.
So far, workers have used only manual and mechanical methods whose efficiency has never been carefully measured. A first test of the most severe techniques was conducted a week ago.
Soon after the spill, Exxon proposed, and government agencies agreed, to flush the beaches with cold salt water. In theory, the water would go under the oil and float it off, so it then could be captured in booms and skimmers offshore.
The plan seemed dubious to many who had stood on heavily oiled beaches, including Adm. Paul Yost, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, who called for the use of hotwater blasting as soon as he saw the oil. As one Cordova resident said, if you spill motor oil on a gravel driveway you don't clean it up by pouring cold water on it. Why should a beach be different?
But officials easily agreed that the technique would do little harm, and Exxon maintained it would work, although many scientists said privately they didn't expect it to do much good. An Environmental Protection Agency manual on cleaning oil spills listed the technique as useful on lightgrade oils where contamination is light.
But the Exxon Valdez spill is the largest ever in the United States, the oil is heavy, and it is stuck to the cold, rocky shores harder than any spill most experts have ever seen. For spills of this kind, the manual called for removing the oily rocks and replacing them with clean ones.
Doubts about coldwater flushing proved wellfounded. When work first started, crews practiced on a lightly oiled beach on Naked Island and succeeded only in spreading the oil from a narrow band into a previously clean area that had been rich in intertidal life.
Later, workers removed oil so thick that it stood in puddles on the ground. When they started work, cleaners could see streams of oil coming off the beach to be picked up by skimmers, and by the end of the day the beaches looked relatively clean. But the next morning, the oil always returned. In places oil has sunk into beaches to the depth of 4 feet, and it seeps to the surface with the next tide after workers leave.
Everyone was frustrated; escalation began. The water got hotter and the pressure got higher. The spill fight turned to heavy artillery: Barges were mounted with massive hot water heaters, pumps and booms that are normally used to pump cement, to shoot the water at the rocks from above. Although used primarily on steep, inaccessible shores, they are the key weapon against the spill now, and they work around the clock. Their spray is more powerful, but of the same kind as the foot workers now use.
Jacqui Michel, an oilspill scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, was one of the first to call attention to the danger of escalating from coldwater flushing to hotwater blasting.
"Once we accepted the technology, we've allowed this creep of more pressure and higher temperature," she said. "It's causing a lot of impact, yet it's the approved method, so it's hard to slow down the use of it."
The barge's blast of hot water may be cooking and dislodging creatures that live on the shore, as well as causing erosion, and, worst of all, washing oily sediment into clean areas on the shore and below the tide line in the sea, Michel said.
Ed Owens, an Exxon technical adviser, disputes the existence of the problem. Oily sand may be washed into clean intertidal areas, but it washes out again, he said. He does not believe much oil is being washed to the sea floor by the work.
Owens said it all depends on using equipment the right way. Workers are supposed to avoid spraying hot water into the "green zone" the area of seaweed, mussels and tide pools which is the richest part of the shore. They are supposed to work when the tide is right and the green zone is covered. They also shouldn't linger with the spray in one spot, and should use a glancing blow rather than direct pounding, experts agree.
But as Owens said, every barge operator is different. Observations of half a dozen work sites where spray barges were at work in recent weeks showed that the rules are not generally followed. Barges at Knight and Eleanor islands were seen pounding the green zone with a direct, unmoving blast of hot water, surely destroying anything in their path.
NOAA arranged a test of one of the hotwater blasters, called Omni barges, to provide the first scientific measure of the waterwashing cleanup. Michel and oceanographer Jerry Galt painted pink spots on the rocks of a heavily oiled beach to see what would happen. Divers went into the water to take video tapes of the sea floor, in hopes of showing oily sediments that might be washed off and sink. Biologists counted the creatures and plants in the intertidal zone.
Four groups weighed and measured oily rocks, using four different methods, to determine how much oil was in the beach before and after the test. Their efforts to find the surface area of the average rock and the thickness of its coat of oil led to long calculations a calculus student's nightmare problem.
The barge swarmed with scientists and high Exxon officials. Some of the workers were grumpy about the invasion, but others showed off their extraordinary equipment with pride. Troubleshooter Hank Wright rattled off the capabilities of the six oilfired hotwater heaters that roared like jet engines. Each takes 40degree water from the sea and heats 100 gallons of it to 160 degrees every minute. The water rockets from the nozzle at a pressure of 80 pounds per square inch and a temperature of 140 degrees.
The test began with the night shift Omni barge crew. They were asked to work a stretch of beach for the usual time. When the crew's shift ended, they said the beach was almost done. But the day crew that took over said the beach wasn't nearly done hours of work were needed.
How anyone could see how much more work was needed was not clear. The Omni barge sets up a cloud of soursmelling steam that shrouds everything on the black beaches like fog from a horror movie.
Then the barge went aground and work had to stop with the night crew saying the beach was clean but the day crew not ready to stop. The NOAA scientists were unsure which crew's decision was most representative of a real cleanup situation. It didn't matter, though the barge was stuck till the next tide and work must cease anyway. The rocks on the beach, even in a cold rain, were as warm as bath water after the treatment.
The inconsistency of work crews is one of the basic problems of finding the spill's finish line. On the Kenai Peninsula, some crews wiping rocks report that they have been told never to turn over a rock and wipe off the bottom, while others have removed layers of beach for disposal.
The crews themselves are sure they know what is best.
"It's not all that difficult. It's pretty cut and dried," said Ray Farr, who tended the boom for the Omni barge. "Your boom is your boom and your tide is your tide, and after a few days you pretty much get the lay of the land, and after a few weeks, you definitely do."
Jerry Swan, a retired construction worker who is supervising a crew of 80 workers in Task Force II working the Sound's Upper Passage this summer, is convinced that after weeks of innovating and working with Department of Environmental Conservation monitors, he knows more about getting oil off the shore than any number of "armchair scientists."
"We're trying, and we're recovering oil," he said. "People say the heck with it, let's close it down and let Mother Nature take care of it. Well, Mother Nature is not taking care of it."
Swan and Steve Provant, the state's onscene coordinator, agree that time will leave liquid oil below the surface of the beaches. It does not weather and harden among the cold rocks as fast as it does on the surface among the rocks it still seems fresh and the oil may leach out, possibly causing more damage, Provant said.
Oil that hardens will be ugly for a long time, but is thought not to pose a threat to wildlife. Oil is already turning to asphalt on the upper third of the beaches, Owens said. Hastening the hardening of the oil is one goal of new methods to "clean" the spill.
But Swan wants the oil out, and although he believes his crew is better than others, he thinks the work of all the crews does more good than harm.
"You're talking about damage, or death," he said. "On one beach we washed out 68 barrels. But we washed that beach down 10 feet. We didn't bury the green line, and when I went back there, the sand was going back where it was."
On balance, he thought the beach was better off.
At the Omni barge test, the beach had less oil on it when the work was done, but the rocks were still black and, no doubt, oil remained below the surface.
Michel said the test showed that most of the good done by washing the beach takes place in the first hour to 90 minutes of washing. Crews who keep pounding beaches with the Omni barge for four hours or more probably gain only cosmetic improvements and run the risk of hurting the beach much more, she said.
The test may lead to new instructions for beach workers on how to minimize damage while treating as many beaches as possible. The instructions will come four months after the spill and less than seven weeks before all work is to stop.
With time running out, the goal is modest. The test was intended to improve the hope of removing surface oil puddles to reduce the spread of oil to clean areas. That goal, most scientists agree, is worth the harm beaches will sustain.
But if removing puddles is the goal of washing the beaches, the work may not be worthwhile on lightly and moderately oiled beaches, where there are few oil puddles to be removed and the blackness is in strips, not entire swaths of beach.
Besides, state and Coast Guard officials say Exxon will be hardpressed to finish with the worst areas before the Sept. 15 deadline it has set. They expect Exxon to have to return to removing gross contamination next year.
But despite last week's storm of publicity about Exxon's plans for work next year, officials on all three sides have expectations that are surprisingly similar.
There probably will be no need for massive numbers of troops on the shores with hoses. More likely, there will be fewer workers spreading biological oil cleaners on the beaches and waiting to see what happens.
Then, as it appeared from the first, the finish line will have to find itself.
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