President Bush said Tuesday that he is considering a federal takeover of the massive oil spill cleanup operation in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
Until Tuesday, when the cleanup operation was taken over by a troika of state, federal and Exxon officials, it was carried out by the Exxon Corp. under the direction primarily of the Coast Guard. Exxon is the owner of the tanker Exxon Valdez that spilled 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil after striking a reef about 25 miles south of the Valdez port last Friday.
Bush's comments came as he announced that he was dispatching William Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner and Coast Guard Commandant Paul A. Yost Jr. to Alaska to "take a hard look at where this disaster stands." The three officials arrived in Valdez Tuesday afternoon, but declined to talk to reporters.
When asked Tuesday if he was considering giving the federal government authority over the cleanup, Bush said "that's one of the recommendations I'll be awaiting from Secretary Skinner, Mr. Reilly and Admiral Yost."
But that thought didn't sit well with Gov. Steve Cowper, who spoke to a reporter on board his plane to Valdez, where he was headed to meet with the three federal officials. Cowper said wanted federal officials to stay out of the cleanup.
"I think that at this point the effort is probably fairly well coordinated, or is as well coordinated as it is likely to get, and I don't think at the moment there is any reason to have a federal takeover. There would be a whole new set of people coming into this and I don't think we need that."
He said it was important for the federal officials in Valdez to see what was going on.
"I had a telephone conversation with Bill Reilly this morning and he wanted to know if the situation was under control. I told him by no means was it under control. I think it is important for the federal officials to look at the extent of the damage in Prince William Sound and understand that, number one, federal law is not adequate to cover situations like that, and secondly, for them to understand, frankly, that the industry's response, and particularly Alyeska's response, was absolutely inadequate."
Rep. George Miller, DCalif., chairman of the House Interior Committee's subcommittee on water and power resources, also announced that he is sending staff to Alaska to investigate the spill. Miller's committee is expected to hold hearings on the spill this spring.
Bush said he had received a report Tuesday morning that Exxon "is making a good beginning" on the cleanup.
"But there's been some conflicting reports on that and I don't want to prejudge that," he said. "I think one of the things we're interested in hearing is exactly how our top officials feel the cleanup is going."
Bush also said that he sees "no connection" between the massive oil spill and proceeding with oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the administration is urging Congress to authorize.
But the leaders of 10 national environmental organizations said at a packed press conference here that the spill should be ample reason for Bush to submit the refuge development proposal to the National Academy of Sciences for an independent analysis of its environmental consequences.
Brock Evans, vice president of the National Audubon Society, described the spill as "America's Chernobyl."
"All of this is occuring in an area where the oil industry assured us there would never be any problem," Evans said.
Bush's announcement that he was sending his top officials to the state prompted Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski to return to Alaska Tuesday night. He had been attending a conference on South Africa, but his office declined to disclose where that conference was being held.
Rep. Don Young is in California visiting his mother. One of his aides, Rick Agnew, said the congressmen is being kept informed of the disaster by telephone.
It could not be learned where Sen. Ted Stevens was Tuesday. But a receptionist at his Anchorage office said he is neither in Alaska nor Washington.
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