A year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, rocks here have a gumlike black coat that has changed little from last fall. Underneath the rocks the oil is brown and glistening. A slight oil scent is in the air and, as the tide rises, oil bleeds off onto the smooth water.
What is to be done? After a year, no one seems to know whether this shore will ever be the way it was.
But people have become more sophisticated in answering the question. Exxon's cleanup plan for this summer acknowledges that some physical methods of removing oil do more harm than good. Over the winter, Exxon and government scientists have studied the methods with out the confrontation and crisis that led to an ad hoc battle plan last year.
But their work, while ruling out numerous methods of cleanup, has found nothing new, according to several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists who searched for new technologies over the winter.
Meanwhile, teams of government lawyers and scientists plan to settle up Exxon's bill for the oil spill damage that will remain. They are building a court case to force Exxon to pay for restoring dead wildlife and poisoned beaches. Some hope they will recover money for losses such as the harm to a sense of the purity of the environment.
Another group of government workers is forming to come up with ways to spend the money they hope to win. Their ideas range from repopulating wild sea birds by breeding them on farms to buying back oil leases in salmonrich Bristol Bay. They have asked a botanistphilosopher from Wisconsin to consider what restoration really means.
Meanwhile, in towns around the oil spill, fishermen hope to return to fishing this summer. They, too, are under study. A pair of sociologists believes the people who live around the spill are under psychological stress because, with the cancellation of fishing seasons last year, their cyclic link with nature was broken.
As was the case from the start, none of the generalities rings entirely true. As was clear from the first days after oil hit the islands of Prince William Sound a year ago, the oil spill is different on every beach and in every tidal pool.
Smith Island is encouraging to see. The beach where Vice President Dan Quayle walked in May, which was left piebald in the fall by the efforts of hundreds of workers with water pumps, biodegradation fertilizers and beachcleaning chemicals, is now the bright gray its bowlingballshaped rocks are supposed to be.
Behind a rock outcropping at the top of the beach, there still lies a mattresssized patch of wet brown oil. It was protected by the outcropping from winter waves that tossed around the boulders of the rest of the beach and scrubbed them clean.
On Green Island there is a jutting point of rock where, last spring, oil inches deep smothered tide pools. Now there are a only a few marks of oil left and the tide pools, although not abundant with life, appear clean.
A few hundred yards away, there is a large, protected area. The gravel and sand there are still thoroughly lubricated with strongsmelling oil that has formed a skin on the surface.
Down the beach half a mile, oil like wood putty is spread on the rocks and a lifeless tide pool lies under an oil film reminiscent of a psychedelic painting. But there is less oil here than there was in the fall, and it isn't as sticky.
In Herring Bay the water is so still it looks as if it would ring if you hit it with a hammer. When the oil first struck, everything here was black. Six months later, when Exxon stopped working, there was less oil to be seen, but many beaches were still more black than gray.
Little has changed since last fall. A beach that was set aside for study, without being cleaned, looks like the underside of a car, wellcoated with a black, rustproof undercoating. Beneath the rocks, the oil is brown and wet.
The next beach to the north, which was cleaned, is the same as the setaside beach, except that washing left the top of the rocks with bald gray patches among the black.
Although it is difficult to believe by looking at the rocks, natural processes will eventually remove the oil, but the scientists disagree over whether that will take years or decades.
Exxon and government officials are talking about cleaning gravel in machines and breaking up thick clumps of oil with shovels in a few spots, but most sites will probably be left untouched or will only be treated with nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer, a process called bioremediation.
The fertilizer is intended to encourage the growth of bacteria that consume much of the oil, leaving behind only the nontoxic asphalt component. A study has found that the bacteria are abundant in the Sound, but there is still some disagreement over whether they need more nutrients to grow faster in all areas.
But even the skeptics, most of whom work for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, now say that, if applied properly, the fertilizer product Inipol will do little harm and will probably help.
At its best, Inipol was shown to speed growth of oileating bacteria fivefold, said Dave Kennedy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But Jon Lindstrom, a DEC chemist, said it probably will not be as effective on the oil now that it is a year older.
Last year, the fertilizer was found by officials to be appropriate on 70 miles of shore among more than 1,000 miles that were oiled. It won't work on the heaviest oil.
"I don't think anyone is suggesting bioremediation is a panacea," Lindstrom said.
Even with bioremediation, oil may remain, as it has over the winter, for several years. But the question of what harm it will do is little better answered now than it was a year ago.
The oil can hurt plants and animals in two ways: It can poison them, and its stickiness can damage them.
A year after the spill, in the area around Green Island and in Herring Bay, there appears to be little sticky oil left on the surface to damage a bird or an otter's coat. But nothing was seen growing where the goo coats the rocks. On Green Island, algae has grown up to the edge of some oil stains.
The oil still contains toxic components, especially where it is locked beneath the surface of the beaches, according to NOAA scientist Jacqui Michel. Although the most poisonous part of the oil quickly evaporated, there remain heavier molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH that can harm animals.
PAH molecules dissolve in water only over a long time. They are slow to be consumed by bacteria, and have been shown in laboratory experiments to accumulate in some animal tissues and pass up the food chain.
State, federal and Exxon scientists are trying to find out whether the PAH molecules spilled from the Exxon Valdez are causing health problems for animals over the long term by slowing growth or damaging reproduction.
The results of those studies, if there are any conclusions as yet, are secret. The information is being collected to fight court cases with massive potential damages, and both sides are keeping the information pretty much to themselves.
State attorneys say they offered to put all the data in a shared library if Exxon would do it, too. Exxon said the state offer had conditions that would hide much information and appeared related to the state's court strategy. Federal attorneys won't say anything about the case except that it exists.
The officials are even less willing to talk about how they hope to set a price on the natural resource damage caused by the spill.
Under federal regulations that were struck down in court last summer, polluters were likely to be charged only for the market value of organisms killed in spills. A dead otter would cost a polluter no more than the value of its pelt. Animals with no commercial value weren't worth much.
But a federal court recognized that the environment has value beyond the money that can be made from exploiting it. Now government lawyers, speaking privately, and outside environmental attorneys say they are trying to figure out how to set those values. They are working under the theory that they can win the cost of restoring the environment to the way it was, or, if it can't be restored, to be paid the price of the damage.
If restoration is impossible, they hope to spend the money to improve the environment somewhere else, or to buy resources for the public good that are of equivalent value, said Brian Ross of the Environmental Protection Agency, who is on the state and federal team studying restoration.
Environmentalists hope that Exxon will be forced to pay for all kinds of damage, such as the damage sustained by people who planned to come to Alaska someday but now won't want to visit oily areas, or the damage felt by someone who simply felt good that the environment of the Sound was relatively pure and now can't feel that way anymore.
"Oftentimes a place like Alaska means something to someone even if they can't get there this year," said Rich Bechtel of the National Wildlife Federation. "They would like to take a trip there someday. . . . The fiords area will never be the same, and certainly not for the 10 years somebody could hike there if he's 50 years old now."
The value of the loss of a sense that the Sound is pure for people who have never been here could be measured by public opinion polling that would ask individuals what they personally would pay to have prevented the spill, Bechtel said. Such information has been used in smaller cases elsewhere, he said.
The government legal team has not yet developed a "grand strategy" to approach the case, said Barbara Herman, the state assistant attorney general who heads a team of more than a dozen attorneys working for the state, but she said it would be possible to address broad, ecological damage.
The restoration planning team, led by the EPA's Ross and Stan Senner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, will hold a public symposium in Anchorage Monday and Tuesday and will hold public meetings later to find out how Alaskans want to restore the environment.
They will discuss ideas of hatching eagles and murres to replace damaged populations, placing clean material in tidal areas to provide a base for organisms to grow, using Japanese kelp farming methods to encourage seaweed growth, expanding fish hatcheries, buying timber holdings owned by Native corporations, or buying back Bristol Bay oil leases.
Exxon declined to participate in the symposium because the secret studies on the spill's damage are not complete, making it too early to plan restoration, said spokesman Perry Smith. But organizers say enough is known to start talking about restoration.
"We all know there was damage, there was injury, right?" said Frankie Pillifant, who is working on restoration for the state Department of Natural Resources.
It may be more difficult to restore a sense of the purity of nature than to replace missing birds or animals.
William Jordan of the Wisconsinbased Society for Ecological Restoration said it might not be possible to reverse a spiritual sense of loss even if it were possible to replicate perfectly the Sound as it was before the spill. The society includes philosophers and art historians in its discussions about what restoration means.
"Even if you could agree for the sake of argument that technically the ecosystem is the same, then there are still a whole list of questions about its authenticity," Jordan said.
"Is it as real as the original? Is a Rembrandt painting as real if it's a copy, if it looks exactly the same? No one would offer near as much money for it. In the case of an ecosystem, is the sense of the place the same? Is it as real as it was before? Is it the same spiritually? As one British ecologist said, "You can restore the forest, but you can't replace the ghosts.' "
The people who live around the spill will return to fishing and most of their other normal activities long before the lawsuits or philosophical discussions are settled. Sociologists studying Cordova said the return of fishing will be the first step to healing psychological damage caused by the spill.
Duane Gill of Mississippi State University and Christopher Dyer of the University of Southern Alabama told a science conference in Cordova that their study showed the disruption of commercial fishing and subsistence food gathering caused residents to lose sleep, have bad dreams, feel their emotions and thoughts were out of control, and caused conflict among family members.
They predicted the stress would continue until fishing, hunting and gathering return to normal. Even then, they said, Cordova will not be the same.
"We're still in a turmoil," said Mayor Bob Van Brocklin.
Although no one in the town is known to have been wiped out by the spill, the economy was changed by the halt of fishing and the infusion of huge payments for fishermen who worked for Exxon's cleanup, he said. Fishermen who worked for Exxon made much more money than those who fished, putting them in an improved position in future fishing seasons because of their ability to buy better equipment, he said.
"You take a mediocre fisherman, who made a lot of money on the spill, (he) is going to come back next year with the best equipment," Van Brocklin said. As a result, the economy will based less on pure fishing skill than it was in the past.
But Cordova also plans to take advantage of some of the changes brought by the oil spill. Town leaders have set up the Prince William Sound Science Center to capture some of the money that will be spent studying the spill.
The center is housed in an old harbormaster's shack and ice house on a pier in the Cordova boat harbor. Biologists are using the space to study eagles and sea otters for spill damage assessment.
Pending federal legislation would give the center a $23 million, 10year budget, said cofounder R.J. Kopchak. The center has received loans from the city and contributions from environmental groups, oil companies and local residents.
Cordova already is well populated with scientists, and residents complain of a lack of housing. If the science center succeeds, science could become a major force in the local economy. If Exxon is forced to spend as much as some restoration workers hope $1 billion Cordova could cash in on part of a massive science project, although organizers plan for more modest growth.
"This is what we get from the oil spill," said Cordova fisherwoman and environmental activist Heather McCarty.
Jordan, of the restoration society, said restoration of the environment should help the people involved. In projects in the Midwest restoring derelict farmland to prairie, volunteer workers function like physicians, responsible for the environment's longterm health, he said.
story 191 of 380
story 23 of 72