Talking tough a little too late, Gov. Steve Cowper on Saturday said he will shut down the trans Alaska pipeline if oil companies and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. don't come up with a plan for controlling oil spills that works.
"There's going to be a much better plan," Cowper said. He said he will demand that the companies hire enough people to handle a major spill, keep them trained, equipped and on hand.
Alyeska's existing and woefully inadequate contingency plan will not be tolerated, he said. "If that's all there is, the line's not gonna be open," he drawled.
Cowper said state law gives him the authority to shut the line down. He was reminded that cutting the pipeline also cuts the cash that feeds 80 percent of the state treasury.
"I guess we'd probably have to draw on our savings account somehow," he said in an apparent reference to the Alaska Permanent Fund.
Cowper's comments came on Day 9 of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, caused when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef. The accident spilled more than 10 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude oil into Prince William Sound shortly after midnight March 24.
The collision tore eight gaping holes in the hull, some as long as 20 feet.
Cowper talked to a packed room at the Valdez Civic Center, flanked by state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Dennis Kelso; Jack Lamb, president of the Cordova District Fishermen United; and other state officials. Worried fishermen outnumbered reporters at least 31, and the officials were playing to an enthusiastic audience.
Cowper was delivering a message the fishermen wanted to hear. They cheered the tough talk about shutting down the pipeline if the oil companies don't put up better spill control plans.
They cheered when Cowper, coming through with everything but the details, promised to see to it that people who lose money to the spill will get their money back without waiting years for lawsuits to get results.
And they cheered when Cowper said the state will see to the cleanup of Prince William Sound, regardless of the cost.
How much will that cost, and where will the money come from? Cowper was asked.
"All it takes," he said.
"We're not going to be in a situation where we're haggling over nickels and dimes when there's work that needs to be done."
Ironically, the press conference was held inside a tight web of security at the Valdez Civic Center that reflected the increasingly hostile reception Exxon officials have gotten at similar conferences this week.
State troopers and Valdez police officers monitored the doors and searched bags, and one officer watched over the civic center from a nearby hill.
As for the oil already fouling Prince William Sound, Cowper said he has ordered the state ferry Bartlett to Valdez. The ferry will pick up a 40 member crew and booming and skimming equipment and head for Herring Bay, on the northern tip of Knight Island.
According to Larry Dietrick, director of the DEC's Division of Environmental Quality, two skiffs will pull booms to collect the oil, and the crew will open up an enormous vacuum pump to suck up the oil, which has now emulsified, or thickened, into a black, sticky goo.
Exxon will act as the garbage man in this latest attempt to clean up the spill, picking up oil soaked booms and absorbent mops and pads and disposing of them, Dietrick said.
Cowper and Lamb admitted it sounds like an awfully small step on an awfully big project. But, they said, you have to start somewhere.
"It sounds like a lousy word to use," Lamb said, "but we need to take our time . . ."
Exxon USA's top man in Alaska, Don Cornett, used almost exactly the same words two days earlier.
"Prince William Sound was the most beautiful piece of marine environment in the world two weeks ago, and now it's not," Lamb said. "We're going to bring it back, but we can't do it in two weeks or two months. I'm extremely skeptical we can do it in two years."
For its own part, Exxon seems to be more adept at pumping oil than mopping up the mess. The oil company and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. have fumbled attempts to control the spill, but Exxon has rescued the estimated 42 million gallons left on the Valdez after the accident. The last of the oil left on the ship should be pumped off by Monday night, the company said in a press release Saturday.
That massive spill and apparent inaction on cleanup has angered Valdez residents and made the town a suddenly very hostile port.
So, Exxon is looking for a quiet, remote, oil smeared cove in Prince William Sound to patch the eight holes in its ruptured tanker.
Salvage crews then will inspect the damage and figure out the best way to float the Valdez off Bligh Reef.
"We'll pump an air bubble into it, put bladders in it, bring barges alongside it . . . there are several scenarios," said Don Neet, project manager for Underwater Construction Inc., one of the companies Exxon has hired to salvage the ship.
The salvagers are hoping to float the Valdez during the middle or end of this week, to take advantage of the highest of high tides expected in this area.
Chuck Morris, an official in Underwater Construction's Anchorage office, said the ship would likely undergo at least some repair by divers before it is lifted off the reef and moved to sheltered waters for additional work.
"The primary object is to salvage the vessel without doing any more damage to it," he said. "You have to strengthen it enough that when you float it you don't have more problems."
In addition to holing eight of the vessel's oil tanks, the collision with the reef tore loose part of its keel, said Morris.
Fishermen and politicians in Valdez sharply rejected any notion of returning the vessel to the port it is named for, fearing it would trail oil all the way into the harbor. State officials Saturday said they agree.
"We have suggested that sites that have already been oiled be considered as possible repair sites," said Commissioner Dennis Kelso of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Kelso said he's been told the company is looking at three sites on Naked Island, one of the first areas where the oil made shore.
That means finding a place big enough to park a 987foot ship long enough for divers to weld steel patches onto its hull.
"There are several areas under consideration," Neet said. "At this time, that decision hasn't been made yet."
Neet said divers frequently do major repairs below the waterline, and that it should be possible to fix the Valdez up well enough to travel without bringing it into port.
"Sure," he said. "We do it all the time."
Jim Woodle, a Portland shipyard manager and a former employee of both the Coast Guard and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company at Valdez, agreed it should be possible to strengthen the ship sufficiently to make the trip south.
"The divers can make some temporary repairs from outside the vessel to allow them to maintain the tanks reasonbly dry and buoyant," Woodle said.
Before it hits the open sea, the vessel will have to pass inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard, said Coast Guard spokesman Bruce Pimental.
"They'll go over it stem to stern," he said.
Wherever the Valdez is taken for repairs, Pimental said it probably will be trailed by tugs dragging booms to catch any oil or contaminated sea water that sloshes out of the vessel.
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