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Sports >  Outdoors

Outdoor writer gets to bottom line of disastrous Exxon supertanker oil spill

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Dawn detergent has been my brand of choice for dishwashing since 1989, when The Spokesman-Review flew me to Alaska to report on the environmental havoc caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Because I was the outdoors writer willing to camp and forgo showers, editors dispatched me to the scene a month after the supertanker ran aground 22 miles south of Valdez on March 24. Countless beaches in Prince William Sound were contaminated as 11 million gallons of gooey North Slope crude gushed from the ship’s ruptured cargo tanks.

That’s enough oil to spread an inch-thick coat over U.S. Highway 2 from Spokane to Wenatchee.

With the ship lodged on Bligh Reef, the toxic oil hemorrhaging from its cracked hull streaked like fingers in the tidal currents and slipped through the hands of men who’d promised they could clean up such a mess.

Dawn detergent, I learned, was potent enough to remove sticky crude oil from the wings of seabirds while being just gentle enough on their feathers so they could fly away from rescuers’ pens. It was a minor stroke of hope in the sea of gloom.

“The expensive recovery only helps birds and otters a little,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Tom Early said. “But it helps people a lot.”

I witnessed the modest celebration as workers from the Valdez bird recovery center released a single harlequin duck – one of the lucky ducks that had been caught in time by rescuers after its feathers were matted with oil. It had been fed, cleaned and nurtured for weeks.

The release would have been more inspiring had I not seen the 800 pounds of dead birds come off a boat a few days earlier. Many of them were unrecognizable blobs of tar as they were recorded, autopsied and stored with another 20 tons of carcasses in refrigerator trailers.

A month after the “spill” – a laughable word for a flood of black death – the Fish and Wildlife Service said 11,640 dead birds had been recovered. Only 184 had been rescued. The death toll was 10 to 30 times more, accounting for carcasses that were scavenged or washed out to sea. No one will ever know the exact number.

One day I was allowed on an Exxon-sponsored helicopter shuttle to witness cleanup efforts on a fouled beach. Workers were trying to degunk the rocks with steam washers and paper towels as stubborn oil oozed down through the sand, smothering clams and entire communities of life.

No roads led to the 300 miles of oiled beaches within the sound or to the uncounted miles of fouled islands and shorelines beyond. A complete boat tour of the damage, which reached nearly 500 miles to the Alaska Peninsula, would take weeks.

It’s not clear that Exxon officials thought a cleanup was possible. Some workers told reporters they were instructed to look busy de-oiling beaches only when the press was on the scene.

Cleanup officials, volunteers, job seekers and national media had flocked to Valdez. The population of the town 300 miles from Anchorage tripled within days. I slept that week (through two snowstorms) in a rental van. Every motel room, boat berth, tent site and residential spare bedroom was filled. So was the city’s sewage system, and the jail.

The disaster was a big story as well as a major windfall for some.

“Alaskans are like wolves,” said a burly, bearded man outside the Valdez employment center. “One day we’ll make a killing, then we’ll starve for a long time before there’s another feast.” He was one of more than 6,000 people lured to Valdez by $17-an-hour oil cleanup jobs.

Terry Gregg, who ran the Bear Paw Campground, offered tongue-in-cheek praise for the ship captain responsible for the oil tanker’s grounding.

“I’m only half-kidding when I say we should erect a monument to (Joseph) Hazelwood for single-handedly putting the whole town to work,” he said.

But for portions of Prince William Sound, two national parks and four national wildlife refuges, this was the silent spring.

The scale of the disaster coupled with the immensity of the landscape and difficulty of access dwarfed the $1.5-million a day being spent in weak attempts to recover the oil and clean the bays and beaches.

“It is unmanageable now,” Jim Hayden, the state’s cleanup coordinator, said in late April. “Overwhelming … not humanly possible to control.”

For fishermen, the disaster was like watching an explosion in slow motion. The crude oil – which contains benzene and toluene, which are poisonous to marine life, and also carcinogenic – loomed over billions of salmon, halibut, black cod, shrimp and king crab. Herring, a primary food source for salmon and seabirds, were hit especially hard.

Of the 36 killer whales in the sound’s resident pod, 14 disappeared after the spill. Researchers said their lungs probably were seared by the toxic fumes. Since orca carcasses usually sink, no necropsies were done.

Sea otters rolled in the surface film and slimed themselves into grotesque and lifeless blobs found on beaches where they welled up an ocean of tears among TV viewers around the world. But it was too late.

Alyeska, the oil consortium that owned the Alaska Pipeline, had guaranteed the country that it would clean up any spill that might occur during transport of its North Slope crude. Unfortunately, the industry had promised technology that did not exist.

As soon as Alyeska was granted the pipeline permit, officials began to dismantle the disaster response system in Valdez, the pipeline’s terminal. Oil lobbyists also had persuaded the Coast Guard to waive regulations requiring the coastal oil fleet to have double hulls.

When disaster struck, the cleanup that followed was largely for PR. The industry was basically buying time.

Fishermen were getting paid up to $4,000 a day for use of their boats in the cleanup, but they lost in the long run. Exxon spent more than $3.8 billion in cleanup costs, fines and compensation. However, it avoided even more than that in punitive damages awarded by Alaska courts by slogging through appeals for 15 years all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

People on the ground and the wildlife they cherish were short-changed by ExxonMobil, which, incidentally, posted $40.6 billion in black ink for 2007, reported at the time to be the largest annual profit by a U.S. company.

By May and my departure from Alaska, Exxon officials, who originally had said they would do whatever it takes to clean up the mess, were conceding that nature would have to do much of the work. Evaporation, oil-eating bacteria, dilution and a lot of time.

Money had largely bought environmental complacency in Alaska, of all places – the country’s gold standard for pristine wilderness.

The disaster, and reports that a double-hulled tanker would have contained much of the oil lost from the Exxon Valdez, did persuade Congress in 1990 to order a phaseout of single-hulled oil tankers in U.S. waters.

But 30 years after the supertanker disaster, there’s a new push to drill for oil across the arctic where another big spill, scientists say, could be hopeless to contain and cause even greater environmental damage.

I’ll think of the decisions, the disaster and the birds nearly every time I Dawn my dinner dishes.

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