KACHEMAK BAY STATE PARK-
Armed with spades and plastic bags, dozens of rock shoveling workers have been battling to free Gulf of Alaska beaches of the crude oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in March.
Here, some 200 miles west of where Capt. Joe Hazelwood's ship hit the reef that loosed the tanker's gooey cargo March 24, workers are filling thousands of bags with oily sand and gravel, patties of emulsified crude, tarcoated flotsam and jetsam, and the oilcoated carcasses of birds and sea otters.
At Port Dick and Gore Point and on along the outer edge of the Kenai coast, they labored on Wednesday, fighting a disorganized war to keep the oil from seeping any farther into the ecosystem.
Volunteers and draftees alike, these people have been barged, boated and flown into the heart of a wilderness to fight the oil on the surfbattered gravel beaches, the protected sand beaches and the rocky headlands.
Beset by logistical impossibilities and command confusion, they make do with what they have at hand and what they can improvise, said state park ranger Jeff Johnson.
Bill Day, a one time volunteer in the oil war and now a temporary employee of the Alaska Division of Parks, discovered that he and a few others working with him could use an oil boom to corral floating mats of tar at Port Dick Creek.
Last week, they caught gobs of old oil ranging in size and appearance from gopher mounds to pile rugs. These tar mats looked firm, but when kicked they revealed a gooey inside that looked a lot like what sick dogs deposit along the Iditarod Trail. Day and his crew scooped up this tar and put it in plastic garbage bags.
Then they tried to figure out what to do with the bags. Day said the bags had a tendency to leak, spilling the oily waste which had cost so much effort to recover.
The workers improvised by using plastic sheeting to line a catchment basin in which they deposited the oily bags. Then Day radioed Homer and asked for plastic fish totes. He also called for a few more workers and more shovels.
He got the shovels. Neither the fish totes nor the additional help ever showed up.
And a barge did drop off some bright yellow, carefully labeled, 55gallon drums in which oily waste was to be stored.
"They only gave us 10," Day said Wednesday, "and we filled them in an hour."
As rain pelted the sands of the West Arm of Port Dick at low tide Wednesday, Day's crew chased gopher mound chunks of tar, trying to scoop them up and get them in a plastic bag before they adhered to the sand.
"Shovel and bag. Shovel and bag. All it is is shovel and bag," Day said. "If we could get a barge in here once a week, we could fill it up."
But the barges didn't come on any sort of regular schedule. Commissioner of Natural Resources Lenny Gorsuch and Al Meiners, deputy director of state parks, said they'd try to get something done about that. Then they got back in their helicopter with a reporter and a photographer and flew off.
Neither was sure about how to handle the logistical problems. They sat through a morning meeting in Homer where they watched park ranger Roger MacCampbell and others explain to an Exxon spokesman what was needed.
Dean Peller of Exxon said the company was doing its best. State officials in general questioned that, but they also conceded the problems facing the company are huge.
The workers who have been dispatched to the beaches along the outer coast of the Kenai are doing a good job, Johnson said, but they keep running into logistical hurdles. They need hundreds of additional barrels into which to put oily waste. They need landing craft to haul the barrels. They might even need light duty machinery to help them with their chores.
Exxon is expected to muster all that equipment. It is a job for an army. In this war, there is almost never enough equipment or enough manpower.
Day wanted eight more men. Port Dick wasn't as hard hit by oil as other areas, he admitted, but its important salmon runs made it imperative that it be cleaned.
"This is an area I do feel we can get cleaned," he added. "We don't need 50 people. We don't even need 20 people."
The tar in Port Dick is pretty easy to pick up after the tide goes out, as long as the sun doesn't cook it.
Half an hour in the hot sun, and the tar starts giving off vapors worse than a freshly tarred roof, Day said, and then it starts sinking into the gravel just like roofing tar.
Workers who try to recover hot tar get as much gravel as they do oil, and they risk getting ill from the fumes, Day said.
He wondered how much gravel he should be scooping up with the tar anyway. MacCampbell suggested Day just try to get the tar and leave the sediments intact. They were the home to beach life.
Nobody worried about sediment at the surf pounded beaches near Gore Point, a few miles to the west. The beach there resembled a gravel subdivision road that had been oiled and rototilled.
To get the oil out of this eroding beach, workers had to take the beach apart. They shoveled oilcoated sand and gravel into woven plastic bags, slipped those bags into clear plastic bags, and stacked them up.
Landing craft had already hauled away 6,000 bags of oil and gravel mostly gravel. Nobody knew when the landing craft would come to pick up more bags. Nobody knew where the old bags went or what would become of them.
Meiners said he would try to find out. He wondered if the state should require Exxon to clean the gravel and put it back. Beach removal and an associated human invasion were bringing substantial changes to what until a few months ago had been a wilderness beach.
Now it was besieged by helicopters, littered with mounds of white plastic bags full of oily rock, adorned with a shelter of plastic sheeting surrounded by bundles of oilabsorbent rags, sprinkled with dozens of workers in tarcoated rain gear in bright yellows, oranges and blues, and bordered by a halfmilelong sheet of plastic.
Weighed down with rocks and logs, the plastic ran 6 feet wide all along the back of the beach. It was there to keep oil from soaking into the driftwood piled 6 to 10 feet high at the upper edge of the beach, MacCampbell said. The driftwood, and behind it the trees that had been blasted bare of their lower branches, testified to the ferocity with which wind and waves attacked this beach in foul weather.
The cliffs on either end of the beach told a more recent tale of the sea and storms. They were painted with tar from 50 to 75 feet high. The tar had been left by waves that hammered the beach in April. The storm had left the beach buried in tar, MacCampbell said.
"One time, you'd walk along here and you'd be up to your knees in it," he said.
Waves and tides had washed a lot of that tar off the black sand beach. Men and women were trying to get the rest. Dozens labored with shovels to dig up the gravel. Others used chain saws to hack up driftwood coated with tar.
Once there was a plan was to burn the tarcoated driftwood. It had been cut into chunks and piled in 6 to 10foothigh pyres along the beach. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation gave permission to burn, Johnson said, but before anyone could light a match permission was revoked.
Now, the plan was to haul all the tarred wood back to Homer for disposal. Johnson shook his head. He favored a burn. This was his beach. He wanted to get it cleaned up and move on. He'd already been through enough here.
"When we first got here," Johnson said, "it was just like wading through chocolate pudding."
He had to rake the pudding with halibut hooks to recover the carcasses of the dead birds and sea otters.
"The birds were unrecognizable," he said; the people who worked in the tar became nearly so.
"We had to have tons of kerosene to wash ourselves off," he said. But that seemed a long time ago. Johnson could smile again, now.
Now it was possible to walk the beaches without getting tarred, even though a lot of tar remains.
It is buried in veins in the gravel that is constantly turned over by the surf. It is plastered to the cliffs, where it looks black and firm on the outside, but remains soft enough that a finger pokes through it to reveal a grimy, brown inside. And its scent hangs in the air.
"It kind of smells like a hot tar roof, doesn't it?" Johnson said. "I never imagined I'd spend my summer like this."
story 124 of 380
story 24 of 40