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Alaska Oil Spill May Be Largest in U.S. Waters

Times Staff Writers

A Long Beach-bound Exxon oil tanker ran aground on a reef Friday and spilled up to 12 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, a pristine Pacific waterway rich in wildlife, fisheries and tourist attractions. It was shaping up as the nation’s largest oil spill ever.

The Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot tanker owned by Exxon Shipping Co., rammed the Bligh Reef about 25 miles from the city of Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in the United States, at 12:30 a.m.

Exxon spokesman Tom Cirigliano acknowledged that “the ship (was) not where it would normally have been. . . . He (the captain) was trying to avoid the ice” from the nearby Columbia Glacier. The captain “had received permission to maneuver around some ice. We’re still trying to assess why it ended up where it did.”

Up to 300,000 Barrels Spilled

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Cirigliano said Exxon’s spill estimates ranged from 170,000 to 300,000 barrels worth--a barrel holds 42 gallons--from a ship that carried 1.3 million barrels of crude. The Coast Guard was estimating that more than a quarter-million barrels had spilled into the sound.

A representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the tanker had been spilling oil at a rate of 10,000 barrels an hour, but the Coast Guard said the leak had become a mere trickle by 2:30 p.m., Alaska time.

“This is the largest oil spill in U.S. history, and it unfortunately took place in an enclosed water body with numerous islands, channels, bays and fiords,” Richard Golob, publisher of the Golob Oil Pollution Bulletin, told the Associated Press.

Cirigliano said late Friday that the oil was “tending to move south, out to sea.”

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“We’ve had no report of any wildlife hurt at this time,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer John Gonzales said. But environmentalists feared that if the oil reached the shore, marine birds would be threatened. Herring hatch at this time of year and attract up to 20,000 sea birds for the feast. Environmentalists also expressed concern about whales, sea lions and other wildlife.

Twenty people were aboard the ship but there were no immediate reports of injuries, said Dave Parish, a spokesman for Exxon USA, in a telephone interview from Anchorage. He said three planes from British Columbia, California and England had been dispatched to the scene for aerial spraying to dilute the oil.

Investigators on Board

Another Exxon tanker was attempting to pump the oil out of the crippled vessel, and two Coast Guard investigators were on board the Exxon Valdez, he said.

Aerial spraying of oil dispersants was to begin by first light today, Cirigliano said, and containment booms and skimming devices would also be used.

Jon Nelson, a deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said the reef ripped a 150-foot gash in the vessel, and there was fear that the tanker could break apart further.

“If it breaks up on the rocks, then anything could happen,” he said in a telephone interview. The seas were calm Friday, and the forecast was for continued calm until Sunday.

Infuriated local residents and environmentalists complained about the slow pace of the cleanup.

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Critical of Efforts

“Where was the crackerjack response team that was supposed to be out there? They are moving way too slowly,” said University of Alaska professor Richard Steiner, who flew over the slick Friday. “There (was) no oil (cleanup equipment) out there, and it’s been 14 hours since it happened.

“It is huge, literally huge,” he said in a telephone interview from Cordova. “It looks devastating. The slick is probably five miles long by three miles wide. Fortunately, there is no wind. . . . We saw six sea lions inside the slick, swimming, trying to avoid it, and they had no idea which way to go.”

Cindy Lowry, Alaska regional director for Greenpeace, also complained about the pace of the cleanup. “It is more than 12 hours later and there is no (cleanup) boom, no sweepers. They are bringing equipment from as far away as England. It is just absurd that the equipment is not here already. . . . This will affect everything in the food chain, from crab larvae to orca whales.”

At a late-night town-hall style meeting with worried Valdez residents, Exxon officials “assured everyone we will . . . assume full responsibility for the cleanup and any impact mitigation.”

Exxon’s Parish said everything possible was being done. “It takes time to get activated,” he said. The immediate response to the spill was handled by crews from the terminal at Valdez.

Gonzales, the Coast Guard spokesman, said the terminal has cleanup equipment on site for minor spills. He said employees of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the trans-Alaska oil pipeline for a consortium of oil companies, were getting floating oil booms in place by late afternoon.

Prince William Sound, home to orcas, sea otters and fur seals, is important to both the fishing and the recreation industries.

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“It’s a gorgeous marine environment and ecosystem, with lots of little islands and inlets and bays,” said Emily Barneet, Alaska issues specialist for the Sierra Club in Anchorage. “It’s also a pretty well-established tourist attraction, with sailing and glacier viewing trips. Prince William is a gem.”

The spill is expected to add fuel to a campaign by environmentalists to prevent further oil development in Alaska, particularly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s of concern for two reasons: one is the size of the spill and that this is such a sensitive, very productive area,” said Lisa Speer, senior staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. “This is a consequence of North Slope oil development that is rarely mentioned.”

Valdez City Manager Doug Griffen told the Associated Press that the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez and the marine terminal, has a good environmental record.

“But this could be a catastrophic occurrence, so we’re concerned,” he said. “Living in Valdez, we’ve always worried that sometime something like this could happen.”

Staff writer Patt Morrison contributed to this report.


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