As the largest oil spill in the history of the United States entered its second day, only a feeble containment effort had been mounted and a crowd of state, federal and oil company officials remained undecided about how to clean up the mess.
A 32-square-mile, multihued sheen continued to float and spread atop the waters of Prince William Sound. The Sound is surrounded by land on three sides. Two large islands, Hinchinbrook and Montague, lie across its open, southern end. That means that unless the spilled oil can be dealt with, it is a nearcertainty that it will wash ashore somewhere in the Sound.
Valdez residents grew increasingly critical Friday of what seemed to be sluggish movement by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the oil terminal here, and Exxon Shipping Co. in dealing with the spill. Nearly 24 hours after the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef about 25 miles southwest of here, officials had done little to contain the spill or clean up what was beyond containment.
"We're disappointed that it seems to have taken so long," said Valdez city manager Doug Griffin. "I've left messages all day with (Alyeska and Exxon) people, but I haven't heard from any of them yet."
Frank Iarossi, president of Exxon Shipping Co., said his firm spent Friday doing exactly what it was supposed to, mobilizing experts and equipment from around the world for the Valdez cleanup. Alyeska spokesman Tom Brennan said his company did all it could, as well, as soon as day broke.
Late Friday morning, more than eight hours after the accident, the Valdez sat motionless on the shallow bottom. A slick some 5 to 6 miles long reached from the vessel's bow to the southwest. U.S. Coast Guard and private aircraft flew overhead, but on the water only the tanker and the oil no containment booms or other oil spill equipment were visible.
Another trail of brownish muck was being left by the Exxon Baton Rouge, moving into position to the northwest of the Valdez. The brown trail extended south into the Sound as far as the eye could see from 3,000 feet in the air.
The Baton Rouge was dumping ballast from its empty tanks, sea water laden with oil residue. Officials hope to load the Valdez' remaining oil onto the Baton Rouge and another tanker, the Exxon San Francisco.
Coast Guard Lt. Ed Wieliczkiewicz said the Exxon had been granted permission to dump ballast from the Baton Rouge. He said he did not know, however, if the ballast actually contained oil.
"I don't know. I'll have to check that out," Wieliczkiewicz said. "I'd doubt that we'd give permission to create one oil spill just to clean up another one."
By Friday evening, a few containment booms made an appearance, wrapped around the bows of three Alyeska skimmers that were barely making a dent in the more than 11 million gallons of spilled oil.
Most of the response by oil industry officials has, so far, been invisible. Alyeska apparently made all the right telephone calls, including one Iarossi, at his Houston, Texas, home. Exxon then began mobilizing a spill response team and gathering machinery and manpower from San Francisco, Florida and London.
But while all that elaborate equipment was being pulled together, containment booms at Alyeska's terminal lay idle. A barge that could have been used to carry them to the spill site was undergoing repairs and couldn't be used for some hours, according to Brennan.
Still, Brennan said, nothing could have been done on the site until daybreak, anyway, when flyovers could be made to better assess damage.
"I know these people are upset by what seems to be slow response, but they just don't understand that you can't move that fast in a situation like this," Brennan said.
Exxon and Alyeska officials still have lots of decisions to make. The vessel must be inspected to make sure it won't be further damaged once its remaining cargo is taken off and it begins to float again.
In addition, even though the oilmen have been given permission by state and federal environmental officials to use chemical dispersants, no final decision on their use has been made.
Dispersants are chemicals that bond with the oil to break it up and and sink it. Critics of dispersants say the sinking oil threatens a wide range of fish and other marine life.
Meanwhile, the people who make their living off the fish in Prince William Sound are getting more impatient.
"I couldn't belive when we flew over there this morning that nothing was being done," said Riki Ott, an official with the Cordova District Fishermen's United. "Something should have been done immediately. And now (oil officials) are talking about dispersants. I can't believe any of this."
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