Tired of waiting for Exxon and the Coast Guard, sick at the thought of oil fouling the waters that feed them, people in this Kachemak Bay community have mounted a homemade defense against crude oil riding the currents out of Prince William Sound.
A hotel owner dispatched calls from a tossed together command post in the town hall. A cabin builder notched logs that float the containment boom designed by a setnet fisherman. An oilfield engineer with a biology degree led crews counting coastal wildlife and set up a water sampling program.
With her baby Evan strapped to her back, Vivian Rojas toted supplies down the dock where others stitched and pounded fabric and cables and sandbags and logs into a boom to keep oil out of Seldovia Bay.
"We figured we had to give it a shot. Nobody else was doing anything. We couldn't afford to wait around," Rojas said.
By Friday afternoon, it did not appear that Seldovia faced an immediate threat. The oil sheen that Thursday started to creep into Kachemak Bay, designated a critical habitat area in 1974, remained near Port Graham. What damage the oil could do if it entered the rich bay none could say for sure.
"It would probably not be a major biological disaster like in the Sound," said Loren Flagg, a retired Fish and Game Department biologist. He leads the HomerSeldovia citizens group that is advising public officials and Exxon about how to protect fishery and other resources here.
"But it could cause important damage," he said, if something like a big patch of tar balls settled on a clam bed.
Meanwhile, spotters in lowflying aircraft sent out by the official command team in Homer, across Kachemak Bay from Seldovia, saw what looked like good news. The migrating oil some of it in slicks, others in cityblocksized patches of tar balls, some of it in long skinny ribbons of dense oil foam appeared to have moved to the west. Crossing Lower Cook Inlet, the oil had washed ashore at Cape Douglas, the northern tip of Katmai National Park, said Leonard Wehking, one of the spotters.
The oil, weathered from the three weeks since the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled more than 10 million gallons after it ran aground on Bligh Reef March 24, has been drifting down the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula, said Wehking.
It is drifting in patches as much as 4 miles across, he said. The patches are not solid oil, but a mix of foam and sticky, tarry blobs of all sizes. The blobs produce the surface sheen that usually preceeds heavier concentrations, he said.
State and federal officials on Friday also reported light oil sheen off Shuyak Island, just north of Afognak Island, and off the Chugach Islands in Kennedy Entrance. Heavy concentrations remained in the western part of Prince William Sound, but there was no movement toward the east, according to NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman. The threat of oil contamination to hatcheries in the Sound continued to lessen, he said.
However, there were persistent, although unconfirmed, reports of sheen near the mouth of Seldovia Bay, on the western tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
The arrival of oil would threaten the sea life, from plankton at the surface to crabs on the bottom, that fills freezers and pays bills in this town of about 2,000.
"If there is no fishing, there is no town," said Penny Andrews, a cannery worker.
"We've tried our best, and we know it may not be good enough," said Annie McKenzie, owner of the Boardwalk Hotel.
When oil began spilling out of the Sound, and when there seemed no way to get the attention of Exxon or the Coast Guard, she said, she and a few others called a town meeting.
"I told everyone that it would take an enormous effort and that the chances were slim," McKenzie said. "They said if we don't act, and we could have, and the oil comes in here, we'd feel awful."
They studied boom designs and made lists of who could do what. They asked for help, but when it came three days later it was only money for office supplies, she said.
In desperation Thursday, Seldovia emergency manager Frank Monsey called Exxon area representative Wiley Bragg and threatened to issue a warrant for his arrest.
Monsey said unusual times called for unusual actions. In any event, about two hours later, Bragg and other officials arrived by helicopter.
Bragg said Friday he did not fear arrest, for he had broken no law. "Some inappropriate remarks were made. I went over there because it was obvious there was a need to discuss the situation."
Friday morning, the dozens of Seldovia residents who had been working for free were signed up as employees with VECO, Exxon's contractor.
Seldovia's boom brigade hoped to have the first halfmile of floating barricade in place by the end of the day Friday.
Al Davis, who did pioneering research on Kachemak Bay shellfish during many years as a state biologist here, said the same forces that make the bay so rich in sea life make that life vulnerable to oil. Mileswide eddies in the bay collect and hold nutrients from the Gulf of Alaska and minerals from the nearby glacier rivers. The same eddies would be likely to trap and hold whatever oil comes along, he said.
Scientists say much of the most toxic part of the oil has evaporated or has been dissolved. What's left could smother shore life or weaken other sea creatures such as salmon fry or crab and shrimp larvae. Most creatures would not eat the oil in the form of tar balls, said David Shaw, of the University of Alaska Institute of Marine Science.
"But if the weather brought a lot of that oil into a restricted area, there could be enough toxicity to do damage," Shaw said.
People in Homer and Seldovia said they would rather not take the chance.
"No one knows what is a toxic dose. The question is how much is it gonna take," said Mike McBride, lodge owner and naturalist with the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies, in Homer.
First as citizens and now, slowly, with the help of Exxon and its contractor, VECO, people here are racing the currents to protect salmon streams and the state fish hatchery at Tutka Bay Lagoon.
Fish and Game biologist Nick Dudiak said the hatchery is surrounded by five ranks of boom. Inside, about 42 million pink salmon fry are reaching the stage where they will have to move to salt water, he said.
About 1 million of those fry will return as adult fish, worth about $1.6 million to fishermen. The hatchery supplied more than 90 percent of the Lower Cook Inlet pink run last year, said Dudiak, who is worried oil could kill the plankton that the young fish eat.
Booms were placed across the mouth of the Seldovia River Friday, and plans were made to string boom outside Halibut Cove Lagoon, and salmon streams feeding into English Bay and Port Graham, two villages southeast of Seldovia.
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