Thick, decomposing North Slope crude oil that spilled last week from the Exxon tanker Valdez sloshed freely around islands at the southwest edge of Prince William Sound Tuesday.
On Day 5 of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, tankers resumed taking on oil at the Alyeska terminal, state officials estimated Alaska is losing $2.4 million a day in revenues, and gunk from the Exxon spill washed toward precious salmon hatcheries.
Gov. Steve Cowper and a group of state and federal environmental officials took a helicopter tour of cleanup efforts. They saw a broken containment boom near the grounded tanker, which still was leaking lightly, and nothing else but spilled oil.
"What did you think of what you saw?" a reporter asked Cowper in a note passed to him in the noisy helicopter.
"You wouldn't want to print it," Cowper wrote back.
Cordova fishermen, tired of waiting for the oil companies and government agencies to act, were not about to watch while the gooey crude threatened a future salmon harvest worth an estimated $75 million.
At least a dozen fishing boats left Cordova just after midnight Tuesday, bound for Main Bay, Eshamy Bay and San Juan Bay, where millions of juvenile salmon should be making their way to the sea within days. Fishermen planned to use absorbent oil booms provided by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to turn the estuaries into a fortress against the oily invasion.
"I guess, to a certain extent, you could say we were taking matters into our own hands," said Jack Lamb, president of Cordova District Fishermen United. "But when we finally got into this, we realized that no one could do it alone."
The Valdez, with an unlicensed third mate at the wheel, went off course Friday morning and collided with Bligh Reef, about 25 miles southwest of here about 12:30 a.m., ripping eight holes in its tanks that let oil out and seawater in. Since then, state, federal and Exxon officials have played nothing but catch up, as 11 million gallons of crude oil spread through the Sound.
By Tuesday, Exxon oil recovery experts had picked up only 147,000 gallons.
More than a quarter of the 1.26 million barrels remaining on the vessel had been pumped into the Exxon Baton Rouge, tied up next to the damaged ship, and Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi said he hoped to have the ship completely unloaded by the weekend. The next job will be to refloat it, he said.
Thirtyfive miles southwest of Bligh Reef, a smelly sheet of tar up to an inch thick washed ashore and blanketed coves and beaches on Eleanor Island. To the north of Eleanor, the spill continued to splatter Naked Island.
On the helicopter carrying state and federal officials, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Riley, Coast Guard Commander Steve McCall passed notes touting the cleanup work. But there was no work to be seen, and the officials were not impressed.
A note made its way down to McCall asking, "If cleanup ongoing, where is it?"
MCall said major cleanup work was going on in an area farther south than the flight would go.
Although McCall had said the flight would review Naked Island because there were cleaning operations there, none were in evidence.
To the south of Naked Island, looking into the sun, the Sound was as glorious as it has always been, the water reflective and broken by islands that looked like links of a halfsubmerged chain.
But straight over the water and with the sun behind, the water was sickly and piebald. The oil made it look like psychedelic marble. Floating on the surface, strips of emulsified frothy oil looked like cracks.
The islands had a black ring of oil on the rocky cliffs of shore and pebbled beaches. McCall could not say how many miles of shore may have been affected.
Back on the ground, Cowper seemed quietly dejected over what he had seen.
"I don't know what you could do at this stage," he said. "It seems to me there were some simple questions that should have been asked. Either they never were, or they never were answered. What do you need to pick up the oil? Where is the equipment and people you need, and how are you going to get 'em here?"
Cowper was worried that the spill is headed for Kenai Fjords National Park. He'd lost hope for the islands of Prince William Sound that have already been oiled.
"That's the end of the marine life in that area for a long time," he said.
In Juneau, state finance officials started to tally Alaska's revenue loss.
Since Friday, the volume of oil moving through the transAlaska pipeline has been cut to 800,000 barrels a day, down from the usual 2 million barrels a day. The 60 percent reduction is costing the state and the oil companies millions of dollars.
Cliff Groh, special assistant to Revenue Commissioner Hugh Malone, told The Associated Press Alaska has lost about $2.4 million a day in taxes and royalty payments.
Paul Laird, a spokesman for BP Exploration, the state's largest oil producer, said BP projected total North Slope losses of 5.6 million barrels as of midnight Tuesday.
But delay might be a better word than loss. Although the oil is considered lost in the short term, Laird said, it will eventually be recovered over the years as North Slope drilling continues.
At Valdez, Cmdr. McCall opened the port to the ARCO tanker Sag River. Escorted by two tug boats, the Sag was the first tanker allowed into the Alyeska terminal since the spill.
Laird said he has been told production will continue at the reduced level for another day or two while more tankers are loaded at Valdez.
Most of the experts involved with the catastrophe from Exxon, the DEC, the Coast Guard, biologists have admitted the spill was too overwhelming to deal with. Most of the work now, at least in terms of the environment, will concentrate on mopping up.
Burning and dispersants, which break oil down to microscopic particles, are still a small part of the cleanup. But oil washing up on Naked, Eleanor, Smith, Green, Knight islands and the others will require lots of people. As with the fishermen, locals hoping for work and job seeking vagabonds new to Valdez will get to help.
Mop up crews left the Valdez boat harbor early in the morning, with orders not to speak with reporters. Their skipper didn't know where he would be sent, and wouldn't know until he was well underway in Valdez Arm.
Exxon's chief for Alaska, Don Cornett, said later at a press conference: "Understand. We want those people working, not talking. Their job is to pick up oil. Mine is to talk with you."
Because much of the remaining oil has degenerated into a thick, gooey foam, it will have to be raked off beaches and loaded by hand into containers. On rocky shores, high pressure water can be used to blast the oil back into the water, where skimmers can pick it up.
"Then you scrub the rocks with absorbent pads by hand," Cornett said.
Since Friday, the complement of Exxon experts on hand has mushroomed from 40 to 80 to 150. The company's command headquarters at the Westmark Hotel in Valdez is lined with tables and telephones and charts and a direct link with the company's computer in Houston. The door to the center is patrolled by guards armed with sidearms.
Cornett estimated Exxon will have hundreds of people on the payroll by week's end, scrubbing islands by hand, perhaps for months.
Daily News reporters Don Hunter and Patti Epler contributed to this story.
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