Government scientists lashed out at Exxon on Tuesday, saying the oil company is skewing data to support its conclusion that Prince William Sound has virtually recovered from the 1989 oil spill. The charges were leveled after scientists hired by Exxon told a session of the American Society for Testing and Materials that there were no damaging levels of Exxon oil in the Sound after 1989.
The Exxon scientists also said that by 1991 only trace amounts of Exxon oil could be found on the most heavily affected shorelines and that oil detected on the ocean's bottom had been flushed into the Sound over hundreds of years from the naturally occurring Katalla oil seep east of the spill zone.
"Even in the worst spill areas, like the Bay of Isles, Exxon Valdez oil is only a small percentage of total oil residues," David Page of Bowdoin College told the conference.
Exxon's presentations, which will continue through Thursday, are building a case that the 11-million-gallon spill, the worst in U.S. history, had only short-term consequences and that government scientists are wrong when they report that it may take decades for the Sound to fully recover.
At a rebuttal news conference held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, government scientists charged that Exxon's researchers had misinterpreted government data and "selectively ignored" other conflicting evidence.
"It is frustrating," said NOAA chemist Carol-Ann Manen, who managed the collection of spill data.
Manen said that she had hoped to bring "balance" to the Atlanta conference in a paper she had been working on with an Exxon scientist. The paper dealt with quality-control assurances in analyzing spill data. But Exxon told her co-author several months ago to withdraw the paper, leading Manen to complain of being "censored."
Exxon's chief scientist at the symposium, Hans Jahns, said the paper was scuttled because Manen's co-author was not a chemist. "Had we let this go forward, it would have muddied up the waters," he said.
Jahns stood fast in Exxon's view that government scientists are wrong to conclude that damage from the spill continues.
"We know we are in an uphill struggle," he said. "But we've been grilled to make sure our papers are right."
Exxon viewed the Atlanta conference as its prime opportunity to present its scientific conclusions. It declined to participate in an Anchorage symposium in February on the oil spill and turned down an invitation to testify at a House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee hearing on the oil spill last month.
In advance of the Atlanta conference, Exxon held briefings for reporters around the country, challenging the views of government scientists that damage from the spill persists.
NOAA spokesman Tim Tomastik said agency scientists also were briefed by the company but that Exxon refused to produce its supporting data.
"We have found that most, if not all, of Exxon's conclusions and resultant allegations are based on misinterpretations of the database which could easily have been avoided, either by more complete and careful analysis of the database itself or by consulting with appropriate NOAA personnel," Tomastik said at the press conference.
"It is very disturbing that we get such widely varying conclusions," said Robert Spies, the chief scientist for the government trustees overseeing the restoration of the spill area. "I think there are misinterpretations of data and overinterpretations of data that need to be reconciled."
Exxon spent about $3 billion cleaning up the spill. A court-approved damage settlement with Alaska and the federal government will cost the company an additional $1 billion.
But Exxon still faces damage lawsuits involving several billion dollars in claims by commercial fishermen and processors, Alaska Natives and coastal communities. In addition, the state-federal settlement provides for another $100 million in liability if new evidence of damage is discovered.
The theme of Exxon's presentations is that the chance of new damage being discovered is virtually nil since Prince William Sound has essentially recovered. It also contends that the spilled oil lost its toxicity within months of the 1989 disaster and what little remains in the Sound has become food for bacteria that has the shoreline teeming with life.
Exxon scientists also have charged at the conference that NOAA's data base, which it obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act, failed to distinguish Exxon oil from other sources, such as the underwater Katalla seep, or laboratory contaminations of samples.
But Manen said Exxon was basing its conclusions on deviations in data analysis so minuscule that they are on the outer edges of the most modern testing equipment's capability to quantify. Under standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials, she said, those deviations are not significant enough to be reported.
Doug Wolfe, chief of NOAA's bioeffects assessment branch, said Exxon scientists were using those deviations to attack government conclusions that were based on entirely different sets of data.
In a 12-page response to Exxon, NOAA cited the plight of the harlequin duck as an example. The duck feeds on mussels and its reproduction rate has plummeted since the spill.
NOAA believes the mussel beds may take a couple of decades to recover from the spill but Exxon scientists said they are virtually recovered now.
Exxon cites NOAA data that spilled oil has not been found in duck livers. NOAA said that while that is true, it is meaningless.
"There is much other evidence that sea ducks were exposed to Exxon Valdez oil through feeding, none of it mentioned by Exxon," NOAA said in its response.
The response quotes Samuel Patten of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who said at the Anchorage symposium that mussels could be transmitting oil into the food chain in "very small dosages" that block seabird reproduction.
That view was supported by NOAA scientist Gary Shigenka, who told the conference Tuesday that oil-free mussels transplanted on areas of Smith Island that were heavily oiled in 1989 showed the presence of oil in their systems after two weeks.
At Monday's conference session, Exxon scientists said any remaining Exxon oil under the tidal areas was "unavailable" to mussels, meaning that it was too deep to affect them.
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