Sluggish cleanup efforts came under fire Saturday as killer whales and sea lions swam in the purplish muck of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, which threatened the rich resources of Prince William Sound.
Initial investigations pointed toward human error as the most likely cause of the grounding of the Long-Beach-bound tanker Exxon Valdez, and authorities tested crew members for alcohol and drug use. Results of those tests were not released.
Plying the pristine waters of the sound under ideal conditions at 12:30 a.m. Friday, the 2-year-old tanker, owned by Exxon Shipping Co., rammed the clearly charted Bligh Reef and hemorrhaged about 11 million gallons--or 240,000 barrels--of Alaskan crude into the environmentally sensitive area.
Townspeople, fishermen and biologists complained that more than a day and a half after the accident, little work was under way. Aerial bombing of the spill with chemicals was halted after it failed to have any discernible effect.
After touring the spill site, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper described the cleanup effort as “slow and inadequate.” “We simply don’t have enough equipment to contain it,” he said. “No one does. You couldn’t contain it with all the equipment in North America.”
Another 1 million barrels of oil remained aboard the grounded, 987-foot vessel Saturday and tentative attempts to transfer the cargo to another ship were halted for fear of unleashing a new spill.
By late Saturday, attempts to corral the main slick with booms appeared minuscule and a handful of skimmers made little progress in vacuuming the oil from the sea’s placid surface. The Coast Guard said the slick spread out 50 square miles and of that an area of 10 to 12 square miles was almost completely covered with oil.
Divers discovered six to eight gouges “big enough for a human being to swim through” in eight of the tanker’s 13 cargo tanks, said Frank Iarossi, president of Exxon Shipping Co.
Experts from as far away as Europe converged on the tiny pipeline village to offer advice, while Valdez residents complained that their offers of help were rebuffed.
As many as 14 hours after the ship ran aground, “there wasn’t even a Kleenex in the water” to sop up the oil, said Doug Fleming, a 23-year-old Valdez fisherman.
The Department of Environmental Conservation joined the angry chorus Saturday, lambasting Exxon and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the oil terminal here, for their “inadequate” response to the emergency.
“We’re not happy at all,” said Barbara Holian, spokeswoman for the department, which hinted that legal action may be taken against the oil giant and Alyeska.
Exxon vowed to bear full financial responsibility for the cleanup, but there were no estimates on what it would cost, how long it might take or what resources would be lost. The sound’s commercial fishing industry alone is worth $100 million annually.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the cause of the accident, which occurred on a clear night in calm waters during what was described as a routine lane change by the Exxon Valdez to dodge icebergs.
Biologists said it was too soon to assess the impact of the massive spill on the sound’s abundant marine life, but there were already reports of oil-slickened birds and sea otters.
“We’re not wondering whether there will be an impact but (rather) we are trying to minimize the damage,” said Dennis Kelso, commissioner of the state’s Environmental Conservation Department.
“This is not acceptable, and the governor made it clear that it’s not going to happen again,” he said.
Kelso said a chief concern is what will happen to the lucrative herring roe harvest, just weeks away.
Alyeska admitted that it took more than 10 hours to send cleanup crews and equipment to the scene, just 23 miles from Valdez.
Alyeska terminal manager Chuck O’Donnell blamed the delay on a “company holiday” and the extra time needed to reload a barge in Valdez that had been unloaded for repairs two weeks earlier.
Under its agreement with the state, Alyeska had promised to respond to such an emergency within five hours.
“I think our people did an excellent job,” O’Donnell told reporters.
“It took them 18 hours just to get the first boom in place,” said Holian. She said that by late Saturday afternoon the main slick was nowhere near containment. “It should be done by now, and, no, it isn’t.”
Local residents and officials said they offered both boats and manpower early on to bolster Alyeska’s response, only to be turned down.
“They said, ‘Thank you but no thank you, we’ve got everything in hand,’ ” said Dr. John Devens, mayor of the fishing village, which has 3,000 residents.
Devens said neither Exxon nor Alyeska notified him of the disaster, which he first heard about six hours later on a local radio station.
Tests were being conducted Saturday to determine whether to ignite, chemically disperse or mechanically skim the oil from the surface. The attempt to disperse proved futile Friday when the waters turned out to be too calm to sufficiently agitate the chemicals so they would break up the oil.
Exxon also was worried about salvaging the ship and the remaining crude.
“The last thing in the world we want to do is endanger the vessel and the remaining 1 million barrels on board,” Iarossi said.
Neither Iarossi nor the Coast Guard operations coordinator, Cmdr. Steve McCall, would discuss the investigation.
Iarossi confirmed that the Exxon Valdez was “fully operational” when it struck the jagged reef.
McCall said it was “routine” to administer blood-alcohol tests to the crew, but he refused to say how many of the ship’s 20 crew members were tested.
The Coast Guard said late Saturday that McCall had subpoenaed the ship’s master, or equivalent of captain, and two crew members, requiring them to make themselves available to NTSB investigators arriving today. Coast Guard spokesman Todd Nelson said the subpoenas were “one of the hammers we have to make sure they stay around to cooperate.”
Although it was not being monitored by radar even after asking permission to change lanes, the Exxon Valdez “was in constant voice contact” with the Coast Guard during the “routine” maneuver, McCall said.
The ship’s harbor pilot had left the tanker after guiding the Exxon Valdez through the tricky Valdez Narrows about 50 minutes before the accident, McCall said.
Iarossi said the “investigation is now focusing on actions of the master, the officer on watch and the helmsmen” during the approximate hour after the pilot disembarked and the ship ran aground.
No pilot was required under federal regulations for the rest of the trip out of the sound, McCall said.
Saturday, in the normally busy Prince William Sound, now closed to all marine traffic, the damaged tanker listed to starboard, lashed bow-to-stern to the Exxon Baton Rouge, brought to the scene in a so-far-futile effort to lighten the Valdez’s load so it might float free.
By midday, only two thin loops of containment boom were in place, lost in the immense pool of oil.
Ferrying journalists to the site, float plane pilot Gary Graham pointed to “the resident whales.”
About 20 killer whales swam toward the disabled vessel, diving abruptly 200 yards astern.
“They were into thick, heavy oil there,” Graham said. “That may be why they sounded.”