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VALDEZ - Last September, when a British Petroleum tanker spilled 13 million gallons of crude oil in the mouth of Prince William Sound, chemicals were quickly dumped from a plane to disperse some of the oil into the sea.
The whole exercise was a test, of course. Neither oil nor dispersant ever really hit the water. But the daylong exercise provided a snapshot of what's likely to happen if there's another oil spill the size of the Exxon Valdez - not only how industry and government will respond but also where public protest is likely to erupt.
Take dispersants, for instance. A citizen's watchdog group vigorously objected to their quick use in last fall's test, saying they had not been properly approved in advance. Environmentalists contend that dispersants add toxic pollution to the ocean and may not even be very effective on waxy North Slope crude.
But spill responders say chemicals that break up oil have become valuable and accessible tools worldwide in the decade since the Exxon Valdez spill. They say they should be used in proper conditions along with mechanical booms and skimmers.
"There's no doubt we have the strongest mechanical response operation in the world," said Walt Parker, former chairman of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, which led the state's investigation into the Exxon spill. "But with dispersants, the argument hasn't been advanced a bit. They hold conferences, everybody yells at each other, and then they go home."
Ten years after the nation's biggest oil spill, there's still plenty of room for argument about what cleanup techniques worked, what didn't and what should be tried next time.
Spill response preparedness has clearly come a long way since 1989, when little cleanup equipment was available and it was often hard to tell who was in charge. To meet tougher state requirements, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the marine terminal, has spent tens of millions of dollars on booms, skimmers, boats and barges. A new streamlined decision-making process gets put through the paces with frequent drills like the BP test last fall.
But when the next big spill occurs, some issues still will be fought out on the spot, such as the use of dispersants, which shorelines to protect first and how much cleanup effort to make once oil hits the beaches.
With time, however, it may be possible to work out more of those decisions in advance of a crisis.
State officials say it's time to apply the scientific findings of the past 10 years - about the vulnerabilities of Prince William Sound, as well as the effectiveness of cleanup techniques - to help design a better response system.
"The challenge now is to synthesize all that science," said Larry Dietrick, acting head of the state Division of Spill Prevention and Response, who observes that practical applications have not been made from basic research.
No amount of preplanning is likely to dispel the high anxiety and public scrutiny around every step taken in response to a major spill.
"Industry and the Coast Guard are all new folks. I think they have a false sense of confidence," said former Valdez Mayor John Devens. "I don't think they realize the level of the emotions and the difficulty of dealing with people whose livelihoods and way of life is threatened."
Devens is now executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, the watchdog group that protested use of dispersants in last year's drill. The group is also worried that the new state-federal-industry command structure may allow too little public involvement in key decisions.
Government and industry officials are indeed happier with the system they've set up. But their confidence level falls off quickly when they are asked whether they'll be able to corral the next big spill.
"I feel the response would be dramatically better," said state Commissioner of Environmental Conservation Michele Brown, whose department must approve industry's spill contingency plans. "But a spill of (Exxon Valdez) magnitude, with the kind of weather that came up on Day Three (in 1989), would mean oil on the beaches once again. That's a very sobering thought."
Here's a look at some of what's changed since 1989:
EQUIPMENT: Some 34 miles of oil boom are stored around Prince William Sound, compared to five miles of boom in 1989, according to the state. In addition, Alyeska has response vessels, oil-storage barges and more than 60 skimming systems in the Sound, with premeasured booms ready to deploy at remote hatcheries.
In Valdez, Alyeska's warehouse is a veritable Costco of suction hoses, Tyvek protective suits and sea otter capture kits.
ON-SITE BURNING: Several attempts were made in 1989 to burn small amounts of Exxon's oil, but today the state feels much more confident about burning thick oil at sea. Health hazards posed by black smoke are better understood, Dietrick said.
But another alternative treatment, solidifying agents that proponents say can turn a tanker full of crude into a "giant ChapStick," have received little attention, complained Parker, whose oil spill commission recommended further study.
NEAR-SHORE RESPONSE: An especially weak link in the 1989 response was that industry had no way to attack the oil once it escaped the front-line skimmers. Commercial fishing boats that rallied to protect hatcheries with skiffs and booms provided a model for today's more refined plans.
Alyeska is now required to keep some 350 fishing boats on contract, trained to use boom, skimmers and small storage barges. Many of these boats are in "downstream" communities like Homer, Seldovia and Kodiak, where Exxon's oil wound up after several weeks in the water. But because the state believes the odds of another spill reaching those communities are remote, it hasn't required caches of equipment there, Dietrick said.
Tom Copeland, who represents environmentalists on the Regional Citizens Advisory Council board, says the state simply isn't ready for a spill to escape Prince William Sound.
Recalling that then-DEC Commissioner Dennis Kelso once called Alyeska's 1989 spill-contingency plan "the greatest piece of maritime fiction since Moby Dick," Copeland called the new plans for outside the Sound "Moby Dick the Sequel."
BEACH CLEANUP: Some treatments did more harm than good, scientists say, while others accomplished little. High-pressure hot water flushed out sand and scalded intertidal life such as sea stars and algae, so that some beaches washed that way took longer to recover than similar oiled beaches left alone, according to federal studies.
On the other hand, more recent studies show beaches do eventually recover, so hot water may continue to be an option in select circumstances, said Gary Shigenaka, who runs the long-term monitoring program in the Sound for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Most researchers agreed that winter storms on exposed beaches proved the most effective way to clean up oil.
But that doesn't mean officials want to leave the beaches untouched. Cold water used at low pressure to wash thick oil off the beaches was shown to be essential, said Steve Provant, the state's on-scene coordinator during the Exxon spill and current manager of the DEC's marine vessel section.
ANIMAL RECOVERY: Was it worth spending $80,000 for every sea otter captured, scrubbed and released? Did it make sense to save birds from seabird colonies that have managed to recover - albeit slowly - from massive die-offs?
Some researchers say the animal recovery effort may have hurt more than it helped. Studies showed that heavily oiled otters caught in the first two or three weeks of the spill probably benefited from being cleaned, said Jim Bodkin, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist. Captured otters that were lightly oiled or clean probably had a lower survival rate because of the stresses involved, he said.
But there may be no arguing with the impulse to save animals threatened by a leaking tanker. Both industry and government officials say they expect another effort would be launched.
COMMAND STRUCTURE: "We always say, "Keep the target the oil and not each other,' " said Alyeska's Jones.
The improvised command posts and competing press conferences of 1989 have yielded to a "unified command" in which a troika of officials make decisions behind closed doors. Commanding last fall's drill were the Coast Guard captain of the port in Valdez and officials from the state DEC and BP.
Joint statements about daily cleanup progress would be a marked contrast to the Exxon spill, when disagreements over such matters as which beaches to protect and how much equipment to use were highly visible and frequently reported by the press.
The watchdog group RCAC thinks the new system may clamp things down a little too tight. The RCAC wants to be present for deliberations as a nonvoting member, said RCAC head Devens.
"It's very hard to argue your point after the decision has been made," Devens said.
But RCAC's pitch for access has been turned down.
DISPERSANTS: One of the RCAC's biggest concerns is over use of dispersants. The citizens group says it fears they will be used too quickly.
While some industry officials have touted dispersants as a "first-response" option, government officials say they consider dispersants a tool for particular circumstances.
"You would hit it hard with boom and high-capacity skimmers where the oil is concentrated," said Coast Guard Capt. Ron Morris, who would be on-scene coordinator in a spill today. "Then downstream, as it gets by the boom, you use dispersants."
Even those who tout use of dispersants for breaking apart oil slicks concede they are no panacea. In 1989, flat-calm weather immediately after the spill rendered them useless, Dietrick said.
Spill response officials say use of dispersants is a matter of tradeoffs. "You might have to choose between using dispersants or getting it on the beaches," said DEC's Brown.
Indeed, some commercial fishermen who opposed dispersants in 1989 may now be more open to them, said Riki Ott of Cordova, a staunch industry critic. New research suggests oiled beaches have long-term harmful effects on pink salmon, and that makes the consequences of not using dispersants more dire, she said.