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

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OIL OFFICIALS HOPE DISPERSANTS WILL DILUTE THE SPILL

By CRAIG MEDRED
Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 03/26/89
Day: Sunday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A6

ANCHORAGE- Oil company workers dumped another load of detergent into Prince William Sound on Saturday night to see if they could get the dirty oil out. It didn't work.

The hope remains that a liquid detergent what oilspill cleanup forces call an oil dispersant can be put to work in the Sound in much the same way it works in your washing machine.

In the washing machine, the detergent renders oil soluble in water, and the sloshing of the machine's agitator works the diluted oil out of the fabric. Then it all goes down the drain.

In the Sound the dispersant in theory would make the oil soluble in the water, the tides and waves would provide the agitation to mix it all together, and a 11milliongallon oil spill would disappear into billions of gallons of seawater. So far, they've lacked the agitation, but winds are expected to stir things up today.

The idea behind dispersants is premised to some degree on an old environmental axiom: The solution to pollution is dilution.

"You're not removing the oil," said Carl Lautenberger of the Environmental Protection Agency. "All you're doing is taking it out of the service. It's a balance and a tradeoff.

"It's just one other tool that might be used to make a bad situation a little less worse."

Oil dispersants could help break up the 64squaremile oil spill, he said, but they would also force oil into the water column where it might contaminate or kill microorganisms vital to the food chain in the Sound.

And the dispersants, while similar in many ways to the detergent you put in your laundry machine, are not the same as Ajax. Dispersants contain surfactants that reduce the surface tension between the water the onequarterinch thick oil slick. That frees the oil to mix with the water.

The dispersants also contain some solvents, Lautenberger said, and those potentially toxic solvents worry some biologists.

"It could form an even more toxic compound in the water," said Rick Steiner, a biologist who heads the University of Alaska marine advisory program in Cordova.

Hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the normally harmless water could bond with chemicals in dispersants to create new and harmful chemicals, he said, or chemical reactions between the water and the dispersants could release heavy metals or other toxics formerly locked up in hydrocarbon compounds.

Most of the dangerous chemicals would probably be diluted enough to prevent major environmental damage, but not necessarily, he said.

"The ocean is an incredibly buffered solution, but some of these (microorganisms) are not very resilient," Steiner said. "In some of these things, they've found chemicals that at one part per billion have toxic effects."

Consequently, the environmental organization Trustees for Alaska warned against using dispersants in the Sound.

"Dispersants should be used only as a last resort," said Trustees Executive Director Randall Weiner. "You're basically making a tradeoff between wildlife that inhabits the surface and the wildlife in the water column and on the floor."

An oil company executive said that was not the case. Dispersants would help more than hurt, insisted Don Cornett, Alaska coordinator for Exxon USA. He said dispersants could prevent oil from reaching sensitive beaches and the shallow water where herring are beginning to spawn.

"We believe we can substantially limit the damage done to the shoreline," Cornett said.

The EPA had by late Saturday given the company permission to try dispersants in the outer part of the bay. A DC6 under contract to Exxon Shipping Co. was being loaded with 3,000 gallons of Corexit 9527 at Anchorage International Airport in the afternoon.

The plane, specially outfitted for firefighting and agricultural spraying, had been flown here from the Lower 48. It was to fly over the oil slick at an elevation of 50 feet, spraying an 80foot wide swath of Corexit from huge nozzles that hang like shower heads from its wingtips.

Lautenberger said EPA hopes the dispersant can help shrink the size of the oil slick, but no one expects it to be a cureall.

"To the common layman, you'd think: "Blast it with this stuff, and it will go away, and it's cheaper.' But it's not quite that simple," he said.

He noted a long list of potential problems:

* The dispersants have only limited effectiveness. Lautenberger said the success rate ranges from 0 to 80 percent. He expected a 30 percent success rate in the Sound. Trial use early Saturday failed because there wasn't enough wind and tide to agitate the chemicals, the oil and the water.

* Once the oil disappears into the water, it becomes impossible to get it out, and it becomes extremely difficult for scientists to monitor the ensuing environmental damage. State and federal agencies had, however, moved to set up water monitoring stations around the Sound to collect baseline data before the spill spread, so they could determine what happened if dispersants were used.

* It is all but impossible to predict where the oil is going to go once it gets mixed in the water. An oil slick is easy to monitor, but pollution moving beneath the water surface is much harder to track.

* No one is certain what dissolved oil, or even the dispersant, will do to marine life in the long term.

"It might not cause absolute, acute mortality," Steiner said, but it could still cause plenty of damage. The fisheries of the Sound are particularly vulnerable at this time of year, he said.

Young salmon emerging from their natal streams depend on adequate supplies of plankton, which could fall victim to dispersed oil. Larval crabs, clams and herring eggs are sensitive as well.

Herring eggs exposed to even small quantities of watersoluble oil die or develop abnormalities, according to research by National Marine Fisheries Service scientists who have studied the Sound.

"There's certainly been a lot of improvement in the (dispersant) products in the last 20 years," Lautenberger said. But he admitted they remain imperfect.

Dispersants can keep oil off the beaches, he said, but at the cost of mixing it into the water where it can do different kinds of environmental damage.

"(That's why) there are heavy restrictions on the use of dispersants," he said. "It's not something we use everyday."

Every environmental agency agrees the best way to clean up the oil is to skim it off the surface mechanically, Lautenberger said.

But, realistically, this spill is so big and the equipment on scene so limited that dispersants might be one of the best options available, Lautenberger said.

Others options have, however, been discussed, including burning the oil or dumping sand on it. The sand would bond to the oil, and together they would sink to the bottom. Steiner said Cordova fishermen are backing that idea, but environmental officials have mixed reactions.

Still something has to be done soon. Oil is moving toward beaches in the Sound and changing form. The lighter parts of the crude are evaporating. The already watersoluble portions are dissolving.

"The remaining oil on the surface is getting thicker," Lautenberger said. If the oil floats around much longer, it will begin to emulsify, he said.

Emulsification brings oil and water together in a grimy goo that is almost impossible to clean up.

"It becomes a tarball type thing," Lautenberger said.


Story Index:
Main | The Clean-Up
Overall: story 5 of 380 Previous Next
The Clean-Up story 1 of 40 Previous Next

   
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