The skies over Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska cleared a bit Tuesday, not much, but enough for observers to find out how the previous day's storms tossed about the largest crude oil spill in U.S. history.
What they found seemed encouraging.
Aerial observers saw less sheen around the islands on the west of the Sound, although splotches of oil were noticed around Perry Island and Esther Island. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, booms were being set out to protect the Lake Bay salmon hatchery there.
In the Gulf of Alaska, where the crude was escaping the Sound, the leading edge of the spill had retreated some 30 miles, leaving more than 90 miles of ocean between the oil and Kodiak.
NOAA spokesman Hal Alabaster said observers think the previous night's high winds broke up much of the oil that was pointing directly toward Kodiak, meaning nature was succeeding where men and technology have failed.
But those same winds have also apparently blown at least some oil sheen up and around the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, just below English Bay. Whether oil had touched the rocky shores there, no one could tell for sure from flyovers Tuesday.
But between the drizzle and the breaking clouds Tuesday, the situation seemed not as out of control as the day before.
"Monday night, the heavy winds from the north blew a lot of oil out of Sawmill Bay," said Jim Hayden, state Department of Environmental Conservation oil spill coordinator. "Main Bay, Esther Bay and Eshamy Bay are all still free of oil."
Southeast winds were still in the forecast for the Sound and the Gulf for Tuesday night, which would blow oil back toward the fish hatcheries and the Kenai Fjords National Park. But those winds were predicted to be only about 10 to 15 mph, less threatening than the gales that blew Monday.
Despite the efficiency of the seas and the winds, men and women kept up their efforts to be useful Tuesday. The state ferry Aurora, with 90 hands on board, searched for oiled waters to clean up, but found little at Herring Bay, on Knight Island. The crew continued its search around the island, then planned to go to Sawmill Bay.
Exxon, the company that dumped the more than 10 million gallons of North Slope crude in the first place, got permission to test dispersants in the Gulf, too. But lowlying clouds prevented them from even trying a test.
Most experts doubted dispersants would yield good results anyway. In addition, veterinarians who have been caring for the few sea otters alive at the rescue center also had doubts about the usefulness of trying chemicals, considering the irritating effects they could have on the eyes and nostrils of other sea mammals.
The Coast Guard has seven cutters and four helicopters in the Sound, Resurrection Bay and around Kodiak, helping fishermen set oil boom, monitoring aircraft radio traffic, surveying oiled shoreline. A Coast Guard jet is tracking the oil with radar.
Other military aircraft brought more than 11 tons of cleanup equipment to Valdez Monday. Still more cargo planes were expected at Elmendorf Air Force Base Tuesday with another 67 tons of equipment.
And so far, officials estimate they've picked up about 756,000 gallons of oil, about 71|2 percent of what was spilled when the Exxon tanker Valdez ran aground on wellcharted Bligh Reef just after midnight on March 24.
At least people kept busy. Some counted animals: 53 live otters, 196 dead ones; 131 live birds, 1,325 dead ones.
Other people raised more protests. Tuesday afternoon, Jay Hair, zoologist and president of the National Wildlife Federation, called for congressional hearings, a multibilliondollar trust fund for the Sound and its residents, funded by Exxon, and a visit by President George Bush.
"This is America's worst ecological and economic tragedy," Hair said. "If the president came here, he would see why it's not prudent to develop ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), Bristol Bay or other environmentally sensitive areas."
Still more came to Valdez for scientific study. Two of them, James Payne and G. Daniel McNabb Jr., want to look at what happens when micronsize droplets of oil adhere to the floating sediments already present in the waters of the Sound. Both men have been studying just such interactions for a decade in the waters near Seldovia. Their work suggests that oil in the Sound, reduced to droplets by the hammering of natural wave action, will cling to natural sediment and be carried out into the Gulf even faster than previously hoped, Payne said.
In other words, nearly everyone has something to do here in the wake of the oil spill. Everyone but Floyd and Jeanne Hill.
The Hills live on Perry Island, in a little cove on the south shore where, for the past three years, they've been cultivating an oyster bed 300,000 oysters, they say.
Saturday, their cove was covered by a metallic, iridescent sheen. They boated to Valdez to tell state environmental officials and Exxon. Tuesday, they were still waiting to see if anyone was going to pick up the oil, to find out if the oil had since moved or if they could get a job themselves in the cleanup effort.
Tuesday, they were still waiting, in their seiner Silver Surfer, tied at the city dock.
"You know, other boats have been sitting out on the water for days with no instructions, not knowing what they're supposed to do," said Floyd Hill, a grizzled man with an angel hair beard. "I listen to 'em on the radio. These guys have been hired, but they aren't doing anything. And I can't get work."
The Hills' oysters were supposed to be grown enough for market this fall. The morsels have been maturing for that long, 3 feet beneath the water's surface in special cages. But since the oil spill, the plankton the oysters feed on has been poisoned.
"I would guess that if you eat poisonous plankton, you'd die," Hill said, shaking his head. "I guess we'll find out this fall, huh?"
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