HARD AGROUND - Wreck of the Exxon Valdez - March 24, 1989



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Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 07/31/89
Day: Monday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

HERRING BAY, KNIGHT ISLAND- Steak again. It was 4:30 p.m. A few dozen men and a couple of women dotted the long tables of an enormous cafeteria floating in this uninhabited bay of Prince William Sound on a barge big enough for a football game, including bleachers.

They bolted down thick, tender steaks in silence. It was routine.

Workers cleaning up the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez are used to the incongruities of life in a Howard Johnson's on the sea, but to an outsider it is unsettling to get off a boat in the wilderness and step into a room that looks like a high school cafeteria. A remote, rugged landscape so picturesque it would be hard to believe in an oil painting dissolves into a room with overbright fluorescent lighting, no windows, and a chrome and glass pastry case of pies, tarts and confections.

The Crowley 411 barge carries camp buildings from the construction of the transAlaska pipeline with beds for 438 people. It is a "floatel." It doesn't look like a collection of housing trailers tacked together it is one huge building floating around on the Sound. The rooms are like college dorm rooms, with a pair of bunk beds in each, and the corridors, long, wide and carpeted, are impossible to associate with the wild land outside.

The oil spill of the tanker Exxon Valdez has brought instant civilization to places where there had been none before. Instant and fleeting. Robby Nelson of NORCON, Exxon's union contractor, said the Herring Bay floatel which is a part of Task Force III, a union task force has been in service three weeks, and may be out of service in three more. He expects to finish cleaning the bay in August. The original plan was to anchor the floatel in the bay for the winter so it would be ready for next year, Nelson said, but now he has heard of plans to break everything down Sept. 15.

"They're talking about moving us to another area, but I can't really see it if we're going to demobilize," he said.

It takes a lot of buying to spend a billion dollars, but on the Sound as nowhere else they make it look easy. Exxon is halfway to the $1.3 billion it plans to spend on the oil spill cleanup and, with seven weeks left, is still adding equipment. A task force reputed to include an even bigger floatel is in the process of being mobilized.

Setting up a 438berth vessel only to take it apart within two months seems ordinary in a climate where everyone has a story of waste outrageous enough to make listeners shake their heads and smile in amazement. A cleanup worker told of cooks who, tired of the same old thing for dinner, cut up New York steaks to make stew. It is hard to tell how many of the stories are true, but the massive flow of money spilling out everywhere makes them easy to believe.

And, like a game show spending spree, people are finding that the spill can be fun. The sun has been hot and the food good and the oilspill cleanup workers were generally happy. They were making good money, sleeping on clean sheets, eating big, rich meals, having maids clean up after them, and meeting new friends roommates and fellow trench warriors, who some plan to keep. They are having a good summer.

A few even feel guilty for enjoying it.

floating hospital, which has four nurses, a paramedic, an ergonomics expert, two administrators, two secretaries, a helicopter mechanic and two pilots, a radio man, and various support staff. He brought his own secretary from Texas. Her white hair, all up on top of her head, her friendly smile and accent along with the paneling of the trailer units and lack of windows helped create the disorienting illusion that the barge was indeed Lee's country hospital in Texas, which, he said went broke.

"It's a neat place to work," said radioman Dave Wagner. "We've got good cooks and nice people, and nobody bothers us, because we're kind of independent. It's kind of like a MASH unit. The people are characters. Especially the doctor."

If the floating hospital is like the TV program "MASH," then Lee is the lead character, Hawkeye. He relishes it.

"We are a MASH unit, for damn sure," Lee said. "We are taught never to think in those terms, because it's beneath our dignity, but it's true."

Lee plays the fiddle and nurse Amy Szulczewski sings in the hospital band. Residents walk the halls singing their satiric compositions about the oil spill.

And, of course, they treat patients. Workers on the slippery beaches hurt their backs the most common injury and fall down and break their legs and other bones. They strain their muscles. They catch the crud the "snotty nose stuff," as Szulczewski, also a Texan, calls it. There has been an epidemic of bacterial infections among the workers since they first were loaded on crowded troop ships, and it continues, Szulczewski said.

"Everyone comes by boat," she said. "It's like bringing people by bus to a clinic. It's all at once."

Unless the weather closes in, the patients don't stay long. They are sent to shore hospitals, or back to work. The hospital is for triage, Lee said, just like you see on "MASH."

But, unlike the television program, the floating hospital also has a computerized ergonomics center with mysterious rubber and steel equipment able to test injuries, Szulczewski said.

"We can actually test their muscular, skeletal area, and if there's nothing wrong, we can say, "Hey, come on, Bud,' " she said.

But Lee said when a worker claims to be hurt, the hospital believes him. He said the equipment is only for determining the extent of the injuries.

"What we do which is very important for people out here is the feeling of security," he said. He speculated taking care of patients here is about 60 times as expensive as on shore.

A pair of tanned, tattooed men sat shirtless in the sun outside the break room on the floatel Green River, a barge in Northwest Bay on Eleanor Island which is part of nonunion Task Force IV. On the deck between the rows of ATCO housing trailers, they lay back and looked satisfied.

"I've worked 13 years to get a slice of pie like this one," said Danny Chesness, a merchant seaman from Biloxi, Miss. "We had a few bucks in the bank before I came up here, but when I leave I'm going to buy a house. I'm just going to buy it. I'm not going to have to make payments or nothing. Just keep up the taxes. Nobody gets to do that."

The work is just a matter of "doing the time," Chesness said. He works the night shift on an Omni barge, a machine that sprays the shore with a crane arm.

The other man, David Holm, represents Crowley Maritime on an Omni barge. When the barge needs to move, he has to work. But it rarely needs to move.

"I never had a job like this before," he said. "The hardest part is the boredom."

Holm, whose wife is in Seattle, often spends six months at a stretch at sea. Spill work has advantages.

"There are women around," he said. "You don't know what a difference that makes. If you've ever spent six months at sea with six other scurvy dogs, you know what that means. It helps keep your standards up."

Seafarers all over the Sound are enjoying the same kind of novel summer. They are on hand in the full force necessary to run the ships and tug boats each barge has a tug but the tug boats and ships almost never need to move. Some have been anchored in the same place for months.

"Your Alaskans are your ORTs," Holm said. The foot soldiers of the spill, the Oil Recovery Technicians, are known as ORTs. "And your foremen. But everybody else is from all over the country. Every one of them has a different story."

The Alaskans got their jobs in hiring halls across the state, but the mariners and workers with other specialized skills were drawn in by the casual net of the oil field and merchant marine business. They talk about friends telling them about the work, or former supervisors giving them a call.

The ORTs work hard. They drag hoses around in the hot sun, sweating in the full set of rubberized rain gear which is their standardissue protection against the hazards of the oil. They come home exhausted and complain that Exxon has started buying cheaper rain gear they used to get Helly Hansens and the new stuff leaks.

In the higher level jobs, Texans seem more numerous than Alaskans. "My whole staff out here, except for this guy and two more, are from southwest Texas," effused Nelson, the NORCON manager. "It's the Texas contingent."

Rick Chapman is an Exxon production manager from Mississippi on his first trip north of Gatlinburg, Tenn., and he sounds like it. He is on his third "tour," or "hitch," as Exxon officials refer to their three week trips to Alaska, and praises the state with the delight of a happy tourist.

"It's great. It's fantastic. I'd like to load my family up and come up here if I could," he said. "And the people are so nice. I didn't expect that. Not just 'cause of the spill. But everyone is nice, even the fishermen.

"They don't like the oil, but then nobody does. I don't either. Oil on the beaches?" He shook his head.

Brenda Keehr of Fairbanks sat on the sun deck of the Crowley 411 sipping a soda and talking with a friend on a break from pumping dirty shower water and sewage between holding tanks on the shower barge.

"Actually, I've had a good summer," she said. "Our first crew, we're still real close to them. We try to stay in touch, and stay together."

She doesn't live on the Crowley 411 anymore. "I moved over to the Midway," Keehr said. "It's smaller and has more character to it."

On the Sound, it is possible to look at a boat and guess what kind of people live on board. Fishermen live on the fishing boats in cramped little bunks. Marines, sailors and unlucky beach workers sleep on "the racks" on the last Navy troop ship left working on the spill. Other beach workers live on the floatels and factoryprocessor fishing ships. Some also live on luxurious cruise ships, where managers and Exxon officials can usually be found.

The Colonial Explorer is said to have lace sheets. The Columbia has a forest of teak moulding, and each stateroom has its own bathroom there are no public bathrooms on board. "This is nice," said security guard John Chapman, of Palmer. "People pay to live like this."

LaBorde was sunbathing on the forward deck. She has a good tan and her sandy hair is bleaching blond. It was midafternoon and her next job would be to feed the young crew of DEC workers they are between 20 and 30 a dinner of Cajunstyle snapper.

"It's a horrible thing to be enjoying, but you can't help it," she said.

Mike Rentel is not enjoying his summer. He is engineer on the Nautilus. During the winter he was station manager at Antarctica's Palmer Station, where an Argentine ship bearing tourists ran aground and spilled more than 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and he had to take care of the tourists and save what he could of the research area that was tainted by fuel. When he returned to the U.S., an oil spill near his home in Valdez was also out of control, also because of a late cleanup attempt.

He is a quiet, reasonable man, but he could not hide his bitterness.

"They have been doing a terrific job of trying to cover this one up," Rentel said. "In the Antarctica spill they slanted it in the opposite direction. On that spill, they made a lot more of it than it was. But this spill, they're playing it down. I've seen the tar on these beaches, and then I hear them say it's going to be washed off over the winter? I don't think so."

Rentel's comments made LaBorde even shyer of saying why she was enjoying herself although her feelings appear to be more common than his among those living on the spill.

"I don't want to tell you the corny reason I'm here. OK, I'll tell you," she said, in her creamy Macon, Ga., accent. "I came up here last year, and I did the glacier tours and everything else, and I wanted to make it clean again. I wanted it to be clean so other people could see it the way I did.

"Plus, you meet all these people when you go out and do these things, and it's fun. I don't know why it's fun, but it's fun."

Story Index:
Main | The Clean-Up
Overall: story 129 of 380 Previous Next
The Clean-Up story 26 of 40 Previous Next

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