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



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Daily News outdoors editor

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 09/17/89
Day: Sunday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

ANCHORAGE- The battle was lost from the beginning. There was never enough machinery or manpower to stem the black tide that gushed from the tanker Exxon Valdez on the morning of March 24, the experts would say later.

Never enough boom to corral the oil. Never enough oil skimmers to suck it up. Never enough barges to haul away whatever oil the skimmers did collect.

Never enough dispersant to break up the slick that spread across Prince William Sound, then out into the Gulf of Alaska on a march for Kodiak.

Never the technology to get the oil off the beaches where it finally ended up.

Never a chance.

The people whose job it was to protect the environment were in retreat from Day 1. They fled before the onslaught the way the Germans left Russia in World War II losing battle after battle and futilely arguing over the merits of dispersants, burning and beachcleaning techniques.

The debate over beachcleaning techniques continued all summer. The issue was as simple as one of those during the Vietnam War: Did the village have to be destroyed to save it?

Beach cleaners started off using rags to wipe up oil, to avoid harm to delicate intertidal life. It didn't work. The beaches were too remote, the oil too much, the labor force too small.

Inside the Sound, rags gave way to coldwater washing. It didn't work.

The cold water was replaced with hot water. It worked a little better. Not much.

By the end of the summer, crews were going at the beaches with highpressure, hotwater hoses in an effort to blast the oil away. Most life was dead when the fire hoses were turned off, but the rocks were cleaner.

Not clean yet, but cleaner. Man couldn't get all the oil off. Nature was left the problem.

The Environmental Protection Agency said microbes would clean the rocks. Fortify them with fertilizer, the agency said, and they'll go at it like gangbusters.

It was the first glimmer of hope at the end of a long, black, gooey tunnel.

Here now is a look back down that tunnel:


When the sun came up over North America's biggest oil spill the morning of March 25, the Exxon Valdez was parked on Bligh Reef with a 50squaremile scrawl of black and brown surrounding it. But the weather was calm and the skimmers, although far too few for the job, were working then.

"Exxon pollution contractors have removed about 1,000 barrels of oil from the Sound with mechanical skimmers and containment booms," the U.S. Coast Guard reported. "Cleanup is scheduled to continue during daylight hours Sunday."

Exxon's attention was focused on safely offloading the millions of gallons of oil still aboard the Exxon Valdez. The 11 million gallons already on the water were, for Exxon, a secondary consideration.

Attempts to disperse it with chemicals didn't work. More skimmers were sent for. They arrived too late. Three days after the spill, gale force winds raced through the Sound.

The oil was suddenly out of control.

What had been a rearguard action to save the environment turned into a chaotic rout. Within days, the oil had spread across 1,000 square miles of water. The first streamers were already out of Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska. Booms were failing in the weather. New boom was unavailable. Oil was threatening hatcheries at Port San Juan, Main Bay and Eshamy Bay.

Fishermen fought back, using boats and boom to block the oil from the hatcheries. Later, they would use jerryrigged booms of driftwood logs. They would use boats and seine skiffs to corral oil, then pick it up in buckets. They would go after it with every sort of lowtechnology approach that could be devised.

It helped, but it couldn't win the war.

As fast as oil was removed, the slick grew. Scientists reported that up to a quarter of the oil evaporated within days, but the threequarters that remained nearly doubled in size. It swelled as it sucked up water to form a gooey emulsion.

By the first day of April, eight days after the spill, the goo had slathered the beaches of Knight, Evans, Naked, Green, Smith and other islands in the western Sound. The front edge of the slick was out into the Gulf as far as the mouth of Resurrection Bay.

By April 4, 12 days after the spill, the oil was spread over 1,600 square miles, and it was beginning to go ashore in Kenai Fiords National Park, the first of three national parks it would hit.

Efforts to control or clean up the spill by then were a joke. The DEC reported that skimmers could fill their 1,300gallon capacity in 38 minutes, but it took two hours to offload the thick emulsification onto a barge.


America had to turn to the Soviet Union for a bigger, better skimmer. The year before a Soviet icebreaker had charged in to save two California gray whales trapped in arctic ice that American technology couldn't penetrate.

Here was a second chance for a publicity bonanza, but this time the Russians couldn't pull off a success to match that in the ice off Barrow.

But the Russian oil skimmer, like all the other skimmers, had problems. In the end, it collected about 126,000 gallons of oil and water before it quit.

Not that American technology did any better. The DEC reported in early April that "the viscous, debrisladen oil is very difficult to transfer through the skimmers' integrated pumping systems. The "hydrovac system" has proven the only effective pumping method for transferring recovered oil to tanker barges." More hydrovacs were ordered. Even with their help little oil was recovered.

"Skimmers are continuing to encounter difficulties due to kelp, sticks and other matter clogging pumping systems," the DEC reported.

K.T. Koonce, senior vice president for Exxon USA, almost got hooted out of the state when an Exxon press release quoted him saying: "Exxon has been quite successful in oil recovery during the last week. We have been recovering about 3,000 barrels per day and are rapidly eliminating the oil remaining in Prince William Sound."

At that rate, most of it should have been sucked up in three months. It wasn't. Most of the oil ended up on the beaches, and the techniques devised to clean it off there never worked any better than skimmers.


Oil so easy to suck up when pooled underground became almost impossible to remove when smeared on the surface of the land.

Exxon removed some of it, all right, and scientists will argue for years about if the techniques used to get it off did more harm than good. Highpressure cold water spread oil sediments around. Hot water cooked marine life. Highpressure, hot water probably did both.

Scientists don't know what it means. Some believe the damage was already done by the time the oil reached the beaches anyway.

The initial death toll was huge. The carcasses of more than 30,000 birds would eventually be found, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would estimate the total mortality at between 75,000 and 150,000. Sea otter deaths would be more than 1,000.

Exxon failed to recognize the damage at first. Company officials thought they had dodged the bullet. They were talking to reporters about a small death toll while scientists were off in the remote corners of the Sound just uncovering the carnage.

On April 5, it would reach the point where the DEC would feel compelled to warn: "The battle is far from over."

Months later, as the carcasses piled up in freezer vans in Valdez, the statement would seem so unnecessary as to sound ridiculous. But in that first week of April, when everyone was busy worrying about the closure of the $10 million Prince William Sound herring season, and the spawning beaches awash in oil, and what it all meant to the multimillion dollar salmon fishery, it was easy to overlook the other critters out in the wild corners of that wilderness.

The birds and sea otters began drowning in oil out of sight of men, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. The remoteness and distance would slow the news of the first deaths, and then the television cameras would reach the carcasses and America would be filled with rage.

Then the same problems that had slowed the news of first deaths would come to hamper the rescue efforts. The logistics of rescue, and eventually of clean up, became a nightmare all their own.

Of the first 103 otters brought to a rescue center in Valdez, 51 died. Of the first 223 birds, 76 became fatalities. The ones that were saved were mere tokens. The costs were enormous. It was calculated that the cost of each otter saved was $30,000.

Treatment methods improved as the spill progressed, but the bird and otter centers never achieved great success.


While there were people nearly heartbroken by the ecological catastrophe, There were others who saw only dollar signs. There was heavy competition among fishermen to contract their boats to Exxon the average boat brought its owner $300,000 over the course of the summer. Charter fees skyrocketed everywhere around the Sound.

An Anchorage television show dissolved into a discussion about who should be first in line for the $16.69anhour beachcleaning jobs.

And come they did, but there were a lot of hurdles that had to be cleared first.

Exxon and Veco Inc., an oil field service company hired to run the show in the Sound, had to put Alaska's fourth or fifth largest community afloat in a wilderness area. At the peak of activity, there were more than 10,000 people involved, about 3,000 of whom were actually working on beaches.

Floating hotels that came to be called floatels had to be built to house them. Sewage had to be hauled until a sewage treatment plant was built, and then sewage still had to be barged to it. Groceries had to be shipped or flown in. The activity turned the usually deserted Sound into a construction site.

Boats shuttled from the ports of Valdez, Cordova, Whittier and Seward to the work sites. Armadas of ships and legions of workmen flooded bays that had seldom seen people. Supply lines broke down and necessities had to be improvised. Trade and barter became common.

An army was out there fighting a war, and the lines of supply were as chaotic as those in any war. The supplies that moved over the water were immense.

During the last two weeks of July alone, transportation needs burned up 1.4 million gallons of fuel more than 10 percent of what the Exxon Valdez spilled Veco reported. Keeping the work crews fed required 9.8 million pounds of groceries, 280,000 chickens, 24 tankers of milk, and the equivalent of 900 cows and 500 pigs.

And that was not all. There were 530 miles of toilet paper used, 564,000 pairs of rubber gloves, 125,000 coveralls, 157,000 sets of rain gear, 65,000 pairs of boots, 225 Zodiac inflatable boats, 275 skiffs, 700 outboards, 350 generators, 490 steam cleaners, 875 pumps, 174 cars and trucks, 147 miles of chain and 1.6 million pounds of laundry.

The Sound throbbed with the noise of mankind all summer. There was the putttt, putttt of outboards and the deep grumble of diesels on the tugs pulling barges and the hiss of the highpressure jets used to blast oil off the rocks.

Nobody who was there at the start could have predicted what they would see at the end. On April 11, Exxon had 100 people ashore on Naked Island mopping rocks by hand. Scientists and environmental officials were then discussing whether to use lowpressure washing.

Everyone was worried about doing more harm to the environment. But popular and political pressures changed that. By the end of April, cold water flushing had begun. By early May, warmwater washing was being tested. By the end of May, beach crews would be engulfed in steam clouds as they attacked the oil with warm, highpressure water.

Not even that would get all of the oil off.

Exxon would repeatedly try for permission to use dispersants to break that tenacious oil free. Environmental agencies would repeatedly deny the requests on the grounds the chemicals were ineffective or did more biological harm than good.


The only acceptable chemical treatment would come from the EPA. Microbiologists experimenting with fertilization would conclude that naturally occurring microbes in Alaska water could be encouraged to devour North Slope crude oil.

By midSeptember, there was hope that socalled bioremediation would help clean the beaches.

Once there was talk of Phase One and Phase Two treatment of these beaches. Then it was a discussion of doing "gross cleanup" and coming back to do more later. Now it is a question of whether anyone will come back at all.

Exxon has done gross cleanup on more than 1,000 miles of beach. It has sprayed some heavily oiled beaches with fertilizer. It is hoping nature does the rest. It is hoping there will be nothing to do by spring. Only time will answer that question.

Exxon was slow to react at first. It had only about 700 employees in the state when seals started giving birth on oily beaches back in late April. The residents of Homer wanted the spill federalized and Exxon thrown out. Exxon took months to put enough workers on the coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

But Exxon did mobilize a huge task force. Whether the company was responding to bad publicity or simply being a good, corporate citizen few Alaskans will ever know for sure.

What is known is that Exxon drove Alaska's unemployment rate to lows that hadn't been seen since the days of oil pipeline construction, and it left millions of dollars in the Alaska economy.

Exxon says it will spend $1.2 billion on the spill. A Veco official said it was more like $2 billion, but later retracted that.

However much the actual figure, it was enough to start a miniboom in Alaska. The population of Valdez, a community of about 3,300, exploded. Rents skyrocketed. Campgrounds overflowed. Tent cities grew up. Childcare became scarce as childcare workers abandoned lowpaying jobs for the $16.69 an hour paid beach workers.

Much the same happened in Seward. Both communities complained to Exxon of labor shortages. So did Cordova, and Kenai and Soldotna, and even Anchorage, where help wanted signs sprouted in store windows.

Cordova even demanded Exxon subsidize wages.

"There are people on the waiting list with Veco even though there are job openings at almost every business in town," said Ken Roemhildt, superintendent of North Pacific Processors. How, he wondered, could his business get help at $6 to $8.75 an hour when Veco offered twice that?

"That's the world that was working before Exxon showed up," he said.

Exxon turned that world on its ear. Villagers left their villages to work on the spill. They made money like they hadn't seen in a long time, and they brought problems back with it. There was drinking and unhappiness.

All over coastal Alaska there were hard feelings between people who made money and people who didn't. Salmon drift netters in Cook Inlet forced to the beaches by tar balls had to sit and watch as set netters along the shores cleaned up on a red salmon run of nearly 6 million fish. It was, for some of the set netters, a golden season. It was, for some of the drifters, a year of living on oilcompany handouts.

Exxon said early on it would try to treat fishermen fairly. By midSeptember, the company had paid $100 million in claims, $75 million of that to fishermen.

Some people said Exxon was trying to buy Alaska. Some said it was all for publicity. Whatever the case, the company's money probably did more to help out those damaged by the spill than its cleanup did to save the environment.

As to the final outcome, it is unknown on all fronts. It will take years to sort out exactly what Exxon's oil did to the environment, and it may take decades for the courts to determine whom Exxon should compensate for the damage.

It has been a summer Alaskans will not soon forget.

Story Index:
Main | The Clean-Up
Overall: story 146 of 380 Previous Next
The Clean-Up story 32 of 40 Previous Next

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