On the choppy and wind blown waters of Prince William Sound Monday, everything had gone wrong. The oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez remained, a testament to human hesitation and indecision, on Day 4 of the largest oil spill in U.S. history. A battalion of state, federal and oil company officials had waited too long. The weather had taken over.
Strong winds out of the northeast, as fast as 50 mph, blasted across open water. The 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil were pushed and stretched into a 40 mile long, half mile wide spear pointed southwest. What had been a layer of old oil was whipped by the wind into a thick, frothy mousse.
The weather, which had been gentle and obliging since before the tanker piled onto Bligh Reef, stopped the feeble attempts to suck up the mess with oil skimmers. Small boats tending absorbent oil booms scuttled for shelter in island coves. The plan to bomb the oil with chemical dispersants which would have worked well in the churning water never got off the ground because aircraft couldn't fly in the wind.
Ironically, dispersants had not been successful in tests the past two days because the seas were too calm.
Monday evening, a few flights got off to drop dispersant on a slick rolling onto Seal Island, 30 miles southwest of the grounded tanker. But the chemicals were ineffective because of the condition of the oil.
Still, at his nightly press conference Monday, Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi said he thought his plan announced Sunday using dispersants, burning the oil and mopping it up would still work in some places. He said workers were going to begin establishing clean up camps today on some islands stained by the spill.
But as early as mid morning Monday, oil spill experts were saying any hope of successfully recovering or even hiding the spill was gone. In its thickened, gooey state, the emulsified oil is now almost impossible to retrieve. For the skimmers, the task would be like vacuuming peanut butter. Big, spongy booms won't be able to soak it up.
"We've started calling the last three days, "The good ol' days,' " said Dave Kennedy, oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's oil spill response team.
From the air Monday afternoon, the change was obvious. The water of Prince William Sound was striped with long lines of glistening blue oil. The heavy goop that before had blackened the sea was gone.
The oil has taken a subversively dangerous form. The rocky beaches of a series of wooded islands that arch out of the sea like the backs of cats are splatted with brown foam mousse and gluey blobs that smell of petroleum and salt.
The tanker itself listed, its bow dipped, and its hull slightly corkscrewed. The wind had moved it, too. Coast Guard Cmdr. Steve McCall, captain of the port, said he was not immediately concerned about another spill because tankers are made to bend.
The transfer of the crippled tanker's remaining oil to the Exxon Baton Rouge, a smaller tanker tied alongside, continued. By 8 p.m., Exxon was reporting just more than 5 million gallons had been shifted.
The Exxon Valdez stumbled aground on Bligh Reef, about 25 miles southwest of here, about 12:30 a.m. Friday, ripping holes in eight of its tanks. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. had the first chance to deal with it and failed, letting precious hours slip away while it loaded containment and cleanup equipment. By the time the first equipment finally got into action, the spill was big enough to shrug its efforts off. On Saturday, the manager of Alyeska's oil terminal conceded the response was slow.
Monday, in Anchorage, Alyeska President George Nelson said the company was not slow, that it had lived up to its promises in oil spill response plans.
"The response was not late," Nelson said. "Our tug was out there in two hours. . . . We were late with the booming equipment and skimming, but with this type of spill, that's not what the response is . . .
"You cannot suck up 240,000 barrels of oil. The mechanical equipment basically just doesn't exist."
Nelson said oil company officials never said a spill the size of the Bligh Reef disaster was impossible, "but we thought it was extremely unlikely."
Nelson said billions of barrels of oil have been shipped out of the Valdez terminal without mishap.
"We still believe we have had an outstanding record," he said.
The rest of Friday passed in getting there and waiting: Equipment had to be brought in, Exxon officials arrived from Houston, Texas; San Francisco and other parts of the world to take over the recovery operation. They were joined by federal and state officials in large numbers, including the Response Recovery Team, members of several state and federal agencies charged with monitoring Exxon's cleanup efforts.
Saturday and Sunday passed in hesitation, tests and debates, the biggest of the debate over the use of dispersants. Dispersants, as their name implies, don't remove oil; they break it down and allow it to mix with seawater. Because the oil remains in the water, dispersants are controversial.
"Our point was that you don't immediately go in with chemical dispersants because of the environmental damage," said Dennis Kelso, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, a part of the Response Recovery Team. "Certainly, though, the argument was there to go with them, and we knew that, too.
"But then, look at the weather we had. (In calm seas), they wouldn't have worked early on anyway."
The dispersants that the oil industry incessantly touts as necessary to handle such a spill probably are necessary, Kennedy said. But even they aren't reliable.
"It's emotional, an emotional issue," Kennedy added. "You've got people sitting around a table and saying to themselves: "God, we're really putting our asses on the line when we go ahead and say use dispersants.' They are scary things."
For the same three days, people here held onto the belief that quick, physical action alone containment booms, dozens of oil skimmers and lots of helping hands could have kept the genie of destruction bottled up.
But Kennedy said that was never really true.
"Can you handle a spill this large by mechanical means alone? No," Kennedy said. "I don't think the resources exist. I don't think the technology is there."
Monday evening, with other options gone and the wind lessening, the outmatched technology went out for a last stand. Boats with black, oilcoated booms trailing behind like tails left for the southern islands the oil is headed for at one mile an hour. The last hope of the cleanup effort is that the wind will not change and the booms will be able to block the oil blobs from hitting even more sensitive beaches.
Biologists could not assess the damage to beaches on at least five islands that have already been awash in oil. The wind kept them in Valdez Monday, and Kennedy said they have no idea how many animals have died.
And they may never know. Otters that encounter the oil mousse may disappear without a trace.
"What's very likely is that they'll lose flotation and sink and die, and we'll never know," Kennedy said.
A Department of Interior official asked reporters and others in a press conference Monday to turn in dead birds they find. Pamela Bergman said the latest survey of oiled birds and animals was done Saturday.
On the north shore of Naked Island Monday afternoon, a bird that biologists said was probably a cormorant lay only a few feet from the helicopter that had brought a reporter. It was at the edge of the water, its feathers matted, as black and shiny as if it had been dipped in black enamel paint. At certain angles of the sun it shone blue.
Both on the island and back in Valdez, it was clear that the failure to deal with the spill means that the the environment will suffer for years.
NOAA spill expert Jacqui Michel said the tar and mousse will become embedded in the gravel beaches and like poisoned pills slowly dispense their toxins for years to come.
"You can go back years later," she said. "We've come back to a spill and found fresh mousse on the shoreline years later.
Organisms such as clams, snails and worms that live on the beach will be contaminated by the substance, and that contamination will move up the food chain, she said.
McCall said a massive infusion of manpower will be needed to physically remove the tar and mousse from the beaches. Michel said that with every tide that comes in the oil blobs will become more deeply embedded, more spread out, and more difficult to recover.
Many miles of island shoreline as far south as Seal Island are peppered with the tarlike blobs and garnished with the mousse, a substance like well beaten eggs that have turned brown and noxious.
Kennedy said the worst possible series of circumstances has come to pass.
A disaster declaration by Gov. Steve Cowper means the Sound can get as much as $1 million in state aid. Cowper is also in the process of asking for federal disaster relief.
The governor's Washington, D.C., office says the disaster relief application should be ready for transmittal to the Bush administration today.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater says the administration is waiting for the request.
"We have not received a disaster request from the governor yet," he said at a press conference. "When we do, it will be reviewed as quickly as possible by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration. But at this point, we're awaiting the request."
The multimillion Prince William Sound herring fishery could be among the victims of the economic disaster shaping up. Alaska Department of Fish and Game spokesman Jon Lyman said the state agency plans to sample returning herring for oil contamination.
If the herring are contaminated, he said, there will be no fishery. But lack of contamination is no guarantee of a fishery, he added.
Biologists are going to have to determine how much oil is on the beaches where the herring spawn, then determine how much that will hamper the spawning success of the herring, he said.
Any opening in the fishery will be contingent on the determination that there are herring surplus to those needed to guarantee good reproduction, he said.
But not all commerce will continue to be disrupted by the spill. The Coast Guard's McCall said that he expects to open the waters to tanker traffic this morning. They've been closed since the spill because the Coast Guard wanted to keep passing ships from picking up oil on their hulls and shedding it later. The slick will be so dispersed, he said, that ships probably will not become coated as they pass through.
Alyeska's storage tanks are nearing capacity, and North Slope crude has to move or the pipeline would have to be shut down.
Daily News reporters Don Hunter, Craig Medred and David Whitney contributed to this story.
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