Scientists hired by Exxon Corp. to study the 1989 Alaska oil spill gave an upbeat assessment at a scientific conference Monday, saying that what little oil remains in Prince William Sound is swelling the abundance of life along the shore. In the first presentation of a four-day conference of the American Society for Testing and Materials, the scientists said they have found a greater abundance of mussels, snails, barnacles and other intertidal creatures, which they attributed to an increased food supply of organisms eating the oil residue.
"What remains is not toxic," said Exxon scientist Hans Jahns, summarizing the earlier presentations of independent scientists Exxon hired to study the spill.
"It is food for bacteria, which has increased the number of critters on the shoreline," Jahns said.
Jahns also said the level of oil hydrocarbons found in mussels from Prince William Sound is less than the hydrocarbons found in smoked salmon.
The findings were criticized by others attending the conference.
"You are extrapolating too far," said Don Brown, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. "You present this as absolute, rather than saying that your data suggests or implies."
Riki Ott, a marine biologist from Cordova who joined a "truth squad" of Alaska environmentalists attending the symposium, was rebuked by a chairman of the session when she said the scientific conclusions had been bought and paid for by the company that caused the spill.
"That was rude," said the chairman, Gregory Biddinger of Exxon Biomedical Sciences.
"I wish that truth ruled the day, as well as courtesy," Ott replied before the audience of about 100 scientists.
Earlier in the day, off-duty police hired by Exxon prohibited Ott from entering an Exxon press room unescorted and stood guard at the conference doors to make sure there were no disturbances.
"We have been labeled as dissidents from which they need Atlanta police to protect them," Ott said. "But who can protect us from Exxon's lies? What we have is corporate bullies trying to intimidate us."
Dorothy Savini, press aide for the scientific society, said this was the first time security had been hired for an ASTM conference. She said Exxon arranged for the security to guard against any incidents.
"ASTM never hires security," Savini said.
According to Ott, the Atlanta police stopped her as she tried to enter a room Exxon had rented to hand out information for the press. She said they spotted her name on her name tag and said she was "not authorized" to enter.
Monday's reports to the conference were a prelude to the major conclusions of Exxon's scientists. They will contest findings of other scientists that damage from the spill continues to take a toll on marine life.
The highlight of Exxon's reports will come today with evidence it says will show that some of the oil attributed to the Exxon Valdez tanker was pollution from diesel-powered boats, naturally occurring oil seeps in the ocean or other wrongly identified sources.
NOAA has scheduled a press conference for today to rebut those claims.
"That's like saying when Chernobyl occurred . . . that people were exposed to some radiation prior to Chernobyl," said Dr. Lisa Rotterman, who has studied sea otters in the Sound since 1984. "Exxon is focusing on testing methodology. I have directly observed dead animals." The spill killed thousands of birds and up to a third of the Sound's sea otter population.
The essence of Exxon's presentations Monday was that the estimated 11 million gallons of thick Alaska crude oil dumped into Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef had serious but not long- lasting consequences on the environment.
They disputed conclusions of NOAA scientists that hot-water scrubbing of the most damaged shoreline was a mistake because it killed off all life.
They said there was no evidence the washings pushed more of the oily mess to the bottom of the ocean or that it did anything more than short-term injury to shoreline mussels and snails.
"The short-term effects of the intensive cleanup were compensated by the long-term benefits," said Sam Stoker of Berigian Resources in Fairbanks, an Exxon contractor.
"Recovery was more rapid than we expected based on other spills," Stoker said. He said the recovery was speeded by the cleansing action of winter storms and by Exxon's aggressive cleanup.
Paul Boehm of Arthur D. Little Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., said areas hit by the spill will be indistinguishable from the unoiled areas of the Sound within the next year.
Boehm also said any oil from the spill was well below toxic levels by 1991, saying that government worries about long-term oil persistence are not scientifically justified.
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