The Exxon Valdez oil spill was far more lethal than previously thought, according to a federal report released Monday. Its effects including mutations in fish larvae and brain damage in seals were more pervasive and longer-lasting, and animals in the oiled environment are still suffering damage.
The report was a 18-page summary of about $70 million worth of scientific work done for the state and federal governments to assess the damage of the nation's worst oil spill. The information has been secret until now because government lawyers didn't want to show their hand before going into court against Exxon.
The state still didn't want to release the information Monday when the federal side filed it in Anchorage federal court at 4:29 p.m. The summary was filed three days before public comments are due on last month's $1 billion settlement of oil spill litigation between Exxon and the state and federal governments.
Federal officials said when the settlement was announced that they would release study data, and they overrode state objections in making Monday's release. Paul Gertler of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the report contained all the findings of oil spill damage by all the studies including those conducted by the state.
The summary reports spill damage far worse than suggested by information already in the public domain. It contradicts Exxon's rosy portrayal of Prince William Sound and Gulf of Alaska as recovering fast and in no need of further restoration.
Instead of killing 36,000 birds, which was the number found dead, or 100,000 to 300,000 birds, as earlier reports suggested, Monday's report says 260,000 to 580,000 birds died because of the spill.
Of those, 172,000 to 198,000 were murres, which live long and breed slowly, laying only one egg per year. Colonies off the Kenai Peninsula lost up to 70 percent of their members, then failed completely to reproduce for the last two years. About 215,000 chicks were lost, the study estimates.
How long will they take to come back?
"If you have enough predation by gulls, it's possible they might not," said David Nysewander, who headed the murre study for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But I think most biologists think they will come back, although we don't know how long it will take, 10 or 15 years or 70 years."
Other birds were also hit hard. Harlequin ducks failed to reproduce last year, and pigeon guillemots lost 10 percent of their total Gulf of Alaska region population.
Harbor seals declined 35 percent in oiled areas in Prince William Sound. They declined only 13 percent in unoiled areas. And because of the spill, some developed brain lesions that killed some and made others listless and unresponsive. Seals still had oil in their bodies last year, but their behavior appeared more normal, said Lloyd Lowry of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who participated in the study.
The summary estimates the spill killed 200 harbor seals from a population of 1,500 to 2,500 that was already in steep decline.
"In a situation where the animals were declining already, you can't really talk about natural recovery," Lowry said.
The spill killed 3,500 to 5,500 sea otters, according to the study. That would be roughly a fourth of the otters in the Gulf of Alaska.
And the otters are still suffering. The blood chemistry and DNA of otters in oiled areas is altered, and in 1990 they continued to pick up oil from the food they eat, which was less abundant anyway because of the spill. Adult otters were still dying at an abnormally high rate last summer, and a preliminary 1991 study found that baby otters continued to die at a higher rate in oiled areas than in areas that were not hit.
Only a third of the otters rescued from the spill in 1989 appear to have survived into the present, according to a radio tagging study.
River otters were affected, too. Oil accumulated in their bodies, and their behavior changed their ranges were larger, movements more erratic and bodies leaner.
Fish were also affected, although not as obviously as other animals. Seventy percent more salmon eggs died in oiled areas than in clean areas in 1989, and 50 percent more died in 1990. And some of the survivors were deformed. "Larvae from heavily oiled streams showed gross morphological abnormalities, including club fins and curved spines," the report said. Those fish will begin to return this summer.
Herring also had more dead eggs and abnormal larvae in 1989 and 1990. Dolly varden and other trout picked up oil. Dollies were 32 percent more likely to die in oiled areas than in clean areas, and cutthroat trout had reduced growth rates.
Scientists found oil 330 feet below the ocean's surface in areas near heavily oiled shores and evidence that fish and clams had been eating the oil. Bottom fish had oil in their bodies 500 miles from the site of the spill, and the amount did not go down from 1989 to 1990. Clams had also picked up a lot of oil and were holding onto it.
The beaches and tide-pool areas were hit hard by the spill and cleanup. Many varieties of organisms dropped sharply in number, and much of the kelp, which is basic food for the ecosystem, was destroyed. Mussels placed on the shoreline to check for oil are still picking it up, according to the summary.
Twenty-six archaeological sites were also damaged, including Native burial grounds and home sites.
But the spill area is one of "abundant life," Exxon spokesman Karsten Rodvik said Monday night.
"We haven't seen the document, but everything we're seeing suggests that the biological community is healthy and thriving," he said. "Attention ought to be focused on what is out there right now, what people are seeing today. And that is a viable, thriving and diverse biological community."
Others were surprised by the severity of the bad news. When read excerpts of the summary, several people familiar with the oil spill said damage estimates appeared to be worse than anything they had previously heard, but they also added that little scientific information has been released before now.
"This is stuff I've never heard before," said Marilyn Leland, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United. "There's been lots of talk and speculation, but since we haven't seen any of the assessments, no one's had any hard information."
Deborah Donahue, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation, said the mortality figures appeared higher than any estimates she had heard. She said the information could "serve as a red flag" that the proposed settlement has flaws.
State officials were unhappy about the federal release.
"I'm supposed to go before the legislature tomorrow," said Michael Dean, acting director of the oil spill program for the state Department of Fish and Game. "It's sure going to make Mr. Cole and myself and the state of Alaska look pretty silly if he has to go up there and say he can't release this information because of litigation concerns, when the federal government has gone and done just that."
He said he reviewed a draft of the summary two weeks ago, but Attorney General Charlie Cole refused to go along with its release.
Cole said Monday night he didn't agree to release the information for fear of what it might do to the state in court, but he also said he saw nothing in the summary that would necessarily hurt the state. The state is being sued by people who were damaged by the spill.
John Sandor, commissioner of the department of environmental conservation and one of the resource trustees who will spend the settlement money, did not know about the release until a reporter told him Monday night.
"If indeed they did release what we asked them not to release, I would be quite disappointed," he said. "The attorney general is trying to protect the state's interests."
Gertler, the federal official, confirmed that the state had not agreed to the release. But he said the federal trustees decided the public and the courts needed the information to make an informed decision about the settlement before a public comment period ends Thursday.
"We're trying to move away from an litigation environment," Gertler said. "We're really getting to the place where we can tell the Alaska people what happened in Alaska. The right time has come."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.