A government plan to use a chemical solvent this summer to extract and clean up old, hardened oil left buried on some Prince William Sound beaches from the Exxon Valdez oil spill has come under fire from a number of environmental groups.
The $2 million cleanup project is slated to begin sometime in June on three islands near Chenega Bay, which was one of the places hardest hit by the 11 million-gallon spill eight years ago.
Though scientists say the old oil is no longer toxic and poses no threat to the environment, area Natives who hunt and gather chitons, octopus, ducks, seals and mussels in the area want it gone. They say they are familiar with the chemical solvent -- PES-51 -- the government plans to use and endorse it wholeheartedly.
''The bottom line for the Chenega people is that they view the remaining oil as a greater risk than the use of PES-51,'' said Charles Totemoff, the president of Chenega Corp. ''This thing has been pretty much beat to death as far as Chenega is concerned and the time for action is now.''
But the environmental groups contend not enough is known about the chemical solvent.
''We have serious concerns about the lack of knowledge and uncertainty about both the toxicity and the effectiveness of PES-51,'' said Peter Van Tuyn, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit environmental law firm. The Trustees, Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society and the Northern Alaska Center for the Environment have drafted a letter and plan to send it to government officials asking that they considercleanup alternatives.
The preliminary decision by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to use the compound for a final cleanup effort on Evans, Elrington and Latouche islands was made last summer. The final vote came last month.
It was not strictly a science-based decision, said Molly McCammon, executive director of the Trustee Council, which oversees spending of the $1 billion settlement the state and federal governments got from Exxon.
The Trustee Council also had to weigh the concerns and desires of the people who live in the area, she said.
''How would you like it if the supermarket you shopped at was filthy and contaminated? Would you buy your food there?'' said Chenega resident Larry Evanoff during a hearing about the cleanup plan.
Chenega residents aren't using the beaches slated for cleanup right now because of the buried oil, Totemoff said, and they have agreed not to use them until they are deemed safe after the cleanup project.
A pilot study was conducted with PES-51 on Latouche Island in 1993. Many Chenega residents were hired to work on that project and got a firsthand look at the effectiveness of the product. In the fall of 1995, the Trustee Council had a workshop to discuss further cleanup in the Chenega area and the use of PES-51.
The active ingredient in PES-51 is d-limonene, which can be toxic in high doses. The cleanup plan calls for injecting the solvent into eight beach sites. The solvent attaches to the old oil and loosens it from the rock and cobble. When the tide rushes in, the toxic mix floats, but is contained by booms and scooped up.
In a memo in late April, the Trustee Council's chief scientist, Robert Spies, wrote that the compound is one of the more toxic cleanup solvents, but that tests suggest it does not pose a long-term risk to the environment.
During the last couple of weeks, environmentalists and a number of government biologists, including scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Fish and Game, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have come forward with concerns about using the chemical solvent.
''I hope we can get them to reconsider because I don't think they are choosing the right cleanup alternative,'' said Pam Miller of Greenpeace. ''We certainly understand why people of Chenega want the oil out of there, but we think this is going to cause more harm than good and set a bad precedent.''
Trustee Council member Deborah Williams, head of the Interior Department in Alaska, said the council ''looked at it very intensely.'' The decision to go ahead shows ''deference to the beliefs and strong feelings'' of the Chenega residents, she said.
The Trustee Council is not likely to change its position unless there is new information that hasn't been considered, she added.
''We really did have lots of meetings and spent many hours thinking about this,'' Williams said. ''I, of course, was one of the more critical council members on it. But I felt satisfied at the end of the day that we had improved the monitoring, the booming and the signage that will be placed out that. I felt comfortable going forward, that it was safe and effective.''
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