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



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Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 04/09/89
Day: Sunday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

VALDEZ- Cal Lensink and Cathy Berg both have long histories on Prince William Sound. But unlike some others here, they're not spending their time trying to make themselves feel better about the calamitous oil spill by the Exxon Valdez.

Their job is to count and catalog the bodies. They stand all day at a plywood table beside a freezer truck in a mud lot and do the dirtiest, most depressing work of the spill.

Berg, 29, a wildlife biologist who fights to get out into the field from the Anchorage office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has her wish, but she thinks she'll cancel this summer's kayak trip on the Sound.

Wearing Carhart coveralls and bunny boots, she pulled an oily blob from a plastic garbage bag. It was several birds. One by one she pulled them apart and figured out what they were, calling out the identities for Lensink to write down.

Some are bloody, oily pulps of feathers and feet. Berg has learned to identify them as well in several pieces as in one.

She found a good sample, a cormorant, and held up its long, graceful neck for Lensink, who snipped its head off with a pair of scissors and dropped it in a bag as a guide for later identification.

In four days of solid work, they have cataloged 613 birds of 33 species, including two eagles. They still work cheerfully. Lensink teases Berg about her appetite; Berg teases Lensink about his pipe.

"It's not that we don't feel bad," Berg explained. "It's just that we've got a lot of work to do. We're going to be here a long time. We can't let this get us down."

The attitude is unusual here, where oil cleanup and animal rescue efforts seem to be aimed as much at making people feel better as they are at making a significant difference in the biology of Prince William Sound. Scientists say nature will clean up and regenerate itself, given time, but human beings are going to great lengths to assuage their own frustration and guilt right now.

The state Department of Health and Social Services has even hired a "disaster psychologist" from Kansas City. For pay of $600 a day plus expenses, Dr. Richard Gist is expected to help whole communities feel better.

"He's here not so much to do therapy but more to help us assess problems, to help find ways to get people to feel that there will be an end to this and that things are under control," said Mark Johnson, emergency medical coordinator for the state.

Gist said he first concentrated on convincing people working on the spill that it would not continue in endless confusion. Now he is spreading the word that, "this is a society of strong communities that have been through many things before."

The city of Cordova did some therapy of its own Saturday. Feeling they had been slighted by world attention, the city hired a public relations firm and brought a platoon of community leaders to Valdez to hold a press conference.

City Manager Don Moore complained that Exxon didn't mention Cordova in its advertisements apologizing for the spill and that city leaders were not invited to speak to a congressional hearing Thursday. Valdez received more attention, but Cordova was harder hit by the disaster, the Cordovans told a small group of reporters at the Valdez Civic Center.

"Judging by Exxon's multimillion dollar ad campaign apologizing to Valdez, we don't even have respect," said Vice Mayor Robert J. Kopchak.

The officials fear Cordova will be forgotten, damaging its chances of getting financial compensation from Exxon.

On the other side of town, at an elementary school gymnasium, Exxon is spending an untold fortune to save individual sea otters. Although organizer Randy Davis, a biologist hired by Exxon, conceded their efforts have no biological significance and that it is possible all the otters will die half already have he said the effort is good because it makes people feel better.

"There's a tremendous amount of frustration, and this is a positive way to let it out," Davis said, "frustration and guilt."

Forty carpenters have worked for a week to turn the gym into an otter hospital. A false floor raises everything about two feet above the basketball court and provides room for plumbing underneath. Five water heaters and two furnaces churn out the hot water and air needed to clean the otters and take care of them for two weeks afterward.

It takes four people two hours to anesthetize an otter and clean it. Then volunteers take over, each nurturing a few otters back to health. Some become emotionally attached and cry when their otters die.

"There's one woman who sat in her otter cage for 17 hours, petting it and feeding it and giving it care a little pregnant otter," said Laurie Davis, a volunteer coordinator whose regular job is business manager of an Anchorage radio station.

"We've never seen a dead otter," she said. "They kind of sneak them out the back, because they say that's what the press wants to see dead otters."

Three armed guards stand at the door and the press corps is allowed 15 minutes in the hospital once a day.

A bird hospital in a building of the Prince William Sound Community College is less a fortress. Its results a dozen clean, fluffy birds float in little pens in the yard, waiting for release. So far, eight have been released.

"There's thousands dying out there," said Don Chesebro, a Valdez ornithologist who volunteered to help and is keeping records on the birds. "We've taken in, in round numbers, 200, and about 70 have died. I'll let you judge the significance."

Cal Lensink is a tall man, 62, his Vshaped face topped with a gray crewcut, and a pipe bit tight between his teeth. He retired in November from the Fish and Wildlife Service after 33 years, but volunteered to come back for the work of cataloging carcasses.

"This isn't something I want to do, this is something I feel needs to be done," he said.

Berg said Lensink is a legend in Alaska biology. He counted the Sound's otters from 1959 to '61, before they became overpopulated and the enemies of shellfish fishermen. He expects more will survive the spill than lived in the Sound 30 years ago.

"The rescue center kind of relates to the kind of decisions we make," Lensink said. "With many hundreds of otters dying, we try to save just a few, and most of them, we're not successful, and they die anyway. In not being successful, you're prolonging the agony for birds and animals that will die anyway."

He pulled an otter from a plastic bag and thumped it down on the table. Its fur was matted into peaks, the way a dog would look if you backcombed it with Vaseline. Its little paws folded in rigor mortis in front of its chest. Its mouth seemed to grimace.

"The reason why people are so concerned about otters is that they're very easy to be anthropomorphic about the way they eat, care for their babies and use tools," Lensink said.

He stuck a knife in the otter's mouth and pried it open. With a metal tool like a leather awl, he dug into the otter's gums to remove a tooth, leaning on the mouth with all his strength till the jaw cracked.

Berg dropped the teeth, which provide information on age, in a plastic bag with dash of formaldehyde.

Next, Lensink slit open the otter's stomach area to remove its ovaries, which would contain information on its reproduction. A large, purple sack floated on top of a pool of intestines. It was the otter's womb, containing a fetus already the size of a small cat. Berg dropped it in formaldehyde.

The two biologists were quiet for a moment, but they didn't slow down. They've already done 103 otters.

"When you get emotional, you too often make the wrong decisions," Lensink explained.

Daily News reporter Patti Epler contributed to this story.

Story Index:
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Overall: story 66 of 380 Previous Next
The Clean-Up story 5 of 40 Previous Next

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