State officials have declared defeat in the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and plan to leave oil buried in Alaska beaches after quitting work this summer.
"In terms of a really big oil spill, eventually you have to surrender," said Ernie Piper, state spill chief for the Department of Environmental Conservation. "I didn't think all of it was going to get cleaned up, but I thought we were going to get more than we did."
The DEC has been the most aggressive agency pushing for intensive cleanup since the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and oiled more than 1,000 miles of Alaska shoreline two years ago. Last year the DEC fought for a cleanup standard that would require the last drop of oil to be removed this year, and pushed for the use of heavy equipment and an expensive rock-washing machine to get it done.
But now the agency's officials say not much work remains that would be worth the money and effort. They plan a cleanup season that will attack oil only in places that are especially important for fish and wildlife habitat or human use.
The officials say they are only facing reality: The oil is too hard to recover. But some people who will have to live with oil that is left behind see the decision as an ominous policy shift, possibly caused by the election of Gov. Wally Hickel, or the agreement he signed last week to settle the state's litigation against Exxon.
"Their attitude seems to have changed quite a bit," said Darrell Totemoff, a member of the Chenega village council. "I don't know if it's the settlement or the administration or what. But we've been left out to dry."
Chenega's village corporation is planning a junket Friday to take network television crews and other reporters to see the remaining oil. Totemoff said the village is trying to use Sunday's second anniversary of the disaster to reverse the impression that the oil is gone and to push for more cleanup.
DEC officials say what remains is deeply buried in beaches, is relatively non-toxic and is not worth digging up unless there is a good reason to do so, such as protecting a salmon stream or restoring a popular recreation site. Such sites occur in only a few clusters around the Sound, Piper said.
"If you went after a whole bunch of subsurface oil it would be very expensive and the benefits would not be commensurate with the money you would spend," he said.
Hickel's $900 million settlement with Exxon has placed a new focus on the cost of the cleanup. Under the agreement, anything spent on cleaning up the spill will be deducted from what Exxon must pay to state and federal resource trustees. Until now, Exxon has done whatever work was ordered at its own expense, and the question of cost was never publicly mentioned until afterward.
So far Exxon has spent $2.2 billion. It spent about $2 billion in 1989 and $200 million in 1990. Piper estimates the rest of the work will cost around $40 million.
He came up with that estimate to assist in the settlement negotiations. And he said the fact that the cleanup is now on the government's tab has crossed his mind in the planning of what to do next.
"If we're going to be spending public money to do it, I want people to know there are good justifications for it," Piper said.
But DEC officials insisted the concern about money is not new. They said they would have used the same cleanup standards if Exxon were still paying all the bills.
Exxon cleanup expert Andy Teal said he noticed no change in the state's attitude toward the cleanup after its cost began to be deducted from the settlement money the agreement says anything Exxon spent after Jan. 1 is on the tab. But Teal said state officials have been closer to Exxon's point of view this year.
"They've got a better understanding of the real issues," Teal said. "I think there is an acceptance of the fact of how much has been done and that there isn't that much left out there."
Piper said about four miles of shoreline remained oily last fall, broken into about 75 individual sites. DEC officials said only six to 20 of those sites will warrant work under their new standard, and that work will likely extend only to tilling the beach to expose oil and picking up oil off the surface, not excavation. Only beaches with especially valuable resources will qualify for any work.
DEC spokeswoman L.J. Evans said she had trouble even finding oil on a recent trip to the Sound.
But Totemoff said there is still a good deal of oil near Chenega, and it is still causing problems for villagers. Residents of several oiled villages who spoke at recent state hearings said they were still worried about using food from the sea, and many of those who spoke called for more cleanup work, according to notes provided by the DEC.
Piper agreed the oil is still there, but rather than cleaning up most of it the agency will only monitor it in a database of contaminated sites it already maintains for ordinary hazardous material spills. That way, he said, people will be warned before buying or fishing on any of the spoiled land.
He said he has received little resistance to that concept, because most oil spill activists have moved on to other issues.
"There probably isn't a whole lot we can do in a third year," Piper said. "And that's part of the process of getting people ready for a realistic result. Getting people to acknowledge that there is going to be oil there."
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