Three weeks after the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and spilled more than 10 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, the urgency is gone. But the tragicomedy of people trying to deal with something too large to grasp continues on countless stages every day, as it probably will for months.
Officials and workers continue to predict that efforts to deal with the spill will soon hit their stride that enough equipment will soon arrive, that another, yet higher official will get everything organized, or that a team of scientists or bureaucrats is about to issue the definitive plan mapping out a course of action to deal with the mess.
But out on the Sound, there are still miles of water that look like plastic, and there are still miles of stained coastlines, and the people and boats working to deal with the problem are still as lost in the expanse as an ant crossing a parking lot.
The difference is, now the predictions deal with longer amounts of time, such as the state's expectation of when Exxon should begin serious beach cleanup work, which the company said would start last Sunday.
"We're telling them we need to do as many beaches as well as can be accomplished," said Dennis Kelso, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, in Valdez Thursday. "We've got this window between now and the end of the summer, so if we miss that window, we'll have to stop."
When the washing of shoreline with hoses begins, most people agree that it will get rid of loose, surface oil only, and that it will not reach most of the shoreline that was hit by oil.
Kelso said Exxon still has not submitted a longrange cleanup plan, although the state demanded one a week ago. But he refused to criticize Exxon's current work.
"Really, we've got to do something from now on, and looking back at the shortcomings to date is not going to help us with that effort," Kelso said." I'm not hesitant to say what I think. But my interest is in getting the job done. I want to make sure that we're able to work together with Exxon and the Coast Guard."
President George Bush sent the Coast Guard Commandant, Adm. Paul Yost, to take over the federal efforts in the spill Thursday morning, and he met other officials all day, a Coast Guard spokesman said.
After the admiral got off a C130 cargo plane, it was reloaded for the return trip to Anchorage with a pair of sea otter pups bound for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Veterinarian Tom Williams held one of the cuddly animals for a mob of photographers, who jostled each other for the best shot of the day.
The Coast Guard says it has about 1,000 people working on the spill and has delivered 1,000 tons of cargo to Valdez. Exxon says it has a total of 642 people on contract recovering an average of a bit more than 42 gallons of oil a day each. Exxon claims to have recovered about 840,000 gallons so far.
The state's cleanup effort in Herring Bay was placid Thursday. The state ferry Aurora rode at anchor on emerald water at the head of the bay, near where the last of shore ice had broken into jigsaw fragments. Four helicopters were lined up on a barge, so close together their rotors all had to point the same way or they would touch.
A pair of seiners worked the way they do in fishing season, their aluminum jitneys, now black, netting oil in booms instead of netting salmon. But skimmers that were expected Wednesday to pick up the oil were not in evidence.
Rock outcroppings on shore, rounded like huge muscles, were painted black up to the highest high tide line, at the edge of the unmelted snow.
Spring has come to Naked Island. Spawning herring have released their sperm in huge milky streams that attract mobs of gulls and a few eagles to the beaches and headlands. Rafts of sea lions so thick they look like you could walk across the water on their backs await the schooling fish.
One group of sea lions swam into a patch of oil that had weathered into various hues of brown, blue and black like a hideous paisley fabric. A single sea lion floated a couple of feet under the surface, apparently dead from the oil's toxins.
In the next cove, the most bizarre theater of the oil spill was being played out on a beach where rocks the size of cobble stones had been splattered with oil in the style of Jackson Pollock's abstract painting. Workers were rubbing the stones to get the oil off, and photographers were taking pictures of them. And other photographers were taking pictures of those photographers.
A crew from German television filmed two planeloads of reporters with evident amazement. "We have been floating around 10 days," said a cameraman. "They seem to do nothing until the sea planes arrive bringing the reporters."
George Cowie, a foreman for Veco, the Exxon contractor which is doing the work, asked an Anchorage Daily News reporter to sign a release absolving the company of responsibility in case the reporter was physically attacked by workers he said were unhappy with an article that appeared in the April 6 paper.
"All I'm saying is Veco can't take responsibility for your safety because there were a lot of hot heads after your last column," he said.
In Valdez, representatives of the Laborer's National Health and Safety Fund were worried instead about the safety of the Veco workers, whose safety training, they said, was inadequate and in violation of federal regulations for hazardous waste workers.
But the officials had not been able to get to the work site by the time they held a press conference Thursday morning because their boat broke down the day before, and when they tried to go in a helicopter, the pilot said he could not land, said Eula Bingham. Bingham, a consultant to the Laborer's union, ran the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Carter.
The oil continued its relentless advance outside the Sound. Fingers of oil had reached into Kachemak Bay almost to Seldovia, said hotel owner Annie McKenzie, after riding a spotter plane about 600 feet above the waves Thursday afternoon. She said people there were hammering together homemade booms from logs and fabric, weighted with crab pots, to protect tidal sloughs, bays and beaches.
"The whole town is working. A lot of women and school kids," she said. "We know it may be futile. We've got no supplies, no technical expertise."
Official reports Thursday placed the advancing edge of the oil at English Bay, about 10 miles southeast of Seldovia. According to Jon Erickson of the statefederal spill command team in Seward, oil has spread into Resurrection Bay to within about 10 miles of Seward.
Between Seward and Seldovia, the oil stretches in varying concentrations down the length of Kenai Fjords National Park, Erickson said. There is light to medium sheen, defined as covering 10 percent to 33 percent of the water, around Nuka Island and into Nuka Bay, which cuts the steep shoreline of the national park. The bay is filled with ice water colored turquoise by glaciers and is home to seals, sea lions and otters.
The oil in Kachemak Bay is light sheen, up to 10 percent surface coverage, Erickson said. He would not predict where that oil could be today. Off Gore Point, about 50 miles upstream on the coastal current from Seldovia, there is heavy sheen, defined as covering more than onethird of the water surface.
Carrie Lyall, a Seward charter boat skipper, was on Naked Island guiding the German film crew. "We haven't seen a whole hell of a lot," she said. "It seems like there is mass confusion."
She was surprised when the workers on the beach started to pack up 21|2 hours after they arrived. "What are they doing?" Lyall asked. "They're taking off their rain gear. But they just got here. We came with them. They just got here."
Everyone packed up and left the beach to the thousands of dying snails on the rocks.
Around the next point, the tanker Exxon Valdez stood in a sunny, uninhabited cove looking like a factory. Blue smoke rose from its stack and its side bore huge black stains. A helicopter landing on the deck was lost there like a mosquito on a man's back.
But even the huge ship was quickly swallowed by the size of the Sound.
Daily News reporters Stan Jones and Steve Rinehart contributed to this story.
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