On the knocked together stage of the Valdez Civic Center, Exxon spokesman Don Cornett spewed figures: nearly 20 million gallons of North Slope crude oil shifted from the grounded Exxon Valdez, a dozen or so oil sucking skimmers working somewhere, but he didn't know where, the 300 workers hired to clean beaches, although he admitted not much was being cleaned.
"You have to understand," Cornett finally said, after repeated questions from the crowd of reporters he faced. "Something like this doesn't get done quickly. We're taking our time, finding out where the cleanup camps have to be, getting supply lines figured out for keeping these people fed and with enough equipment."
As Exxon pumped oil a filled Exxon Baton Rouge was pulled away and replaced by an empty Exxon San Francisco Thursday and took its time, the winds continued to push spilled oil around Prince William Sound. They blew from the northwest Thursday, sending thick, frothy, decomposing oil mixed with lighter oil toward the north shores of Green and Montague islands. Some oil has slipped into the Gulf of Alaska through Montague Strait.
The Exxon Valdez piled into Bligh Reef, about 25 miles southwest of here, at about 12:30 a.m. March 24. A pair of collisions with the reef sent more than 10 million gallons of North Slope crude oil spewing into the Sound.
Any idea of containing the oil, of keeping it off any more beaches of the Sound, has been all but abandoned by officialdom federal, state and oil company alike.
Instead, officials shifted into saving things: birds, mammals, images. Federal environmental officials remained certain that dead or dying birds, sea otters, sea lions and other wildlife are yet to be found, even though no oiled birds have been brought to the cleaning center.
Thursday night, Rick Steiner, a biologist with the University's Marine Advisory Program in Cordova, said he'd found some affected birds and mammals on a flight over Applegate Rocks, near Knight Island.
"It's pathetic," he said. "There's dead otters. There's dead scoters." Scoters are a variety of sea bird.
Steiner said he found a dead otter, two that were oiled and in danger of dying, and five or six struggling offshore, "pumping their way out of the water. They were in obvious agony."
About 20 harbor seals forced onto the beach by the oil, and "it looked like a few dead sea lions floating in the water."
There were bald eagles feeding on the dead scoters. "It was a field day for the eagles, but I think they're going to pay for it soon."
Earlier Thursday, three boats with Department of Interior bird experts and bird rescue crews departed Valdez to find survey the damage.
"I couldn't get you numbers of dead birds right now, even though we've had lots of reports," said Interior spokeswoman Pamela Bergmann. "We're waiting to see what our people find."
Among their people is the group aboard the Resolution, a 52 foot Homer based halibut charter boat. It's carrying three staff members of the International Bird Rescue Center and a half dozen recruits.
The Resolution made the first, and so far only, successful bird rescue not long after it reached Herring Bay on Knight Island at about 6:30 p.m. Thursday. The rescue was accomplished without the assistance of three other small boats that are part of the rescue fleet, which were not due into the bay until well after dark.
The rescuers used the Resolution to chase the lone murre, an awkward, penguin like seabird, as it zig zagged back and forth across the oily bay. A fishing boat, the Steven Daniel, which happened to be on hand awaiting repair of boom equipment, helped corral the small bird. Crewmen tried to catch it in a blue laundry basket, but it eluded them.
Finally the bird, which was flopping on the water, could not outrun the Resolution's twin 800horsepower engines any longer. Rescuers snared it with a sport fishing net wrapped in fabric and stored it in a cardboard box. Rescuers say the bird would be OK in the cardboard box, where it could be kept warm and fed with liquid through a plastic tube. They hoped to fly the bird by helicopter Friday to a bird hospital in Valdez.
The capture was preceded by an unsuccessful attempt to capture another murre that had encountered oil. As the Resolution got to within 50 yards of it, the bird dove. When the Resolution rounded on it, the murre flew away. Jay Holcomb, the man in charge of the rescue effort for the center, said the birds have to be exhausted before they can be caught.
The boat also had sighted an extremely listless fur seal, but lacked the expertise and equipment to try to catch it.
The bay that gave respite to the Resolution Thursday night is a fiord like opening in the island's northern tip. The shoreline is dominated by rounded hills with snowy caps and trees reaching up their sides. The water is lined in some places by 20 foot sheer cliffs; in others, sandy beach.
Under a powdery gray overcast, the Resolution lay among oil patches, thick in some places, and a number of other boats. The Steven Daniel was boom tending, but her boom had sunk. Her skipper, Chuck Hughey, said the old, Swedish diesel motor Alyeska had provided to keep the boom's air compressor going had failed. Two barges and two tugs, there to service three oil skimmers, also lay at anchor. Their crews complained that breakdowns had put two of the three skimmers out of commission.
This part of the bird rescue operation had been organized by Cordova bookstore owner Kelly Weaverling. Weaverling, a contemplative man with a graying beard, is as angular as if he'd been drawn with a quill pen. He has been kayaking in the Sound for 15 years and, although Exxon is paying everyone involved in the rescue, he says he's not in it for the money.
"It's like a home to me out here," he said. "Prince William Sound is the only reason I live in Alaska."
Holcomb of the rescue center says that what he and the others are doing is important, even if none of the birds involved is rare.
"I really believe that individual lives are important," he said. "There are biologists who say we're nuts. That if you kill 10,000 birds out there, it's not gonna make any difference. But we feel it's important. We feel life is important, yours, mine and the birds."
By Thursday night, the bird rescue people about the Resolution seemed to have a better idea of just how difficult that life saving could be in a place with about the same amount of coastline as California. Bird expert Julie Knight said she was surprised by how big things were in the Sound, things like Knight island. "It looked smaller on the map," she said.
Earlier Thursday, President George Bush's threeman fact finding team provided another example of perspective. The three Adm. Paul Yost, commandant of the Coast Guard, Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner and William Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency criticized Exxon for getting off to a slow start in containing the spill, but argued the company now is throwing adequate resources into cleanup and reparation efforts.
The president ordered them to give him within 30 days a report on the full dimensions of the spill, progress in cleaning up the oil and suggestions for long term remedial and preventive strategies.
"We're doing all we can at the federal level," the president declared. "The cleanup will not be easy. It's in remote areas and it's very complicated."
Bush said joint efforts by private groups and governments at all levels should help mitigate environmental damage. "But let's be frank," he added, "there's some very serious problems there right now."
In Anchorage, Sen. Frank Murkowski was saying that not all the news from the Sound was bad.
"While there are 240,000 barrels that have spilled," the Alaska Republican said in a press release, "the good news is that more than 75 percent of the crude oil remained in the tanker, and they've pumped out about 500,000 barrels of that.
"So if the tanker doesn't break up and if the weather stays good, then we are looking at a spill of major significance, but of approximately 240,000 barrels, as opposed to what was on the tanker, which was 1.2 million."
Murkowski called that "good news."
In an interview Thursday afternoon, he said he did not intend to downplay the disaster that has befallen the Sound, but wanted to put it in perspective.
Alaskans might not have recognized the risks of putting an oil port in Valdez, he said, but now they are going to have to learn to recognize the costs.
"What's the price we paid for it?" Murkowski asked. "There's a permanent fund dividend we enjoy, and everybody's happy to take . . . now we're paying the piper, and nobody likes it."
Daily News reporters Leo Rennert and Craig Medred contributed to this story.
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