The slow pace of Exxon's oil cleanup in Prince William Sound has helped the company escape a big part of its chore.
Natural forces have already removed more than 2 million gallons, and may spirit away nearly half of the more than 10 million gallons of North Slope crude oil the Exxon Valdez spewed into Prince William Sound after it ran aground on Bligh Reef 12 days ago.
As much as 2 million gallons has already evaporated, turning from water pollution into air pollution, said Dave Kennedy and Jerry Galt, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some of the oil, though a much smaller part, has dissolved and is dissolving into the water, or has sunk.
Kennedy and Galt said another 1 million to 3 million gallons may drift out of the Sound, into the Gulf of Alaska. Some oil has already edged out and slowly wound its way southwest, hugging the coastline of the Gulf of Alaska.
Freed from the confines of Montague Strait, Prince of Wales Passage and Elrington Passage, the slick expanded over a band that is now 20 to 30 miles wide, said Kennedy, an assistant scientific support coordinator with the NOAA.
The exact location and extent of the spill were not known Tuesday, because bad weather kept flights to chart it on the ground.
On Tuesday morning, the leading edge of the long arm of oil was south of Nuka Bay. Several small islands and "seal rocks" that support colonies of birds, seals and sea otters lie offshore, and it is likely the oil will clip some of them.
"It's sure not out of the question for them to get a little splatter," Kennedy said.
But the nature of the oil slick is changing in the open sea.
"The naive viewer might look at a map like this and think of this oil like a big parking lot," said Jerry Galt, an oceanographer with NOAA's hazardous materials response branch.
"A better analogy would be smoke rising from a cigarette," gradually dissipating in a swirl of curling tendrils, Galt said.
So far, wind and weather have kept those tendrils from reaching into Resurrection Bay, Aialik Bay and the other fiords along the gulf. Northerly winds and freshwater runoff coursing out of the bays flush the oil away.
"We've got those two things going for us," Kennedy said, "but it's not out of the question" for a change in winds to push the oil back into shore.
What are the odds?
"Very very slim," Kennedy said. "I don't want to put a percentage on it, but we've done a statistical analysis using the winds we think we can expect and the currents, and it's surprisingly low.
"What would skew the statistics would be a southerly wind, but to get clear back into some of those bays would be really unlikely.
"It can get in on occasion to a couple or three miles," he said. "But the center line (of the oil) is way off the coast, maybe 25 to 30 miles."
How much of the more than 10 million gallons of oil spilled from the supertanker has escaped into the gulf?
"We're not at all sure," Galt said. "Originally, we estimated about 10 percent of it might go out. You can probably up that some because of the calm weather we've had.
"And this is really just an estimate, but it might be somewhere between 10 and 30 percent that eventually gets out."
One or two good storms, and the broad band of spotty, streaky oil probably would disappear, Galt said.
"This happens every time there's a big spill," he said. The oil gradually spreads into the open sea and breaks up into smaller and smaller chunks of tar. Eventually, some of it will wash up, somewhere.
"You can go to just about any coastline in the United States," Galt said. "If you walk along the surf, sooner or later you'll step on some tar."
It's highly unlikely that the oil will be cleaned up once it hits the open ocean and rougher waters of the Gulf, said Larry Dietrick, chief of environmental quality for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The oil is part of the largest spill in U.S. history, caused when the tanker hit Bligh Reef just after midnight March 24. The ship's captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was in his cabin at the time, having left the vessel in the hands of an unqualified third mate. Investigators have since said Hazelwood was too drunk to be legally in command of the ship.
Hazelwood has been charged by Alaska authorities with three misdemeanors stemming from the grounding. But he had left Valdez by the time the charges were laid, and has since avoided attempts by police in his home state of New York to arrest him on an Alaska warrant. An attorney who says he is representing Hazelwood has been negotiating his surrender with New York authorities.
Larry Weeks, the state's chief prosecutor, said by telephone from Juneau that Hazelwood was still a fugitive from the law on Tuesday evening. "We don't have him and we don't know where he is," Weeks said. "From our point of view, there's no change."
In the Sound, spill crews had skimmed up about 600,000 gallons of oil by Tuesday, according to Exxon.
Exxon officials Tuesday insisted that the corporation was doing all it could to bring skimmers and barges and other clean up gear to bear on the brownish slicks and oil sheen that now extend over an estimated 1,600 square miles.
The company has deployed 18 skimmers, said Frank Iarossi, president of Exxon Shipping Co. He said these skimmers can all deal with the heavier, emulsified oil. The company plans to rent several more from the from the U.S. Navy. Also, Exxon, the Coast Guard and Gov. Steve Cowper's office are trying to arrange for a large Soviet skimmer, the Vaydagursky, to be sent from its base on Sakhalin Island to the Sound.
Iarossi said there was too much oil floating in the Sound to clean it all up with any number of skimmers. But he bristled at the suggestion that the company has benefited by the slow pace of the cleanup so far.
"You're beating on the wrong drum there," he replied. As the oil has gotten older and more weathered, in part because many of the solvents have evaporated, it has become harder to get off the water, he said.
Exxon USA's Alaska operations manager, Don Cornett, said that having the oil wash out to the Gulf "has not worked to our advantage" unless it does not come ashore. If it comes ashore somewhere else, he said, "Our problems are magnified."
State and company officials described the Soviet skimmer as designed for use on open water such as the Gulf. Even if it goes to work here, though, it will not be able to collect the oil escaping from the Sound, said Adm. Edward Nelson, Alaska District Coast Guard Commander.
But the spilled oil will remain Exxon's responsibility, said Nelson and Coast Guard Capt. Glenn Haines.
If patches wash up on Kodiak Island, Nelson said, they would be sampled and tested to see if they came from the Exxon Valdez. What does not hit shore, he said, will be left alone.
Much of the activity on the water Tuesday remained focused at Sawmill Bay, where the Armin F. Koernig salmon hatchery is threatened by slicks and blobs of oil. Booms strung across the bay continued to hold together, and hold out the oil, said Heather McCarty, spokeswoman for the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., which owns the hatchery.
"Drips and drabs of oil are getting through" the outer ring of booms but not the inner ones, she said.
A crew has begun some beach cleanup on Naked Island, but the plan agreed to by the state, Exxon and the Coast Guard calls for first spending most of the effort cleaning oil off the water.