Gale force winds were expected this morning to kick the oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez 18 days ago around Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, but where they would leave the 10-million-gallon mess was a roll of the dice.
The National Weather Service predicted winds increasing to 45 miles per hour and seas of 16 feet in the Barren Islands, near the leading edge of the spill, said Dave Hefner of the service's Valdez office. The winds from the northeast would tend to push the oil out of Prince William Sound and away from the mainland, but could send it toward Kodiak.
The gale is being generated by a pair of lowpressure systems moving north from 600 miles south of Kodiak, Hefner said. The weather service predicted that when the low passes over Kodiak Tuesday, the winds will change, coming from the south and weakening.
South winds have been dreaded by Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound residents, because the winds could push oil ashore in areas not already affected. But those winds are not forecast until Tuesday, and by then no one knows where the oil will be or what form it will take.
Hal Alabaster of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said the gale is good news, because heavy seas tend to break up oil on the water.
"That's real heavy stuff that's going to serve to really churn things up," he said.
The carcass of a California gray whale was found floating southwest of Montague Island Sunday, but Alabaster said it didn't appear to be a victim of the March 24 spill.
Alabaster said tests performed on tissue from the animal's lungs, spleen, kidney and stomach ruled out the oil spill as a cause of death, but did not establish what the whale did die of.
"Nobody knows," he said. "The animal was very far gone."
Alabaster said a whale had been spotted floating in the Sound several days earlier, too soon to have been affected by the spill.
"There is a suspicion this is the same animal spotted earlier," he said. "We're telling you (this) whale was not killed by the oil."
The leading edge of the spill was reported about 90 miles northeast of Kodiak Island Sunday afternoon. Earlier, the Coast Guard reported oil about 20 miles offshore at Gore Point, 10 miles southwest of Nuka Bay in Kenai Fjords National Park. The spill has come ashore on Cape Resurrection, Rugged Island and Seal Rocks, and observers in a NOAA helicopter spotted some oil north of Hinchinbrook Island.
Alabaster said NOAA sent more observers out late Sunday to see if the oil is stretching between Hinchinbrook and Cordova.
According to the Coast Guard, about 715,000 gallons of spilled oil have been recovered, and more than four times that much 3.2 million gallons have evaporated. Nearly 2 million gallons of oil are estimated to still be in the waters of Prince William Sound, another 2 million gallons on beaches, and another 2 million gallons in the Gulf of Alaska. About 500,000 gallons of oil have been dispersed, the Coast Guard said.
In Naked Island's Outside Bay, divers continued to assess the damage to the Exxon Valdez and determine how much steel to bring in for repairs, the Coast Guard said. There is no estimate on how long repairs will take.
There was no sign the spill was threatening a salmon hatchery on Esther Island, Alabaster said at about 5 p.m. Sunday.
At Sawmill Bay, where oil spill work has been concentrated in an effort to protect the Port San Juan pink salmon hatchery, five layers of booms were in place Sunday afternoon, before the blow was forecast. The latest boom was a heavy duty model set to deflect oil coming from the north, but the other four were lightweight and not suited to heavy weather.
Bruce Suzumoto, president of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., which owns the hatchery, said Saturday that the new boom has only a 21inch skirt, not the 42inch skirt that was expected. He said he did not know if it can stand up to a strong wind.
"We have been aided by unusually good weather conditions out here," Suzumoto said. "We're not sure we can maintain the situation."
Oil spill cleanup work in the Sound will probably stop as long as strong winds are blowing. Smallcraft advisories were already posted Sunday afternoon, and gale warnings for the Gulf went up Sunday evening. Two weeks ago when there were similar strong winds, workers lost large sections of boom and had to anchor their boats in protected coves to ride out the weather.
Plans to begin washing beaches in Prince William Sound had already been delayed Sunday and were not expected to start before Tuesday at the soonest.
Exxon hopes to wash oil out of beaches on Naked Island by flooding them with sea water. The water is intended make the oil flow back into the Sound, where booms and skimmers would be ready to pick it up.
In rocky areas, Exxon plans to use highpressure hoses to blast the shore with hot water. The technique, which scientists expect will kill organisms such as mussels and barnacles, has not yet been tested, said Andy Teal, who is running Exxon's shoreline cleanup.
Teal had said Friday night that a floating work camp, or "floatel," would be anchored off Naked Island and that work would begin Sunday. The camp was to be made of a barge carrying housing trailers.
But by Sunday night the pieces of the barge had not arrived in Valdez.
Teal said Sunday that VECO, the oilfield service company under contract to Exxon, promised to assemble the pieces of the barge, put the trailers on it, and tow it 50 miles to Naked Island in time for 90 workers to sleep on it tonight. Before nightfall they would also set 6,000 feet of floating booms along the beaches and put boats in place to skim oil off the surface, he said. The next day they would begin cleaning.
Teal said he does not know the location of two other barges that Exxon plans to use as camps.
Workers have been scrubbing individual stones and pebbles on a beach on Naked Island for more than a week. An overflight Sunday afternoon showed the beach was still oily, but the workers were gone. Garbage bags of oily rags were on the beach.
On the other side of Naked Island, a milky plume of herring sperm streamed from a gravel beach into the dark, stained water of the Sound. Two eagles and a flock of gulls fed on the spawning herring and a group of sea lions floated nearly motionless over the school.
Brown globs of emulsified oil drifted on the water in strings. Oil can kill herring and their eggs.
Cordova herring fisherman Ken Adams, shut out of the fishery by the oil spill, watched the spawning fish from a sea plane overhead.
"It's a beautiful biological circus," he said, "under normal circumstances."
Adams said he agrees with a decision by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the fishery, because he hopes to assure future runs. He still hopes to fish for salmon this year.
Daily News reporter Don Hunter contributed to this story.
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