In the floating village of hopes and uncertainty here on this little bay on Naked Island, they're starting to learn four weeks after the spill of the Exxon Valdez that no one will get Prince William Sound's beaches clean.
A stretch of rocky beach that has been washed six times is still mostly black. Oil that was like glossy enamel now is like flat finish paint. Biologists who have dug under the top layer of rocks say the cold water technique has moved some oil off the surface, but left more underneath.
And this beach was lightly hit.
Friday, as they have for a week, about 40 workers stood below a cascade of salt water from a 4inch flexible pipe punched full of holes, and sprayed the ground with small fire hoses. Pumps on landing craft just offshore roared to supply the water. The beach was circled by a yellow floating boom, and a small skimming vessel stood ready to pick up the oil washed from the beach.
But not much washed from the beach, and the skimmer hadn't started working by late afternoon.
More than a dozen scientists stood off to the side at midday, diffidently watching workers, keeping to themselves, and discussing what they would do if they were in charge.
Jill Parker, of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, walked back to her helicopter one of four on a nearby beach frustrated and dispirited. She's been on the Sound a lot since the spill, and she had seen this beach before washing began.
She said it is better in some ways, worse in others.
"It's a little frustrating, because the oil was in a narrow band, and now it's spread out down to the water," she said. "It's been redistributed."
Asked if she would sign off on this beach as being clean enough, Parker stood in her baggy orange flight suit and thought for a long moment while her companions waited at the helicopter. Finally she nodded.
The scientists would have placed this beach on the third tier of a ranking of priority, said Fred Stroud, an Environmental Protection Agency official from Atlanta. But workers needed a beach relatively close to Valdez 50 miles where they could start learning how to clean. The oil is at worst a black coating, and in some areas, where it is in small spots on the stones, is less obtrusive than the washed up milk jugs, car parts and fishing nets.
But on Smith Island, a few miles to the south, nothing is left clean or alive in the 50foot strip below the high tide line. Even the trees are spattered with tar. Oil the color and consistency of cold chocolate syrup lies in a thick layer over the rocks and fills the cracks between them with pools deep enough to swallow a foot. It seeps steadily back into the ocean. The petroleum stench is potent. The beach is silent; nothing moves or speaks or lives.
On one short stretch of beach Friday, three dead birds turned up underfoot. A loon, nearly shapeless in a blob of oil, melted into the rocks around it. The long, sinewy neck of a cormorant arched between two rocks. The bird lay on its back, wings outstretched as if it had been crucified.
R.G. Reid said it hurt to see Smith Island. He had come back from his retirement sailing trip in Mexico and was redrafted into the Department of Environmental Conservation to help with the spill. He is one of those lovers of the Sound who draw enthusiasm for work from the pain, but he said it still hurts.
"It sure enough does," he said. "I didn't realize how much until I got over to Smith Island."
Now, like other scientists, Reid wants to get cleaning crews to Smith as soon as possible, before sea lions have their pups, and try to lick them clean of oil, and die of it. The scientists said they don't really care how severe the cleaning methods are on Smith Island everything there is dead already.
And because Smith Island is so bad, Reid isn't discouraged with the oil still left on the Naked Island beach that has been washed.
"If we could get that to look like this, we would have made great strides," he said.
Workers for Veco, Exxon's contractor, brought a small landing craft up to a rock outcropping near the beach washing, fired up a generator and a hot water heater, and started a jet of 180degree water from a wand like the ones used in a doityourself car wash. They trained it on an oily patch of seaweed and blasted.
A Native man from the Sound village of Tatitlek said the seaweed turned the same light green it does when he cooks it with herring roe.
Tatitlek has supplied about 40 of Veco's $250aday workers, said Steve Totemoff, who has lived there all his life and gets most of his food from the Sound by fishing, seal hunting and digging clams. He wore a Veco hard hat and watched the fire hoses so he can do the same work all summer, but doesn't expect the method to have much effect. He had hoped the Sound would really be cleaned so his daughter, now 9, could see it and live off its wildlife the way he always has.
He kicked over a rock in the area that has been washed. Thick, black oil lay underneath.
"It looks to me like all this is doing is driving the oil further down," Totemoff said. "If you look over where they're done cleaning, it's 2 feet down. But it's making jobs for a lot of people who need money. Some of them really need money. They're losing a way of life."
Bill Green also sat and watched. He is a firefighter from the downtown Anchorage station who was laid off in February when the city was trying to deal with a revenue shortage caused by a drop in the price of oil. Now, his job is to watch out for bears that might attack the workers.
Green said he hasn't seen any bears and doesn't know what he would do if he did see one, since he has no weapon.
"I'd like to have a shotgun, myself," Green said, sitting on a driftwood log. "I have no desire at all to kill 'em, but there's a trade off here. This (activity) isn't going to bother brown bear. If he's going to come down he'll come down, and if he does, it'd be nice to be able to do something more than yell nasty names at him."
Fortunately, locals and biologists say there are no brown bear on Naked Island.
Arley McAdams, the 38year Exxon man who heads the shoreline cleanup, said he thought the bear guards were armed with mace. He stood above the workers on a rock outcropping with his clip board, surveying them like a field marshal. Confusion over such a point as bear weapons is not surprising in this militaryscale mobilization of manpower.
Veco General Manager Bert Hartley is dealing with the details. "Eisenhower had more time than we did," he said.
Hartley stood in a cardboardcarpeted companionway aboard the Seattlebased tour boat Glacier Bay Explorer. The 125foot boat sleeps and feeds 68 workers. Two others boats in the bay do the same. But they are more like floating pipeline camps than troop ships.
Workers said the food is excellent and the accommodations comfortable. They can even buy chewing tobacco on board. The only problem is the daily race to the showers after work there is enough hot water only for the first skiff loads of workers back from the beach.
Hartley is working on that problem, along with everything else. He is planning to put together a barge with a lavatory trailer on it that will pull up next to the ships.
It all reminds him of setting up pipeline construction camps.
"When I came back to Valdez this time it was like deja vu," Hartley said. "It was hectic, no place to park, the cafes full. I worked on that one, but then we had a year to plan. This one, I started Easter Sunday and I haven't been home."
Veco has hired every available tour boat north of Portland, Ore., and now has enough lined up to accommodate 1,600 of the 4,000 workers Exxon plans to put on the shoreline cleanup job this summer, Hartley said.
But the mobilization and the slow process of learning to wash beaches is too gradual for the scientists, who say Smith Island must be done within three weeks to save the seal birthing area. They expected crews to start working there a week ago.
Friday the village of boats and aircraft planned to move to Smith Island to start work, but the weather was closing in and they had not begun to budge by late afternoon. Smith Island is more exposed to wind and waves than Naked Island.
Little had been accomplished. Although Exxon claims to have washed more than 2,000 feet of beach, the beach that has been washed is only a few hundred feet long a walk of about a minute, stumbling over stones. More than 300 miles more remain in the Sound to be cleaned the state is still tallying the damage and more on exposed shores in the tempestuous Gulf of Alaska, where, unlike the Sound, there are few protected anchorages and the wind and waves of storms can sink large boats.
And even this short beach was no one's idea of clean.
Scientists were talking about using more heat, and their expectations had sagged to the breaking point.
"Between now and the onset of winter, our objective is to clean some of the oil off the most grossly contaminated beaches," said Reid, the retired DEC official.
He had thick glasses, a grey goatee and wore a baseball cap and a full set of yellow foul weather gear. He looked like the retired Alaska scientist and mariner he is, and despite his sadness, he was still encouraged to be learning about beach cleanup.
He looked at the men and women with hoses who were trying to knock loose from the rocks a substance like dried epoxy glue.
"Probably everything in the world that is known about this has been learned right here," he said.
But why was so little known before the spill?
"That's surprising, isn't it?" he said.
Reid was left standing alone where the scientists had picnicked.
"Let's look and see where we ate lunch," he said, and retrieved a plastic foam cup from a driftwood stump. "You have to be careful and diligent."
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