Spring studies of oil damage to fish and wildlife in Prince William Sound are yielding worrisome results, according to Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Don Collinsworth.
Collinsworth on Thursday presented a congressional subcommittee in Washington, D.C., with written testimony warning that oil from the 11milliongallon Exxon Valdez spill may be doing more damage to fish and wildlife than scientists had expected.
There are indications Exxon oil killed herring larvae, poisoned rockfish, wiped out immature salmon and hampered the reproduction of endangered peregrine falcons, according to Collinsworth.
Gregg Erickson, state coordinator for oil spill research, cautioned, however, that the latest information is incomplete and some of it comes from studies unrelated to oil spill damage assessment.
But Collinsworth and others in state government decided it was important enough that it should be shared with the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Offshore Energy Resources, which is considering oil spill legislation.
"The more we learn in the way of preliminary results, the greater seems the risk," Collinsworth told the subcommittee in written testimony. "Here are some examples:
* "Based on a recent analysis of some samples of herring larvae hatched from eggs collected near oiled shorelines in Prince William Sound, we found 90 percent with abnormalities in comparison to only 6 percent abnormalities from unoiled areas.
* "We had hoped that deepdwelling creatures like rockfish would have avoided the oil, but now that looks problematic as well; evidence is accumulating that these and other deepdwelling creatures were stressed, and in some instances killed by oil.
* "In the intertidal portion of some salmon streams where we would normally find tens of thousands of eggs or juvenile forms, our biologists have been unable to find even a single egg, alevin or fry.
* "Peregrine falcons in the spill area appear to occupy fewer nests than expected and to have lower than normal productivity."
Some of these results were expected by scientists, Erickson said, and others might be meaningless. But, he added, some of the results point pretty conclusively toward oil pollution.
"We thought we should get it out, given the efforts to paint the picture overly rosy," Erickson said.
Erickson said Gov. Steve Cowper had to approve Collinsworth's few, brief comments on spill damage studies. State and federal officials, as well as Exxon, have refused to release scientific data collected about the spill because of the tangle of lawsuits following the March 24, 1989, wreck of the Exxon Valdez.
In his testimony, Collinsworth blamed Exxon for the information blackout.
"Last October, the state proposed that all primary science data related to the spill be made immediately public," Collinsworth said. Exxon has yet to respond to that request, he added.
The testimony from Collinsworth and from Larry Dietrick, director of the Division of Environmental Quality in the Department of Environmental Conservation, was in sharp contrast to that of Exxon.
C.M. "Mel" Harrison, executive vice president of Exxon Company U.S.A., told the subcommittee that he had "mostly good news."
Among the most "encouraging" news is that fish and wildlife are returning to previously oiled areas, he said.
"While populations are not yet at prespill densities, species diversity is evident, even in the most heavily impacted areas," Harrison said. "Intertidal plants and animals are surviving. . . . Herring and salmon fishing stocks are expected to be healthy and productive."
The state has many times questioned such broad summaries of the Sound's recovery.
"Conclusions concerning the extent or likely duration of the injury are at this point premature," Collinsworth said. "Our early findings provide little ground for optimism."
The state tried to underline the damage done by the spill. Exxon tried to play down the consequences from the worst spill in U.S. history, saying that much of the cleanup work that remains to be done should be left to nature. State officials insist a cleanup should continue.
"Overall, there has been tremendous improvement in the intertidal water and shoreline conditions in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska," Harrison said.
Dietrick, however, said 63 percent of the oil disgorged by the grounded tanker is still out there and some of it can be expected to surface as spring approaches and temperatures warm. Most of the remaining 37 percent of the oil has evaporated or dissolved into the water. Less than 7 percent of the oil was ever recovered.
The differences between the state and Exxon on what happened to the oil extend to what effect winter storms had on polluted areas and what might happen this spring and summer.
"Since September, winter forces further removed oil from the surface and sediments," Harrison testified. "Average surface oil in some of the more heavily impacted areas decreased over 50 percent from September levels and oil in the sediment has decreased about 75 percent."
"Sheens resulting from natural cleansing are decreasing, further evidence that the shorelines are becoming cleaner," Harrison said. "The sheens that do occur are thin, dissipate rapidly and therefore are not a threat to fish or wildlife."
But Dietrick cited results of a survey completed last November, saying that "approximately 117 miles of shoreline from Prince William Sound to Kodiak remained heavily to moderately oiled."
He said oil sheens were seen on the water throughout the winter and are expected to become larger as the weather warms and oil deeply embedded in the sand and rocks is released into the sea.
It also appeared from the hearing that the state and Exxon will continue to differ over what work needs to be done this spring and summer.
Harrison acknowledged that more cleanup work is needed and the Exxon will do it. But he said that this year's activities will be only a fraction of last year's $2 billion effort, with far less people and equipment, so as not to intrude into areas best left to nature to scrub clean.
But Dietrick said that "it is necessary to remove as much oil as possible from the surfaces and subsurfaces of Alaska shorelines."
"This is especially true where resource values are high for subsistence food gathering, fish spawning, outdoor recreation and scenic area and sensitive habitat areas," he said.