Stephen Willingham talked about his flights over Prince William Sound this week like someone surveying a battleground on which his side had lost.
"We'd gone out to Applegate Rock last week and it was just hammered with oil," said Willingham, a state Department of Environmental Conservation engineer here from Juneau. "There were hundreds of dead and dying birds. I saw an otter trying to lick himself clean and just pushing the crude further into his fur.
"Then I was back there again just yesterday. It was a zoological desert. None of the carcasses I'd seen before were there; all washed out. It was completely devoid of life. The (petroleum) smell filled your nose. It was like the whole Sound was filled with oil."
He shook his head and threw up his hands. "You could get the population of the entire state of California up here and never clean it all up."
Willingham talked like a beaten man, and he is. So is every other man and woman who has been battling through Day 15 of the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
The war against 10 million gallons of North Slope crude oil is lost. Some experts say it was lost even before it began on March 24, when the Exxon tanker Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef.
By Friday, Exxon said, its cleanup crews had managed to collect 500,000 gallons of the oil, five percent of what they spilled. The rest was washing around islands on the west side of the Sound and out to the Gulf of Alaska, sideswiping portions of the Kenai Peninsula and pointing toward Kodiak. The latest move by the oil, state observers said, was a finger moving through Wells Passage toward Whittier.
The number of living things killed by the oil continued to climb. Of the 166 live sea birds brought into Valdez for cleaning, 60 had died by last count Friday. Officials counted 45 dead otters of the 85 brought in for cleaning. There are no official estimates of the number of birds and mammals killed outright by oil. The mussels, clams, and other smaller creatures of the tidal pools were dying a slow death as the thick, gooey crude either poisoned them or smothered them.
Despite the evidence, not everyone involved was willing to concede defeat Friday. Exxon officials won't. Instead, they continued to recite other numbers: feet of boom, skimmers at work, people employed. And they continued to tout Wednesday's successful refloating of the Exxon Valdez. It now is hidden away in Outside Bay, an already oilfouled bay on the southwest of Naked Island, being readied to sail to some other port for repair.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Edward Nelson also remained enthusiastic Friday. He has assumed new power over Exxon, and he has a mandate to clean up the mess from his boss, President George Bush.
But not everyone sees the light at the end of the tunnel. For most, all that is left now is to defend the fish hatcheries, the economic jewels of the Sound, and clean up the very few miles of shoreline that can be reached and won't be harmed more by human trampling.
The people from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have said all along that the war was unwinnable. Members of NOAA's special hazardous materials response team, who have been here since the beginning, have watched every major spill in the past decade big ones like the 65 million gallon Amoco Cadiz spill off the French coast in 1978 to little ones like the 1 million gallon spill in Galveston Bay in 1981.
In none of them have humans ever come close to mopping up the oil, according to John Robinson, the NOAA team chief here.
"Here? Well, past experience tells us there's not much chance," Robinson said. "We don't feel too bad if we get 10 to 20 percent of it up. And yes, that includes what's retrieved off beaches, or shorelines.
"Man isn't going to do much here to get this cleaned up. I know people won't want to hear that, and of course, any oil that's picked up is good. But now, we're going to have to do that without man messing up the environment any more."
Or, as NOAA oceanographer Jerry Galt put it: "I can tell you what's going to happen now. What you're going to start finding on those shorelines is bottles and styrofoam cups (left by workers). I'm telling you, it happens every time."
That kind of practical, detached observation is hard for a lot of people working on the spill to accept. But they have, grudgingly.
"It's like we've got some kind of monster running around," said Dennis Kelso, DEC commissioner. "And we are determined people, but we can only hold certain parts of it. We can't get our arms around it."
In the midst of talking, Kelso stopped and wrinkled his brow. Then he said, "But it would be just too awful not to do something. So what if the whole spill can't be put back in the bottle? Maybe we have lost the war. We'll build shelters."
One of those shelters represents perhaps the only visible sign of a battle won in this twoweek war, the booming of the fish hatcheries at Main, Eshamy and Sawmill bays. Local fishermen, with materials from Exxon and guidance from the state, have so far successfully stopped oil from poisoning salmon fry in those estuaries. But those efforts cover only three bays in the more than 1,000square mile Sound.
All the oil booms and skimmers in the world won't keep oil off most of the Sound's coastline. Another 10 to 30 percent of the spill that has washed into the Gulf will never be retrieved. And even when crude washes onto beaches and rocky shores, trying to clean it up may not be the best move. Many scientists agree that storms and crashing breakers would be the best cleaning action.
"There could be as much as 90 percent of the coastline that we'd recommend just be left alone let nature take care of it," Galt said.
That would mean waiting patiently, not touching much of anything, for a long time. Nature will bring Prince William Sound back to life, but not for many years.
Oil has already decimated microorganisms that nourish larger shellfish. In addition, oil is poisoning shellfish outright, and probably half of them will die, according to Bruce Wing, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist from Auke Bay.
Since those shellfish are one the sea otter's dietary staples, any otters who survived being slimed by oil may starve to death, Wing said.
"The last spill I was at, in Alameda, you would walk along the beach and there'd be windrows knee deep of dead mussels," Wing said, referring to a spill a decade ago in California. "But planktonic larvae came from nearby, and kelp grew up three to five years later. And then, the fish associated with the kelp came back.
"Most of it did come back, the abalone, urchins, other limpets. We have many of the same species here. It'll all come back. In a few years."
As soon as next summer, the Sound will probably look as clean and smell as fresh as it had before the spill. Tourists looking for majestic, snowy peaks and glaciers will still find them. In maybe another three years, oil smothered tidal pools will start to be repopulated with new generations of barnacles, mussels and sea grasses. In a decade, most visual evidence of the war may be gone. Everything would appear as it did before.
Except for the occasional burps of crude, seeping up from where it settled in sand like old live bombs unearthed in a French countryside. Environmental Protection Agency officials say oil sunk deep in beach subsurfaces could percolate to the surface for 20 years.
"Your children's children might see it," said Gregory Kellogg, a member of the EPA advisory team. "It's going to take time. And from a psychological standpoint, (the Sound) will never be the same."
story 63 of 380
story 4 of 40