As the spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez spread its oily fingers over more than 100 square miles of Prince William Sound Sunday Day 3 of the largest oil spill in the nation's history federal, state and oil company officials failed once again to come to grips with the disaster.
Oil company workers tested methods of removing or at least hiding the 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil now loose in the enclosed, fish and wildlife rich waters of the Sound. But it was late Sunday night before Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi announced that a full scale attack would be launched today.
Iarossi said workers would use dispersants in some areas, burn the oil in other areas, and use skimmers to mop it up in still other areas.
"Starting tomorrow, we're going to deploy all three tools," Iarossi said. "There is no way we will clean up this spill with all the skimmers in the world."
Earlier Sunday, Valdez Mayor John Devens, who like many residents has been critical of the handling of the spill, took his case to what he hoped were more sympathetic ears Sunday. He asked Gov. Steve Cowper to do what he could to win a federal disaster declaration for the Sound. Later Sunday, Cowper issued a state disaster declaration, which he said was necessary before a federal declaration could be made.
The Coast Guard said Sunday that the spill was not contained, stating the obvious to anyone flying overhead.
"Yeah, it's pretty bad," said pilot Chuck LaPage. He was banking hard right in his Cessna 180 singleengine airplane Sunday afternoon, 6,000 feet above the tanker Valdez and its companion vessel, the Exxon Baton Rouge.
Exxon Shipping Co. workers were trying to pump crude from the Valdez to the Baton Rouge and refloat the vessel. As of 4 p.m., about 1.5 million gallons of the 42 million gallons left aboard the Valdez had been pumped into the Baton Rouge. Exxon officials estimated it would take four to seven days to transfer the rest.
"Yeah, at least you could see a definite spill this morning," LePage said. "Now, it's all over the place."
The Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef early Friday morning, punching holes in eight of the vessel's 13 tanks. More than 11 million gallons of North Slope crude gushed out. Coast Guard officials said Sunday afternoon that no more oil is leaking from the tanker.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., responsible for first response containment of the spill, failed. As of Sunday, only five absorbant booms were visible from the air, draped across island bays and posted to the south of the spill. An inflated bladder boom had been slung around the two tankers and oil skimmers were sucking up crude with no noticeable effect. As of late Sunday afternoon, the skimmers had recovered only 12,600 gallons.
Only a kindly weather god has kept the spill from reaching catastrophic proportions. Sunday was especially sunny, and the snowcovered mountains towering above the Sound glowed. But the weather has been calm and clear since the Exxon left Valdez Thursday night.
Choppy seas would have caused the oil to emulsify more quickly, forming into thick, gooey globs that would be much harder to deal with.
"This is a lucky situation," said Jerry Galt, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Galt is part of NOAA's oil spill response team, here as advisers on the cleanup. "This could have been a real mess."
But the weather may not save the Sound much longer. Monday's forecast was for 5 to 6foot seas and 25 mph winds.
The slick has surrounded tiny Reef Island, a propellershaped island about a mile east of the grounded tanker. Oil has also washed ashore on the north end of Bligh Island, a few hundred yards southeast of Reef.
The oil wasn't immediately visible on the beach of a small cove on Bligh's north shore. But it showed up as dark spots of brownish tar on Paul Costello's hands when he picked up a handful of rocks. The oil also left behind a filthy bathtub ring on boulders along the shore as the tide went out.
Costello is land manager for the Tatitlek Village Corporation. The village of about 120 lies on the mainland, across a narrow channel and just behind Bligh. Many of the villagers were former residents of Chenega, a village literally wiped from the map by the 1964 earthquake. Now they are facing a new disaster; these people make their livings from the Sound.
"It's overwhelming," Costello said, shaking his head and dropping the rocks. "The corporation owns this island, and these people need this land."
He looked at Tatitlek resident and fisherman Jerry Totemoff. The men had taken Totemoff's 18foot outboard skiff for a tour of the damage.
"I don't think it's hit us yet, huh, Jerry?"
"No, not yet." Totemoff pointed out deer tracks in the snow about 50 yards from the shore, then reached down and pulled up kelp that had washed ashore.
"The deer come down here to eat this kelp for the salt," Totemoff said. "They sometimes dig right in the snow for it. They ain't gonna be eatin' this, though. I don't think they're gonna like the taste.
"I don't know what this is gonna do to the fish, either. It's just not good, not good at all."
Other villagers were out Sunday, too, trying to help the oil containment effort with their boats. Henry Milette had his shrimper, Dorcas, out next to the tankers, constantly adjusting the bladder boom, even though oil corralled inside the boom was washing over it.
"It's senseless," Milette shouted from his boat. "They're not gonna get this up. It's gonna affect the bottomfish, the shrimp, the snapper. That's how I make my living."
Then he looked around, at the boom, the two men he had working on his boat, the bow of the Valdez towering 38 feet above his head and the brown muck around his boat and said: "Well, I guess we're professional oil cleaners, now."
Exxon officials, under the eye of NOAA, the Coast Guard and hundreds of suspicious Prince William Sound fisherman, tried another dispersant test and and tried burning some of the oil Sunday.
The dispersant is supposed to break down the oil to microscopic particles, but doesn't get rid of it. There is still debate among biologists about the degree of toxic danger posed by the dispersed oil.
In the burning tests, workers corral some oil inside flameretardant booms, then set it ablaze with napalm gel. The oil disappears in a spectacular pyre, but leaves air pollution behind.
Tests were being called successful Sunday, and one of those methods may be the final solution, since the slick has spread so wide.
Fred Tiedeman Sr., 64, stood that afternoon near the Tatitlek dock and looked out across the water. The oil hadn't entered the channel yet. But he smelled it like gasoline on the wind Saturday night.
"I've fished here since I was 9 years old," Tiedeman said. "And now, we may not have a season this year. May not for two or three years. What's gonna happen to all those little fry coming out of the streams? What about the fish coming through that stuff?
"Who's gonna buy my fish when they know where I got them from?"
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