State, federal and oil company officials ended Saturday as they had begun it, no closer to a solution to the problems posed by more than 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil washing around the fishandwildliferich, enclosed waters of Prince William Sound.
But while the oil of the nation's largest spill was left mostly unmolested, the chief of the state Department of Environmental Conservation assailed the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. for its failure to respond quickly to the disaster.
DEC Commissioner Dennis Kelso called Alyeska's response "inadequate and slow," and said the company failed to fulfill its obligations under the stateapproved contingency plan Alyeska itself had written.
The accusations came in a letter to the Alaska Regional Response Team, a joint federalstate group charged with overseeing oil spill cleanups. The DEC is a member of the team.
In response, Alyeska terminal superintendent Chuck O'Donnell said Kelso was right.
"This one time, I'd have to say, yes," O'Donnell said. "We were behind."
The spill occurred about 12:30 a.m. Friday, when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, about 25 miles southwest of here. The accident punctured at least eight of the ship's tanks, spewing crude oil into the Sound. The tanker was well outside the normal shipping lanes when it hit the wellmarked and wellcharted reef.
Alyeska's plan calls for, among other things, a response within five hours that would have brought containment booms and oil skimmers to the spill site.
But the equipment sat idle for five hours because the barge that carries it was down for repairs. Since reaching the scene late, the equipment has not made much headway against the spill. Kelso said Saturday that he still considered the company's efforts inadequate.
The plan also requires Alyeska to call on local boat owners to haul materials to the spill. Lots of local boat owners say they never heard from the company, but O'Donnell said his company did ask for private help.
The shifting answers and vague information about the accident and the ineffective containment and cleanup effort is creating lots of frustration among Prince William Sound fishermen and local residents. These people see their livelihoods endangered, both from the spilled oil and from the chemical dispersants that may finally be used to solve the problem.
"Am I angry? Angry's not the word for it," said Sandra Cesarini, who owns the Sea Hawk Seafoods processing plant with her husband, Ray. "I'm beside myself."
Environmentalists are equally critical. In Anchorage, the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska urged the state to mount its own cleanup effort "to prevent any more destruction to the marine resources." The state could pay for that with more than $17 million in oilspill penalties the law allows it to collect from Exxon, said Randall Weiner, the group's executive director.
In Juneau, David Ramseur, Gov. Steve Cowper's press secretary, said that despite DEC's criticism of Alyeska, the state has no plans for its own cleanup. "I'm not sure we are equipped to do that, or if it would help at this point," he said.
For whatever else it might be worth, with 11 million gallons of crude oil strung out over a 64squaremile area, O'Donnell's admission didn't do much to solve the growing problem.
As of Saturday evening, the oil slick had extended fingers 10 miles to the west from its original 30squaremile area, and those currentdriven streams were turning south. Oil sheen surrounded tiny Reef Island and was lapping at Bligh Island, both on the east shore of the Sound.
Exxon officials say about 50 sea lions could be affected by the oil and some birds have been killed, but that no major fish and wildlife destruction has yet been caused.
Efforts to pump oil from the damaged tanker into another, the Exxon Baton Rouge, have been stymied since they began late Friday night. First, a defective hose had to be replaced. When that was fixed, the transfer had to be stopped when a new leak developed. Officials did not know where the new oil was coming from, maybe from a loose connection, maybe from beneath the vessel.
Divers swam beneath the Valdez in the blackness of early morning Saturday. According to Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi, they found the ship in a more precarious position than they first thought.
The vessel is actually balanced on a ridge of rock, with deeper water beneath its bow and stern. Eight of the tanker's 13 cargo holds are damaged, including, "six to eight openings large enough for a man to swim through, and a number of open seams, one to two inches wide," he said.
Still of concern is what the broken ship will do once its cargo is unloaded. If the ship floats, it may also list and capsize or break apart.
That was why the company had a number of crewmen taken off the Valdez Saturday, and everyone left on board, including a DEC observer, were wearing cold water survival suits.
The sense of concern was obvious early Saturday morning when DEC regional supervisor, Dan Lawn, talked to Joe LeBeau, his man aboard the Valdez, by marine telephone.
"They're afraid she (the Valdez) may turn turtle on 'em," Lawn said, hunched over his office phone. "There's gonna be no more people on board."
More experts are on shore in Valdez than on the tanker Valdez. Exxon officials, environmental officials from other states and Canada, and spill experts from around he world continued to arrive in town Saturday, most of them gathering at the Westmark Hotel, overlooking the small boat harbor.
Also at the Westmark, Exxon has set up its command headquarters, complete with a telephone bank in a secondfloor room and an armed security guard, wearing a yellow hard hat, at the door.
"I think he'd just ask you to please not enter," said Exxon spokesman Tom Cirigliano, acknowledging the guard. "We just can't have all kinds of people trying to get in."
While a legion of state, federal and oil officials spoke about options in cleaning up the spill, it seemed the final solution was in black and white all the time. In the Alyeska Oil Spill Contingency Plan, chemical treatment is continually mentioned as the best possible option.
The portion of the plan dealing with the Prince William Sound includes a scenario for dealing with a hypothetical, 200,000barrel spill. Such a spill is termed in the plan as "catastrophic."
The plan concludes: "In reviewing the aspects of this size spill it becomes very apparent how important it is to have dispersants approved so that they can be used very effectively to prevent the continuing input of oil . . ."
Yet, all day Saturday, in press conferences and private interviews, state, federal and oil company officials remained adamant that other options were open.
"I don't think that means that dispersants are the only solution," Kelso said. "We have to take a look at everything."
By late Saturday night, however, Exxon had completed preparations to bomb the slick with the dispersant Corexit 9527 delivered by aircraft.
Dispersants are controversial. The chemicals are intended to bond with the oil, break it into small pieces, and cause it to mix with the water. Environmentalists say that just spreads the oil through the water from top to bottom, endangering many different life forms. Fishermen fear the oil will harm salmon, bottomfish and crustaceans.
Late Friday and again Saturday, Alyeska and Exxon officials tried spreading dispersant in a small test. The test failed, because calm seas didn't produce the agitation needed to mix the chemicals with the oil.
Iarossi said a burn test might also be conducted, but that had not been done by late evening Saturday. That would involve corralling a portion of the spill and setting it afire.
The officials say they are taking the cautious approach. But folks in Valdez are growing increasingly impatient.
"We've put our blood into this operation, and now, no one can tell us what's going to happen," Cesarini said. "What am I going to tell my employees? What am I going to tell my fishermen?"
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