As the largest oil spill in U.S. history turned two weeks old Thursday, areas outside Prince William Sound were being marked by the lash of North Slope crude oil. Oil that has escaped the Sound went ashore in the Chiswell Islands, a big bird rookery in the Gulf of Alaska, and coated shoreline at the mouth of Resurrection Bay. The leading edge of the oil spill was reported heading toward Kodiak Island Thursday afternoon.
The Chiswells, numbering more than 100 islands, steep sided and loaded with sea bird colonies, were surrounded by oil Wednesday and Thursday, said spotters who flew the outer coast from Seward, about 35 miles to the north of the islands.
"There was oily "mousse' moving in and out and through and around the islands," said Paul Haertel, associate regional director for the National Park Service, who flew over the Chiswell group Wednesday.
Another observer on a flight Thursday said the oil seemed to pull back from the island shorelines. "I know it sounds crazy. The oil is in a complete ring around each of those rocks," said Blair Young, part of a combined federal, state and local response team headquartered in Seward.
Haertel said that while he saw oil and birds he saw no oiled birds. But Mike Hedrick, acting director of the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge, which manages the islands, said he had reports of oiled birds including murres, kittiwakes and gulls. No accurate count of the birds was available, he said.
If oil is riding the waves that pound the cliffs that ring the islands, he presumes it is hitting the rocks, Hedrick said.
A federal census on the Chiswells, finished Monday, counted more than 60,000 sea birds of several species, including petrels, puffins, kittiwakes and auklets. Hedrick said the count can reach more than 100,000, but that many of the birds do not begin to arrive until May.
The oil is part of the more than 10 million gallons of North Slope crude that spilled after the tanker Exxon Valdez slammed into Bligh Reef, about 25 miles southwest of Valdez, just after midnight March 24. Slicks from the spill have been riding currents out of the Sound for more than a week.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have estimated that 10 percent to 30 percent of the oil may eventually float out of the Sound.
The oil leaving the Sound has fouled a small cove at Resurrection Cape and Barwell Island, both at the mouth of Resurrection Bay. Slicks have also been reported around Granite Island, south of the Chiswells.
On Thursday, Haertel said, the oil slicks appeared to have pulled back away from the shore of the mainland south of Seward. Flying the same areas Wednesday, he said, he saw oil sheen at the mouths of bays down the length of Kenai Fjords National Park, and saw slicks up against capes and headlands exposed to the southwesterly drift of the current.
Several productive salmon streams, important to sport and commercial fishing, have been boomed off to keep the oil out, said Dixie Dies, spokeswoman for the Sewardbased spill response team.
The decision about which areas to protect was mainly based on economic concerns, she said, and on the limited availability of boom.
The Chiswells were not on the priority protection list. Nor were the Barren Islands, a huge bird rookery off the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula that can hold more than 600,000 sea birds and 6,000 sea lions at a time.
Seward Mayor Harry Gieseler said he felt lucky that much of the oil has passed his community and that none has been blown up into Resurrection Bay. "The bad news is that we have been told that it will be at least two or three weeks before this oil has moved out of the Sound."
Downstream from Seward on the Alaska Coastal Current is Kodiak, where Mayor Bob Brodie said his town is bracing itself. Twice daily tracking flights have spotted the leading edge of the slicks about 60 miles away, Brodie said.
"It could be here in two days, or not until five days, depending on the wind," he said.
University of Alaska oceanographer Tom Royer, who has been tracking and plotting the coastal current for years and is tracking the flow out of the Sound, said the leading edge of the slicks is splitting into two fingers as it drifts south and west of Seward. On Thursday, he said it looked as if as if one finger was headed down the eastern side of Kodiak. The other half appeared ready to slide through Kennedy Entrance into Cook Inlet, he said. That one will probably split again, about half going south through Shelikof Strait and the other half turning the corner on the Kenai Peninsula and going up Cook Inlet.
In Prince William Sound Thursday, efforts to clean up the spill continued without much change from a week ago.
Most of the activity was in Sawmill Bay, where state officials and the Cordova District Fisherman's Union were making a last stand to keep oil away from the fishermenowned hatchery at Port San Juan.
The blue state ferry Bartlett anchored off the tiny village of Chenega Bay, which is also on Sawmill Bay, to provide quarters for about 50 workers. More than a dozen boats large and small worked to keep four layers of yellow containment boom and white absorbant boom in place across the bay, guarding it from the oil.
Oil has crossed the first boom in the form of strips of brown emulsified goo, but a pair of boats with a boom in between worked to collect the mess before it could get to the second line of defenses.
"We're in a defensive mode," said Bob Hull, standing at the center of a hubbub on the Chenega dock. Hull is operations manager for the Department of Environmental Conservations contractor, Northwest EnviroService. "Our main goal is to defend the hatchery with everything we've got."
While the strategy is succeeding in keeping the hatchery clean, it has left almost nothing being done anywhere else in the Sound, which contains 900 salmon spawning streams.
As many booms appeared to be abandoned on the water and washed up on beaches as were in place Thursday. Those which were in place were unattended, and some appeared to be serving no purpose.
Exxon Shipping Co., which is running the cleanup, refused to answer any questions Thursday.
The source of the spill, the Exxon Valdez, was nestled in a harbor on the south side of uninhabited Naked Island with about 15 small boats. At 1:30 Thursday afternoon, 18 hours after it arrived there for temporary repairs, a boom still had not been placed around the tanker.
The refloating of the tanker Wednesday didn't come off without a hitch, said DEC regional director Bill Lamoreaux.
The oil company had promised state and Coast Guard officials to have a bevy of precautions on hand, including three oil skimmers, airplanes to spot oil sheen for the skimmers and sufficient boom surrounding the tanker once it anchored in Outside Bay at Naked Island.
Lamoreaux said only two skimmers were on hand, though. In addition, air support for the skimmers disappeared after a few hours, and DEC airplanes took over.
"The level of preparedness didn't come like they'd promised," Lamoreaux said. "But, it's just part of the whole package (of failed Exxon promises)."
On Eleanor Island, workers tested a beach cleanup technique using water pumps.
The tests were only partly successful, because water pressure strong enough to clean the beach caused serious erosion and destroyed creatures that lived there. But Harry Allen, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the cleaners must find ways of removing the oil, or it will be "burped up" from beaches for decades.
Workers who have been scrubbing a 1,000foot beach on the north side of Naked Island for three days appeared to have given up Thursday, after making little perceptible progress. The boat they were using was anchored at Smith Island.
In Valdez, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service blocked the removal of rescued sea otters to Sea World and other zoos outside Alaska.
Several zoos, including Sea World, the Vancouver, B.C., Aquarium and Tacoma's Point Defiance Zoo, had planned to take otters from the Valdez Bird and Mammal Rescue Center for treatment at their own facilities.
The center had cleaned 68 otters as of Thursday. Forty were still alive. Another 74 otters were brought in dead. Six otters were sent to Sea World earlier this week. One died in Anchorage, two others died after reaching Sea World.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman said the decision to stop the export was based on concern for the otters' health.
The animals have already been traumatized by the spill and the cleanup, and might be damaged by a long transport Outside, said Dave McGillivary, field supervisor.
McGillivary said the agency would look into facilities inside the state that could rehabilitate the animals.
Daily News reporters Elizabeth Pulliam and Charles Wohlforth contributed to this story.
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