PORT SAN JUAN-
The waiting finally ended Wednesday for Cordova fishermen who had been ready since Friday, a few hours after the Exxon Valdez oil spill began, to work on saving a little corner of Prince William Sound. They blocked the oil from reaching a coastal salmon hatchery here with the approaching slick only a few miles away.
Their work was, to date, the most significant effort to contain the spill. Official Exxon cleanup work continued to concentrate on removing oil in the areas on the east side of Knight Island where patches had concentrated in black mats.
A group of government scientists who met to discuss their observations Wednesday night said large numbers of birds have been soaked in oil and 1,000 sea lions are threatened.
The sea lions were hauled out Wednesday on a rock called The Needle, which is in imminent danger of being hit by the slick. An expert on setting up booms said not enough are available to protect the rock, and if it were, it could not be moved there in time and probably would tear apart in the current if it were set up.
Also, a bird specialist said he counted about 2,000 gulls and several thousand murres, scoters and merganzers that were heavily oiled in the area between Montague Island and Knight Island.
The Exxon Valdez went aground on Bligh Reef early Friday morning, more than a mile outside the shipping lane, and the collision broke eight large holes in its hull. The tanker spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of oil, of which 200,000 to 250,000 gallons had been recovered from the Sound by Wednesday. Workers had removed 19 million gallons of the 42 million that remained on board after the spill.
Men in hard hats hired by VECO, an oil field service company under contract to Exxon, boarded the 149passenger tour boat Glacier Queen II about 8 a.m. Wednesday, their second day out on the Sound. The workers were headed for Knight Island, a fourhour trip, and planned to return by 8 p.m., leaving only four hours of working time at their destination.
Exxon's Don Cornett said the men on the boat didn't get much done Tuesday. Attempts Tuesday to light oil on fire failed twice and the use of chemicals to disperse the oil has been abandoned. No one has begun working to clean the beaches.
As defensive cleanup efforts limped along on the waters and shores of Prince William Sound this week, damage control of a different kind has taken place that now puts the state in a new, but tenuous, decisionmaking position.
Earlier this week, state Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner Dennis Kelso announced a new management plan to oversee cleanup operations. The plan of the past was out the window.
At the top of this new management is Kelso, Exxon Shipping Co. president Frank Iarossi and Rear Adm. Edward Nelson Jr., Coast Guard commander for Alaska. The new team was proposed by the state, said Kelso.
Within days of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, officials in charge of cleaning it up had polarized with the state on one side and the Coast Guard and industry on the other. Rhetoric about illpreparedness, inaction and regulatory red tape became the verbal parallel to the equally ineffective cleanup operation.
Just a day after the spill, the fingerpointing began. The state was first, charging Alyeska Pipeline Company with botching their job with initial oil containment. At that point, the state's role in the cleanup was mainly advisory.
While Alyeska President George Nelson defended his company's actions in Anchorage, Exxon chief for Alaska, Don Cornett was in Juneau, complaining that state regulations had prevented his company from using chemical dispersants over the weekend, even though calm weather conditions made them useless, according to Exxon biologist Al Maki.
"I don't disbelieve Exxon's desire to get things done," Kelso said. "But what I cared about was making progress, and nothing seemed to be happening. We'd make suggestions and it seemed like they'd disappear into some black hole."
This gentlemen's arrangement is still tenuous. Exxon does not have to acquiesce a portion of its decisionmaking ability, as it seems to have agreed to with the new agreement with the state.
Dozens of miles to the east, some independent Alaskans were doing what they could.
About 18 fishermen, hatchery workers and their families were waiting anxiously for boom materials to arrive by Skycrane helicopter so they could head off the oil, which now was about seven miles away and closing.
Eric Prestegard, manager of the Armin F. Koering Hatchery, stood on the boardwalk next to the big workshop building smiling. For two days he'd been told that the booms were coming, and now that the National Guard Skycrane was on its way, he could really believe it.
"Without question, this has been the most unorganized situation," he said. "I got called in the middle of the night two nights ago saying they were going to have booms here in the morning. Esther Hatchery got 2,000 feet of boom this morning. What would have helped is if someone had told them it was coming."
But Prestegard was in love with the world. His hatchery, last year the source of 90 percent of the Sound's pink salmon run, was to be defended.
He said he'd never doubted it.
"The Cordova fishermen, it was them and their mothers and fathers who built this place in the early '70s," Prestegard said. "And now they're out here again. And I'll tell you, if we've got them, we'll get it done. If we have to cut logs down and put them out there we will. Anything that needs to be done will get done by these guys."
The hatchery, a rambling complex of buildings that look like coastal canneries, rumbles with the sound of pumps. It was built by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association, which paid for it by selling some of the fish that returned and taxing fishermen 2 percent on the ones they caught.
When the pink salmon harvest crashed last year and prices soared to a historic record, 100 boats came to little Sawmill Bay to gather the returning fish, and the season was saved.
The sound of the Skycrane's rumbling preceded it into the bay. It created a hurricane over the hatchery and a plywood boat was picked up by its wind and hurled 25 feet. The helicopter pilot lowered a cargo container of boom material to the beach.
DEC contractors directed the work, wildlife protection officers of the Alaska State Troopers helped and the National Guard delivered the boom material the state obtained. Exxon was not involved.
DEC's Bill Lamoreaux said the fishermen have advised the agency better than anyone. When a fisherman and a computer model disagreed on where the spill was going, the fisherman turned out to be right, and since then the DEC has relied on local expertise, he said.
But fishermen say they can't even get Exxon people on the telephone.
"Everybody's very ragged, and the ability for people to slow down and to make a contact is tough," Lamoreaux said. "To say Exxon has cut fishermen out of the loop I can't say but it can be hard to get access."
In the Valdez small boat harbor, people at the bottom end of the Exxon chain of command already have war stories of confusion and waste.
Tim Jones, skipper of the tour boat Vince Peede, has been carrying workers for 12hour shifts back and forth to the skimmers which were operating east of Knight Island Wednesday. He returned to harbor Tuesday night exhausted and battered.
"I came back with the boat just trashed," Jones said. "Oil all over it, and ice. And I was tired, and beat. And they said, "We want you to go right back out.' There were seven foot seas on Valdez Harbor. But I said, "OK, what do you want me to do?' They had 60 sandwiches they wanted me to take out to the barge. That was all. At what we charge them, that would cost 'em $100 a sandwich. I told them for another $20 each I'd take mayo."
On Wednesday, the oil company's work was concentrated in the skimming. An Exxon official said about 350 people were working on the water more than they could currently use and 160 were managing the response.
No one was working on beaches. Biologists say that with each tide, tar blobs on the beaches will be driven further down and become more difficult to retrieve.
A flight over the area was enough to make it clear that Exxon's plans of washing tar off the pebbles of beaches and rocky shorelines were detached from reality. The area already badly soiled with oil is 40 miles long, 20 miles wide, and filled with rugged, uninhabited islands whose shores are a proliferation of bays and headlands.
The water around the islands ranged from being flattened by a hard tar sheet to shimmering with a blue oil sheen. Emulsified oil was scattered everywhere. Called chocolate mousse, it actually looks more like vomit strewn across the water.
Lamoreaux wolfed down a sandwich at the hectic DEC office. They had succeeded in working with fishermen to place booms on three sensitive bays, but in Main Bay, where there is a hatchery, a boom deployed by fishermen with Exxon experts' advice had broken by Wednesday morning and appeared to be letting in a sheen.
In Eshamy Bay, where there is a valuable red salmon run, a pair of booms stuck out a short distance from the shore, but were far from meeting.
"We've got some incredible high value resources here, and we're basically helpless," Lamoreaux said. "We can set up some defenses, but we can't deal with the problem."
In one valuable corner of the Sound, the defenses were up. Now the 170 million tiny pink salmon fry, whose release from the Port San Juan hatchery is expected to peak April 510, have a haven before they set out.
Their survival once they go is doubtful. The fry spend six weeks swimming along the shore of the Sound before they go to sea, and the shore is coated with oil that could contaminate or suffocate them.
But the fishermen were finally working, and they were in good spirits.
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