The dry rocks on the shore of this unnamed cove in Prince William Sound are a deceptively hopeful sight. Yes, they are still brown with oil, but the oil is hard. A visitor could sit down for a rest and not ruin his pants.
He could come and go without knowing this beach is still a spongelike reservoir of the oil spilled five months ago from the tanker Exxon Valdez.
Under the big rocks on the surface of the beach there is a deep bed of peasized gravel. A handful of it feels as slimy as wet macaroni, looks the same shade of brown as dead leaves gone to rot and smells like warm motor oil.
This oil has been untouched by the cleanup. The massive effort this summer to remove loose oil from the surface of the beaches was the easy part. It left behind far more than it washed off.
But no next step is clear. Technology offers no practical way to clean down deep without destroying the beach. Officials are hoping big storms this winter will wash much of the oil back into the ocean, where it can at least be dispersed.
Without being removed, the buried oil threatens to bleed out for years, exposing animals that live on the beach to a slow, constant dose of poison. Oil blobs that wash off later could continue to disrupt fisheries. Hidden from the sun and air, oil weathers slowly. It could take years for it to turn hard and settle in place, but that is the best fate possible for some beaches.
Now the oil is still so liquid that high tides and heavy rains often lift fresh layers to the surface. Beaches where sticky rocks turn hard and the surface oil becomes relatively harmless are constantly threatened from below.
The oil spill has overcome the ability of people to deal with it or even to understand it.
Not even the number of miles of beach where oil has penetrated is known. Enough only is known about the spill and its possible future to make it impossible to predict, and for every scientist who says buried oil is a serious problem, there is one who downplays it.
"We're very concerned about it," said Mark Kuwada, shoreline cleanup coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "The oil has penetrated down several feet in some places. And the oil is going to continue to leach out for quite some time."
"There is stuff in the sediment," said Al Maki, Exxon's chief environmental scientist on the spill. "We just don't have the technology to effectively get oil at several feet penetration. And we're not sure there's a major environmental concern."
There is plenty of strong evidence about the harm that fresh oil does to marine organisms. But the most toxic parts of the oil evaporate quickly and by now are gone. The effect on marine animals of lasting exposure to less toxic oil is not as well documented.
Tamra Faris and John Karinen, marine biologists for the National Marine Fisheries Service, demonstrated in an 18month laboratory study at the agency's Juneau lab that Dungeness crab, whose process of reproduction is long and involved, lose some of their eggs and larvae when they are around oil. But other studies they conducted used fresh oil, leaving open the question of the affect of weathered oil.
They showed in those studies that fresh oil reduces the ability of mussels to replace the strings that tie them to the shore and that some species of clam will avoid oil by digging to the surface, where they are easily caught by birds. The clams also lost their ability to hold their shells closed, and limpets and chitons lost their grip on rocks when they were exposed to oil, Faris and Karinen said.
Beaches all over the spill area show some of those effects now, six months after the spill. On several beaches in the Sound last week, a Daily News survey found loosened mussels and mussels whose shells gaped open. Karinen said the observations probably indicated oil was still poisoning the organisms, but Faris cautioned that without statistical counts of organisms on sites not touched by oil, conclusions cannot be drawn.
Both Karinen and the Daily News survey also found that barnacles appear to be losing their grip on rocks all over the oil spill area. The biologists said there is no reason other than oil for the phenomenon to take place, but that it is not documented in the literature of oil spill biology.
What would happen to birds, otters and other animals that eat oily shellfish? "Animals accumulate more and more oil as they go up the food chain," Kuwada said.
SCIENTISTS AT ODDS OVER DANGER Faris said the harm caused by oil will go on indefinitely, as long as liquid oil is in the beaches where animals live. "It's not going to kill them, but it could be enough to affect their reproduction," she said.
"A big hit is bad," said Jacqui Michel, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Chronic exposure is always worse, in my mind."
But all the researchers agree it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to prove that oil damages seashore animals. Lots of things hurt the creatures. Besides, it's not always easy to tell when a mussel or snail is not feeling well.
Maki, the Exxon scientist, said longterm exposure to oil could be a problem, but he doesn't expect it to be an important one. Oil has been measured 10 to 12 years after other spills where animals recovered in two to three years, he said.
"It's not biologically important," Maki said. "It's there and you can measure it, but just because it's there doesn't mean it's doing any harm."
The gooey rocks on this Knight Island beach seemed an unlikely host to life. The brown oil smeared on a hand. But a tiny worm wriggled in the oil under one rock, and a few small snails prospected on some rocks on the top layer of beach, where oil had dried.
A team of NOAA scientists landed on the beach in a large helicopter. A geologist, a biologist and an oceanographer appeared to wander, looking at the ground. A geophysicist dug a hole to find out how deep the oil was, but gave up before hitting any clean rocks.
They decided that the beach was suitable for future study. They will return here, and to 17 other sites, to find out what happens to the oil.
Jacqui Michel, the geophysicist, said the beach was the first in the Sound that she saw oiled this spring. The same was true for Jerry Galt, the oceanographer. He recalled that the oil had washed up in a thick mat the consistency of yogurt, buried the upper half of the beach, and sunk in.
Michel, a brightly smiling South Carolinian who talks fast, and Galt, whose voice is slow and gravelly, knew from the start they would be here for a long time. All they do is go to oil spills and study them.
On the first day oil hit shore in the Sound, before she had even seen it, Michel predicted that the oil would sink in and stick, burping toxins and entering the food chain through the animals that live in the gravel.
CLEANUP TERMED HARMFUL
Members of the NOAA group were also the first to declare with authority that the cleanup had begun to do more harm than good. Both think work with massive crews washing oil off the surface of beaches should have stopped some time ago. Both knew from the start that parts of Prince William Sound would never be the same, and that more, harsher cleaning could never make it like it was.
Before the Exxon Valdez spill, the same NOAA oil spill response group revisited a similar spill in the Strait of Magellan, at the extreme southern tip of South America. After more than six years, the oilwater emulsion that had penetrated into the gravel there had not weathered it was just as they had left it years earlier, said Michel.
Oil that is kept away from sun, air and waves weathers mainly by being consumed by microscopic animals. In the South American spill, few were present, but in the Sound they are relatively abundant. Still, the process will be slow.
"It takes it a long time to go away," Michel said. "Some of it doesn't."
On the Knight Island beach, she said, she expects this winter to stir up the gravel and wash off the oil, because the halfmoon cove takes a direct hit from waves off the open water. In protected bays, waves won't wash off the beaches.
But Galt expected it to take more than a year even on the exposed Knight Island beach.
"If you get a big storm, that could do a lot," he said. "But it could take a long time. Several years."
As some scientists look forward to the storms and their release of oil, state officials dread the reoiling of beaches that could result. The state has pushed for Exxon to maintain a strike force capable of cleaning up the Sound when oil washes off the shore.
"We have a fall migration that comes through the area," Kuwada said. "You have a lot of birds coming through. And if there's oil washing around, it could hit areas that haven't been impacted yet."
Michel said she isn't worried about the problem, because oil washing off the beaches will not be as toxic or as concentrated as the original spill and will probably disperse quickly in storm waves. But, she said, "It probably will have some impacts on birds."
STATE WANTS OIL OUT
The state wants to get the buried oil out of the beaches, away from salmon streams and gone from the environment once and for all, even if the effort requires destroying sea life with hot water. Some of the Sound's most heavily, deeply oiled beaches are washed by prevailing currents that lead past the Sawmill Bay fish hatchery.
For months the Department of Environmental Conservation has called for the use of placer mining equipment designed to inject hot water into frozen ground to remove subsurface oil. Exxon tested the equipment in late May and refused to try it again, saying it was impractical, dangerous, environmentally unsound and too laborintensive.
The DEC's Robert Benda brought up the issue again at a meeting with Exxon and agency officials late last month. Exxon Operations Manager Bill Rainey again refused to use the technique, and Coast Guard Vice Adm. Clyde Robbins, the federal onscene coordinator, said it should be used where it might work.
Most observers see the cleanup of the Sound, if it continues at all next summer, as being a scattered use of various tools to work on buried oil. The DEC, Exxon, the Coast Guard and NOAA agree that hot water injection might work, but only on beaches of fine gravel where the oil was low on the tide line.
The only other current hope is the use of fertilizer that could help the biological breakdown of oil deep in the beach. The program, called bioremediation, has been shown to work a foot deep, but there is no data on how much deeper it may work, said Charles Costa, the Environmental Protection Agency's manager on the work.
Bioremediation was used on the 70 miles of shore deemed suitable this summer, which were mostly in the Sound, Costa said. So far the results have been mixed. Costa said there will be no scientific record of how well it worked until November or December, he said.
But Costa does not expect the fertilizer to do much good on heavily oiled beaches, where subsurface oil is primarily found, because the bacteria only eat oil where the oil and water meet. It does little good on solid oil.
"It would take forever and a day," Costa said. "The oil has got to be dispersed a bit."
FISHERMEN HAVE THEIR FEARS
Outside the Sound, the concern about buried oil is different. Kodiak and Cook Inlet salmon fishermen who were kept in port this summer by oil blobs floating on the fishing grounds fear that the oil in the beaches will continue to wash off and keep the fisheries off limits again next summer. Tar balls are still being found in the Inlet from the 1987 Glacier Bay oil spill.
Kodiak locals are afraid that the thick oil stranded in gravel high on beaches will freeze over the winter. In the spring, it will be fresh to wash back into the ocean.
"The experts say the oil is going to wash off and spread out over the winter," Arnie Shryock, who heads the Kodiak DEC office, told a meeting of local government leaders.
"Remember Arnie, these are the same guys who told us the oil was never going to get to Kodiak," responded Tom Petersen, of the local Department of Community and Regional Affairs office.
In the Sound, beaches will only stop reoiling themselves with the lifting of each tide, when the oil hardens. Then the subsurface oil will become a subsurface layer of hard asphalt lumps, unable to poison sea life, scientists say.
But even the asphalt may not be harmless. It could block the burrowing of animals, changing the balance of species on those beaches, Faris said. It also could build a cap over the lower oil and slow its weathering even more, allowing it to remain liquid enough to continue seeping into the ocean, Kuwada said.
But Maki, of Exxon, sees the hardening of oil into asphalt as the end of the problem.
"The parking lot out here is not toxic," he said, gesturing out the window of the company's brandnew Valdez office building. "It's asphaltine."
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