Documentary evidence shows that the chairman of Exxon Corp. is wrong when he blames the state for the slow response to the Prince William Sound oil spill. Despite Lawrence Rawl's repeated statements in newspapers, magazines and on television, the state did not stop a chemical attack of the spill in the first days after the March 24 disaster.
Exxon didn't need permission to use chemical dispersants on a major portion of what became the nation's largest oil spill, according to state and federal officials and governmentsanctioned cleanup plans.
In fact, tests done in the first days after the accident showed dispersants did not work well in the unusually placid waters of the Sound, and among the people who reported those poor results were Exxon officials on the scene in Valdez, including Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi. Iarossi and government officials said the dispersants needed at least mild waves to mix with the oil and break it up, but the water was too calm.
On Friday, Rawl said the dispersant test of March 25 "worked extremely well." On March 25, an Environmental Protection Agency official, Carl Lautenberger, said the test that day was a failure.
Rawl has said repeatedly since the Exxon Valdez ran aground that the state would not allow the oil company to use dispersants. He made those statements far from Alaska and the reporters most knowledgeable of the spill, including on the MacNeil|Lehrer News Hour on March 30; at a New York press conference April 18; and in the latest edition of Fortune magazine.
"Exxon is trying to give the state a black eye, probably to try to escape culpability on behalf of itself," Gov. Steve Cowper said Friday.
Restricting the use of dispersants is something that could come back and haunt the state in court. In a 1988 federal court decision awarding damages in the 1978 Amoco Cadiz oil spill off the Atlantic coast of France, the judge penalized the French government for restricting the use of dispersants to water deeper than 50 meters, or about 150 feet.
"Without scientific justification," said Judge Frank Mcgarr, "the 50meter limit decision which so seriously interfered with the success of the dispersant method seems to have been solely the result of pressure from ecology and nature groups."
Cowper has been angry about Rawl's statements since the two men appeared together on MacNeil|Lehrer. But it was the Fortune article that came out this week, in which Rawl said again that the state wouldn't approve the use of dispersants until it was too late, that finally made Cowper mad enough to attack what he has called Exxon's disinformation campaign.
"There is clearly a campaign here by Exxon and its public relations people to mislead the public into thinking that they could have cleaned this entire thing up if it hadn't been for the state of Alaska," Cowper said.
"My belief is if you allow a false statement to continue to be repeated people are going to believe it."
And that story is gaining currency. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. said in Wednesday's USA Today that the state objected to the use of chemical dispersants and that "Alaska has to share the blame" for the inadequate cleanup efforts.
Cowper said he planned to call Lujan to try to clear up the misunderstanding. A spokesman for the interior secretary wouldn't say Friday where Lujan got his information.
"He was made aware of the information by several sources, including people he spoke with in Alaska," said Steve Goldstein. "If the secretary is wrong he will be the first one to admit it. But all the information we have points to what the secretary said, or he wouldn't have said it."
Exxon has yet to offer evidence that the state hampered cleanup efforts. Rawl said in a letter sent to Cowper Friday that proof "will be provided by Exxon and the various state and federal agencies involved when representatives have the opportunity to testify, under oath, in the various hearings scheduled for the next several weeks."
Cmdr. Steve McCall, the chief Coast Guard officer in Valdez, said at a news conference attended by Iarossi on March 26 that he had authorized the use of dispersants based upon a standing agreement governing oil spills in the Sound.
The agreement, contained in the governmentsanctioned oilspill contingency plan, preapproved the use of dispersants over a wide swath of deep water known as Zone 1. The tanker lanes pass through the center of that zone.
The Exxon Valdez ran aground because it left the lanes and hit Bligh Reef in a more environmentally sensitive area called Zone 3. But maps of the floating oil prepared during the three days after the spill show that a major portion rode the current back toward deep water and into Zone 1. McCall said March 26 that "the leading area" of the spill was within that zone.
At press conferences and community meetings in Valdez through the first three days, Iarossi and government officials defended the dispersants they were using before angry fishermen and environmentalists who feared that the chemicals might exacerbate the harm caused by petroleum.
Iarossi didn't use his press conference forums to complain on the critical days of March 25 or March 26 about inaction on the part of the state, though numerous state officials said they didn't like dispersants and didn't want them applied in other zones. Dispersants don't remove oil from the water, but spread it over a wider area and make it invisible, the state officials said, and they frequently used terms like "sweeping it under the rug" to describe how the chemicals work.
Iarossi and the Coast Guard did report that the material and aircraft needed to apply dispersants were not on hand in Alaska, and that they were arriving from as far away as Florida. They also said they were still learning how to administer the material. The tests were conducted to determine whether to use lowflying or highflying aircraft and what type of spray mechanism worked best.
On March 27, after three days of calm, a gale blew across the Sound and hopelessly scattered the oil.
The guidelines on the use of dispersants in the Sound were approved by a statefederal regional response team on March 8, just two weeks before the spill. Oil industry representatives attended the meeting at which the plan was signed, said the EPA's Lautenberger, who served on the team.
"The preapproved zones are so the Coast Guard can make a quick decision without consultation of agencies," Lautenberger said. "What we have done through the planning process is eliminate a lot of the casebycase consultations."
Lautenberger, who was called to work on the spill early on the morning of March 24, said there were authorizations for dispersants "from the beginning" and the statefederal response team was convened early on.
"I feel there was a very timely response by the government," he said.
The dispersant tests were approved by the Coast Guard on the first two days of the spill. On the third day, there were equipment problems and it wasn't until late that day, Sunday, that the Coast Guard approved general use of dispersants.
"I've asked Exxon to give us evidence that what they said was correct," Cowper said. "If I don't receive any evidence, I'll take it to be just a tall tale."
In a letter sent to Rawl's facsimile machine Friday, Cowper pressed his point.
"I urge you to repudiate the inaccurate statements you and other Exxon officials have made regarding the state's actions on dispersant use," Cowper wrote. "If your company decides instead to cling to its story, I think the public is entitled to see some proof."
Rawl gave up no ground, though, in the response he fired back to Cowper's fax machine.
In his letter, Rawl does not repeat the charge that the state prohibited dispersants. But he did say, "The State of Alaska and the Coast Guard were in discussions during the first three days on whether dispersants should be used."
Rawl also told Cowper, "It is regrettable that you have chosen to go public on this matter without first discussing these questions directly with us."
But Cowper told reporters Friday that no one from Exxon has ever said anything to him directly about the state's role in the early days of the disaster. He said he has only seen or heard the comments from Outside news reports.
"Alaska is a long ways away from the rest of the country and I'm sure that it's possible for a concerted public relations effort to put one over on the Lower 48," Cowper said. "I mean, we're a long way away. How are we going to refute those statements?"
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