Kodiak herring fishermen on Sunday dodged oil slicks, Homer boombuilders chafed at delays, and oil company workers demonstrated a steamcleaning process that blasts oil off beaches but kills everything in its path.
And on Day 24 of the biggest oil spill in American history, the federal official in charge of mopping it up said he probably won't make public Exxon's latest plan for cleaning the oil from Alaska's shoreline.
The Exxon Valdez went aground on a wellmarked reef in Prince William Sound shortly after midnight on March 24, spilling more than 10 million gallons of oil. In the three weeks since, the oil has coated islands and beaches in the Sound and along the Gulf of Alaska, killed thousands of birds and marine mammals, and threatened some of the state's most valuable fisheries.
Adm. Paul Yost, the Coast Guard commandant sent by President Bush to hasten the operations, watched the steamcleaning demonstration Sunday on Block Island and said he probably won't release Exxon's shore cleanup plan, which he received Saturday. He said it was the company's plan, and it was up to Exxon to decide whether to make it public "and let everybody in the U.S. secondguess them."
"It appears to be a piece of work that's well thought out, scientifically and operationally, and I'm very encouraged," Yost said, adding that he and his advisers would meet today with Exxon officials in Valdez.
Oil from the spill, mostly in the form of tar balls and mousselike foam, threatened Homer and other ports on fishrich Cook Inlet.
Boats from Kodiak, the nation's No. 1 fishing port, were forced to avoid part of a herring grounds closed late Saturday due to oil nearby.
State wildlife biologist Dave Prokopowich said he believed no potentially tainted fish were taken in the closed area, at the northern tip of the Kodiak Islands.
"They (fishermen) seemed to have stayed away from those areas where they feared there might be contamination," Prokopowich said.
Herring season is due to open Tuesday in Kamishak Bay, unless the oil swings north of Cape Douglas and enters the bay.
"I don't expect fish (in Kamishak) in great numbers until the 21st to 25th of the month," said Tom Schroeder, area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer. That means there is still time for oil to invade. Unlike Prince William Sound, where the herring fishery lasts only a few hours, it is usually spread over eight to 10 days fishing in Kamishak Bay.
With winds mainly from the south Sunday, there was no sign of oil advancing toward Kodiak and rich crab waters nearby, said Coast Guard Lt. Jim Madden.
Jerry Galt, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the slick hasn't moved much over the weekend. "We had a number of flights that went out, but it looks as though where they observed oil is about where it was (Saturday)," he said.
Scattered sheens were sighted between the Barren Islands and the Chugach Islands, Galt said, but none of the flights found oil flowing farther up Cook Inlet.
"All indications we have is, it hasn't progressed much past Elizabeth Island and Kennedy Entrance," said Roger MacCampbell, a state park ranger in Homer.
Oiled birds have been found as far north as Anchor Point, MacCampbell said, but it is likely they picked the oil up in slicks further south and flew up to Anchor Point.
Homer residents complained of delays in placing log booms they have built to protect their town, and a foreman on the job said frustrated workers shut it down Sunday in protest.
"It was just stacking up around our ears," said Ron Gordon. "None of it had been tested, none put in the water. They weren't getting any crews together to deploy it, and they weren't training people how to deploy it."
Exxon officials say the booms are being stockpiled at nearby Port Graham to make them easier to deploy when the oil strikes. Fresh assurances that the company would start training people in Port Graham to start deploying the booms convinced the Homer crews to go back to work today, Gordon said.
"People here in Homer are being jerked around," said Lee McCabe, another resident who was building booms. "If the fishermen in this town fished like Exxon deploys boom, you'd never see a fish on the dock."
While Homer residents fashioned booms from logs, people in America's heartland were collecting towels and sheets to contribute to the efforts to clean oil from injured birds and otters.
Joedy Wake, a former resident of Peoria, Ill., who moved to Alaska about five years ago, said newspapers and radio stations in his old hometown started a drive to collect the towels. They picked him as their Alaska contact, and Wake wasn't sure Sunday if today's mail will bring him a few dozen towels or a few tons of towels.
He was preparing for the latter.
"Just my inlaws told me they had a pickup truck load," said Wake, who said elementary schools and the Peoria Audubon Society have also gotten into the act.
At Block Island, Exxonpaid workers tested cleanup methods including highpressure, hotwater sprayers on rocks blackened with thick, sticky oil. The company has about 200 of the sprayers, but they have not been used previously with salt water.
Yost watched the steaming streams of water blast ankledeep muck from a beach about 20 miles from where the Exxon Valdez ran aground.
Exxon crews also tried using cold water from hoses to flood the beach and drain the oil back into the bay. They used booms to catch the oil and skimmers to suck it up.
The coldwater techniques, even those using high pressure, have little impact on microorganisms and small marine life. But the jets of highpressure steam upend rocks, strip away sand and gravel and kill beach life. Scientists say it takes up to two years for life to return to the sterilized shore.
Yost, however, said he believes the steam method is the only one that can cleanse the Sound's shoreline.
The admiral also said the logistics of keeping enough equipment and workers on the beaches of Prince William Sound during the brief summer would be enormous. Asked if the task could be completed by September, when Alaska begins bracing for winter, he said, "I don't know. It's going to be very, very tough."
He said that it might take three weeks to get Exxon's cleanup plan completely under way.
"I wish it was two or three weeks ago," said Dennis Kelso, Alaska's environmental chief.
Kelso, who has accused Exxon of dragging its feet after the wreck of the Exxon Valdez on March 24, indicated he would scrutinize the plan over the weekend and brief Gov. Steve Cowper on it before discussing it in public.
Exxon spokesman Don Cornett said the company would not discuss its plan until after Yost had fully reviewed it.
Efforts to contain the oil at sea have been largely ineffective. Exxon, the Coast Guard and the oil pipeline consortium Alyeska all have been accused of moving too slowly in the face of a staggering logistical task.
Elsewhere Saturday, state wildlife and environmental officials in a Coast Guard helicopter searched the coast of remote Katmai National Park, but were unable to confirm National Park Service reports of oil on shore, said Coast Guard Lt. Jim Madden.
Even if no oil washes up, rangers fear the tainted carcasses of sea mammals and birds killed by the spill will be eaten by bears foraging on the beach.
The state has targeted 44 beaches with at least 240 miles of shoreline for immediate cleanup.
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