Exxon Corp. ended its presentations on the 1989 Alaska oil spill at a scientific forum here Thursday with many leaving the four-day session wondering if what they had learned was good science or what Exxon lawyers wanted its researchers to say. Exxon-hired scientists said at the closing session of the American Society for Testing and Materials symposium that herring and pink salmon runs in Prince William Sound suffered no long-term damage from the spill.
Earlier in the week, Exxon scientists said the same thing about everything from intertidal organisms to otters, seabirds and fish. Government researchers have reached very different conclusions.
The dueling science occurs even though the Alaska spill, the worst in U.S. history, is the most-studied such disaster in the world.
From the start, it has been a battle of the experts, whose views are galaxies apart. Each side has been backed up by scientists, some of whom are internationally recognized experts in their fields. The ASTM forum was supposed to be a neutral arena to learn what the scientific research said about the fate of Prince William Sound. That didn't happen.
Instead, many left the conference believing that what Exxon presented as science is little more than the defense it intends to mount in court against pending lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages filed by commercial fishermen and processors, Alaska Natives and coastal communities.
The consensus, if there was one, is that lawyers are driving the scientific conclusions and that until all the litigation is settled, the truth about what happened as a result of the spill will not be known.
Joseph Sullivan, supervisor of spill damage and restoration for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said if Exxon scientists had presented any evidence that there were lingering effects from the 11 million gallon spill, he might be more willing to consider their argument. But because Exxon said there were no lingering problems whatsoever, Sullivan said, he found the company's position incredible.
Exxon scientist Hans Jahns agreed that the scientific data produced by government scientists at a February symposium in Anchorage had a different goal from that of the oil company.
"There is a difference in focus," he said. "Our focus is on recovery. It is a scientific process that will have to be reconciled."
Throughout the conference, it was clear from the questioning of Exxon researchers and in interviews with those attending that many believe good science is not possible in the adversarial climate of a man-made disaster such as the Alaska spill.
"I won't say it's the best science that money can buy," said D. Michael Fry, assistant research physiologist at the University of California's veterinary school in Davis, who did spill research for the government.
"But studies are driven by attorneys for both sides," he said. Government scientists were hired to prove that damage persists, he said. Exxon scientists were hired to prove that it doesn't.
"In 1989-90, those studies for government trustees that showed no damage were canceled," Fry said. "Those studies by Exxon that showed injury were canceled."
Robert Spies, the chief scientist advising government trustees, agreed. He said that the legal system is not the best place to reconcile conflicting views of scientists.
"You can't do it in a forum like this," Spies said of the ASTM conference. "It is a first step. But I don't think subsequent steps will be taken up in the context of litigation. The public has got to be skeptical."
Symposium chairwoman Jane Hughes said she has no concern that the integrity of the American Society for Testing and Materials has been harmed by the presentations. Hughes is a scientist for Malcolm Pirnie Inc., an environmental consulting firm that was not involved in any conference presentations.
"All this is is a forum to present findings," she said. "People can disagree. I would like to have seen more papers from the trustees. But when all this settles down and I don't know how long that will take I think there won't be such wide divergence of views. There won't be this 'you're right- you're wrong' kind of thing."
At the close of the conference Thursday, Hughes said all the presentations now will go through peer-review before publication in a year or so.
Consistent with ASTM's standards, Exxon's research methodology and conclusions will be reviewed and verified by an academic, industry and government scientist. Finding such independent people will be difficult, Hughes said, because so many scientists with expertise in the various fields were hired by one side or the other after the spill.
The peer-review problem Hughes described also applies to scientific reports by the government trustees, which also have not undergone such scrutiny.
At the February oil-spill symposium in Anchorage, in which Exxon declined to participate, government researchers reported decreased salmon production after the spill and said herring spawned in Prince William Sound during the spill were "noticeably lacking" in 1992 despite the largest spawning season since the 1970s.
This year, the herring return in Prince William Sound was just a fraction of anticipated levels. Walter Pearson, an Exxon-hired scientist with Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Wash., said he had no research-based explanation for the herring collapse this year, but did not believe it was related to the spill. The spill had no effect on herring, Pearson said in his report to the conference.
Ray Emerson of the federal Minerals Management Service involved in federal offshore oil leasing was one of the most persistent skeptics of Exxon's presentations during the week.
"Exxon is in a tough spot because it still faces litigation for who knows how long," Emerson said Thursday. "If there is one problem here, it's that there are too many lawyers."
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