The first of two oil spill survey teams is scheduled to begin work today in the fourth and probably the last year of federally monitored cleanup following the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill.
The Coast Guard, which is overseeing cleanup again this summer, said Wednesday that teams would assess four sites in the Gulf of Alaska and 64 places in Prince William Sound.
Despite three summers of cleanup operations that cost Exxon $2 billion, and four years of scouring winter storms, damage remains heaviest on some Prince William Sound islands that were in the spill's direct path.
Robert Forgit, a Coast Guard spokesman in Anchorage, said Wednesday that the teams would go to Knight, LaTouche, Green and Perry islands, among others.
He said that in most places, there is only subsurface oil that no longer leaches out with the tides and causes a sheen.
"The 68 sites to be surveyed are the worst sites of the whole spill," Forgit said. "That's why we're still here."
Hundreds of miles of Alaska's coast were tainted with oil and thousands of birds and marine mammals were killed when the tanker Exxon Valdez struck a charted reef in 1989 and dumped nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. It was the nation's worst oil spill.
Survey teams include landowners and state environmental officials, as well as representatives from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Exxon and the Coast Guard.
The Prince William Sound survey should be done by May 22, Forgit said. A second team, concentrating on Gulf of Alaska sites, is scheduled to walk the shorelines from May 29 through June 8.
The Prince William Sound schedule was designed to avoid times when birds, walrus and other creatures would be breeding.
Forgit said the survey teams which for the first time this year will also double as cleanup crews anticipate that this summer will be the last season of formal oil spill cleanup.
State and federal requirements state that cleanup may stop if experts determine that more work would be harmful, he said.
"At each site, we'll ask, "Will cleanup be intrusive to what's already grown back, will it be excessively costly, and will it cause harm to nature?' " Forgit said.
"Indications are, this will be the last shoreline assessment" for the federally managed cleanup, he said.
On the shores, weathered oil may appear as tar mats that are relatively easy to remove.
"We're not sure yet what we'll find, but we think it won't be anything that can't be picked up manually," he said.
Once federal oversight is formally withdrawn, more cleanup work may be ordered by a trustees council that is overseeing restoration of Alaska's polluted shores.
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