The 11 million gallons of North Slope crude spilled in Prince William Sound five years ago this week continues to wreak havoc with the ecosystem, state and federal scientists still studying the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill said at a forum in Anchorage on Tuesday. The first couple of years after the spill, scientists documented and quantified damage on the surface. They counted oil-covered sea otters and bird carcasses and devised models to calculate the total damage. And they measured how much oil residue was left on the shore.
Now, the scientists say, they are beginning to see and document the spill's more insidious and long-term effects. They include possible genetic damage to Prince William Sound's pink salmon, an inexplicable disease affecting herring in the Sound, and the continued decline in harlequin duck populations. Scientists also are continuing to study mussel beds, many of which still have perfectly preserved oil trapped beneath them.
And scientists recently discovered the spill may have harmed goldeneyes, a duck that winters on the coast, said David Irons, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"There are a lot of unknowns," said Stanley Rice, program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "But things are not normal. We still need to monitor it. We still have a need to monitor it and track that oil, but probably not with the same intensity."
Rice and Irons are two of the more than 200 scientists, environmentalists, fishermen, Natives and politicians who gathered Tuesday at the Regal Alaskan Hotel for a forum called: Five Years Later What Have We Learned?
The forum was scheduled to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the spill on Thursday. When the Exxon Valdez tanker vessel ran aground at Bligh Reef, more than 1,300 miles of coastline in Prince William Sound and outlying areas were tainted with oil. In late 1992, Exxon agreed to pay the federal and state governments nearly $1 billion to settle claims.
Tuesday's forum was sponsored by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the panel charged with deciding how the settlement money is spent. A dozen government scientists and officials gave presentations Tuesday summarizing what has been learned about damage done by the spill and what is still unknown.
While Exxon officials did not make presentations at the forum, they have repeatedly said there was virtually no long-term damage and the ecosystem is recovering rapidly.
One of the government scientists, Charles Peterson of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina, said the near-shore ecosystem still shows the effects of the 1989 spill, including an explosion of the sea urchin population.
Rice said a high concentration of oil remains under some mussel beds. That may be causing problems for species that feed on mussels, including harlequin ducks and juvenile sea otters.
"If we are going to wait for nature to take care of it, it will take a significant amount of time," Rice said.
In some areas, subsistence harvests have yet to return to normal, according to James Fall, head of the Subsistence Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Right after the spill, some Natives said they were worried about contamination in their food supply. Now they are saying the resources are in short supply, Fall said.
Ted Birkedal, head of Cultural Resources for the National Park Service, said that while a number of archaeological sites were damaged by oil or vandalized during spill cleanup, "the bureaucratic process" set up to protect the sites worked.
"If it had not been in place, the injury level would have been greater," Birkedal said.
Biologist Irons of the Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that the species of birds injured by the spill should be looked at again to see what part contaminated food sources played in their injury.
With some understanding of what species and resources were damaged by the spill, officials are now turning their attention to figuring out what can be done to help those species revive and how the declines might be interrelated, said Steve Pennoyer, a Trustee Council member and regional director of NOAA.
Areas that are key to the health and revival of an injured species can be identified through scientific study, according to the keynote speaker, George Rose, a fisheries scientist from Newfoundland. If those areas can be identified, they may be the areas that need protected, he said.