Oil slicks are sliding out of Prince William Sound on ocean currents that will carry them toward Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park.
Seward city officials declared a "local emergency" on Wednesday and spent Thursday trying to marshal people, money and equipment to corral and skim the oil if it swings into Resurrection Bay.
Also Thursday, the National Park Service dispatched a special response team to the Seward headquarters of the park, a stretch of cliff lined coast that runs from Seward toward the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
Oceanographer Jerry Galt of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the volume of oil that moved out of the Sound on Wednesday was only a tiny part of the more than 10milliongallon spill that is largely unchecked.
"I expect we will see it coming out regularly, in small pieces," said Galt, a member of NOAA's oil trajectory team working out of Valdez.
Galt estimated that as much as 10 percent of the oil spilled when the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef last Friday could ride the current out of the Sound. That could be up to 1 million gallons. Most of the rest will either evaporate or run up on beaches in the Sound, he said.
The oil will be mixed and broken up by wind and waves when it leaves the more protected waters of the Sound, Galt said. If it comes ashore on the Kenai Peninsula's outer coast, about 30 miles away, it would not leave the heavy deposit it has on beaches in the Sound, he said.
Just the same, people at the head of Resurrection Bay in Seward are trying to get ready.
"We're a coastal town. We depend on fishing and tourism. And we have to live here," said Fire Chief John Gage, the city's emergency manager.
The emergency declaration allows the town managers to spend money and make plans quickly. Gage said the city is trying to round up oil booms and skimmers, find people who know how to use them, and get commitments from the state to help pay for cleanup if the oil washes into Resurrection Bay.
Seward Mayor Harry Gieseler said he got a purchase order from Exxon to buy 10,000 feet of containment boom from a supplier in Massachusetts. That will arrive today, he said, and will be used to protect the mouths of salmon streams and other environmentally sensitive areas of the bay.
"(The oil) scares the devil out of me. We didn't want to sit around and wait for it," Gieseler said.
Oil could poison young salmon that are migrating out of their home streams. And this time of year crab and shrimp larvae are concentrated near the surface of the water, where they would be especially vulnerable to oil poisoning, said Judy McDonald, a researcher at the Seward Marine Center, an arm of the University of Alaska.
The prevailing current along the north coast of the Gulf of Alaska runs east to west at about 1 knot, said Ray Highsmith, a marine ecologist with the University of Alaska. It swings up into the east side of the Sound and out Montague Strait on the west.
At the same time, the rotation of the Earth makes the current want to swing clockwise. That force could carry the water and whatever oil it carries up into the bays and fjords along shore, Highsmith said.
"It is hard to predict, but that is the pattern," he said.
On a flight to Valdez Thursday, Gieseler said, he spotted an oil slick off the south end of Montague Strait. If the pattern holds, it's headed his way.
Winds could determine how much oil hits the shores outside Prince William Sound. Dan Keeton of the National Weather Service said winds from the east and northeast are forecast for the next few days. Those winds are less likely to blow the oil ashore, he said.
The park service response team will identify areas along the coast where oil coming ashore could cause the most harm, said spokesman John Quinley. That includes areas where otters, sea lions and other land and marine animals are concentrated, and certain salmon streams, he said.
"The latest we have from NOAA says chances of being hit by oil are not high. But there are no guarantees. We want to be able to put the most effort where the animals are," Quinley said.
He said the park team does not have oil spill cleanup experience, but is there to help coordinate agencies and plans. The park service will depend on the Coast Guard to manage a cleanup if oil threatens Kenai Fjords.
The Coast Guard plans to move about 2,000 feet of containment boom to Seward, said spokesman Ed Moreth, in Valdez, but that he was not sure when.
Galt said the Gulf beaches are pounded by storms and waves, and will tend to clean themselves more quickly than those in the Sound.
Eventually, the coastal current could carry tarry residue of the spill around the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, circulate it through outer Kachemak Bay near Homer, and on up Cook Inlet as far as Kalgin Island, Highsmith said.
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