KATMAI NATIONAL PARK-
From the air Tuesday, hundreds of nondescript lumps lined the broad beach at Hallo Bay along the shore of Shelikof Strait. On the ground, they turned into sea birds, sopped in oil, dead and dusted with gray sand.
The sand, shifting with every change in the tide, threatens to conceal more than birds. It has already partially covered the broad sheets of sticky brown oil that have come ashore here during the past few days. But a shallow scoop with a driftwood trowel reveals the truth: oil the consistency of Vaseline and the color of chocolate, an inch or more deep.
The visible patches, glossy and irregular, vary from a couple of feet to several feet wide and twice that long. What's hidden is anyone's guess, though a videotape shot by a park employee Monday shows sheets that Park Superintendent Ray Bane estimated to be at least 30 feet wide.
"It's working its way into the beach. It's going to keep on doing it, and it's going to be releasing poison into this system for years," said Boyd Evison, Alaska regional director for the National Park Service.
"It" is the oil spilled in Prince William Sound when the tanker Exxon Valdez hit charted rocks March 24.
Kicking over some of the tar balls that litter the 8 mile long beach on the Alaska Peninsula west of Kodiak Island, Evison said he is not convinced by some expert opinion that suggests the oil is no longer toxic. "This is devastation," he said.
As the oil seeps into the sand at Hallo Bay, 300 miles southwest of the Exxon Valdez, it has splotched the boulders in other places along the shore and has dripped to form tarry pools in the cracks and spaces between the rocks. Its telltale rainbow sheen covers mudflats that Bane said are some of the best clam beds along this part of the coast.
As elsewhere in the path of the oil spill, there is concern in Katmai about scavengers. Bane videotaped a bald eagle, unable to fly, its feathers apparently glued together. Fox tracks and plattersized bear tracks crisscross the oil zone. On a survey flight Monday, he said he counted 15 brown bears feeding along the Katmai park shore, some of them scavenging oiled birds.
Bane said he is worried the scavengers will be poisoned, carrying the death toll inland. Already at Hallo Bay, mostly devoid of birds except for a flock of oiled and desolate scoters huddled on the beach, he senses a change. "This bay should be filled with life right now. Instead, it's silent."
In Katmai the oil fouled a national treasure, a piece of wilderness that has inspired explorers and scientists for decades, a place with big bears, big fish and volcanoes.
North America's greatest oil spill focuses new attention on Katmai; it was one of the greatest natural cataclysms in recorded history the explosive eruption of Mount Katmai in 1912 that brought about creation of the park. That eruption blasted so much debris into the air it lowered average temperatures by more than one degree for the following year.
President Woodrow Wilson, impressed by reports of the eruption and the havoc it wreaked, established the monument by proclamation in September 1918, only six months after Congress created Mount McKinley National Park.
Bane said he was assured in the early days of the spill the oil would not reach this shore. "Then they said we'd get some tar balls."
But after the oil left Prince William Sound, it fouled beaches along Kenai Fjords National Park and crossed lower Cook Inlet. Oil began coming ashore in heavy concentrations along the 100 mile length of Katmai late last week. Floating puddles of oil were still washing ashore Monday, and Tuesday found long strands of sheen and oily emulsion in the surf.
And it's not stopping there. According to the Coast Guard and other agencies tracking the spill, oil on or near shore has been reported as far south as Chignik, 200 miles beyond Hallo Bay.
Evison said he wants his beaches protected, then cleaned, though he acknowledged these beaches may never be the same. "We're into years of monitoring this area," he said.
Any beach cleanup will have to wait until the oil is out of the water, said Lt. Jim Madden, the Coast Guard's oil spill representative for the Kodiak area.
He said the Soviet skimmer Vaydaghubsky is working just south of the park, and that two Army Corps of Engineers dredges, two other skimmers, one barge and nine skimmer boats are also deployed in the area where most of the oil has accumulated, from Shuyak Island on the north to Wide Bay on the south.
That's 15 vessels chasing oil spread in bits and pieces over virtually the entire length of Shelikof Strait, more than 100 miles as the crow flies, about 30 miles wide in most places, and with shoreline on both sides as notched as a sawblade.
"They'll never get it all," Bane said.