Huge blobs of oil from the grounded Exxon Valdez hit shore for the first time Monday as howling winds stymied efforts to clean up the massive slick and rescue wildlife.
Three days after the Long Beach-bound tanker ripped open in pristine Prince William Sound, hopes of burning or chemically dispersing the 250,000 barrels of spilled crude appeared to be literally gone with the wind.
“There’s no way I can keep oil from impacting more beach area,” said Frank Iarossi, president of Exxon Shipping Co. “That wind is working against us.”
The largest oil spill in U.S. history doubled in area and now stretches over 100 square miles of the approximately 6,000-square-mile sound, the Coast Guard said.
Three small islands--Naked, Smith and Seal--"got clobbered today,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. Steve McCall. He said Exxon was now planning to move containment booms to the islands in the sound where the slick is heading at a reported 1 m.p.h.
But the slick was moving away from the main sea lane, and the Coast Guard announced that it might reopen the port of Valdez as early as today “to tightly controlled commercial traffic.”
On Monday, 10 empty tankers waited outside Valdez, southern terminus for the 800-mile Alaska pipeline.
Heavy Futures Buying
(The shutdown temporarily cut U.S. crude supplies by one-fourth, and brought a heavy buying of energy futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Details in Business.)
“We’re very concerned about getting commerce moving, and we realize it’s a hardship to the community, but we’re not going to do it at the expense of the environment,” said Coast Guard spokesman Todd Nelson.
He said the Coast Guard would “watch every ship go in and go out of the port and we may even have our people ride some.”
A government oceanographer who flew over the slick Monday said it had washed ashore on Smith Island, a small, uninhabited island 22 miles southwest of the Exxon Valdez.
Smith is “heavily oiled” on its north shore, said Jerry Galt, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The oil also washed ashore at the larger Naked Island, which Department of Fish and Game spokesman Jon Lyman said has “a high concentration of wildlife.”
Galt said he spotted only “one or two” oiled birds on Smith Island, and “dozens that weren’t.” He saw no sea lions or other marine mammals.
The slick’s appearance changed “radically” overnight and is now the color and consistency of “chocolate mousse,” Galt said.
“There’s no way you can burn it in this form, and the slick is now mostly out of the area where they had permission to use dispersants,” Galt said.
“Now the slick is broken up into little strands and oil streamers,” he added. “You don’t see a big pool anymore.”
But scientists and government officials here believe that the breakup of the slick is the next stage in an emerging environmental catastrophe. Cleanup will now be immensely complicated, will require several months and will have virtually no chance of preventing major economic and environmental damage to southern Alaska.
David Kennedy, a scientific support coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the jagged coastline of the half-submerged Chugach Mountains will create hidden pockets of oil. “That creates opportunities for repollution for a long time,” he said.
Monday was supposed to bring Exxon’s first full-fledged assault on the oil, but the stiff winds grounded most aircraft and boats needed for the operation.
Exxon had just decided Sunday that burning and chemical dispersants offered the best chance to clean the spill--a task Iarossi said even then would take “weeks.”
Now, efforts apparently will have to focus on the slow process of mechanically skimming the oil from the surface and cleaning up beaches. Only about 3,000 barrels of oil had been skimmed up by Sunday night.
Biologists say it is still too soon to assess the pollution’s impact on the abundant marine life in the sound, but reports so far have been limited to 95 birds and two sea otters covered in oil.
Plans to collect and clean about 20 oiled birds were scrapped Monday because of the winds.
Both the current and the wind appeared to be sweeping oil closer to rocks and islands full of rookeries, favorite seal sunning spots and commercially lucrative spawning grounds for herring and salmon. Exxon said it has placed booms to protect several areas that local fishermen identified as sensitive.
But such precautions may not be enough. “Already we have representatives from foreign and domestic buyers that are not interested in using Prince William Sound products,” said commercial fisherman Jim Brown.
The wind damaged booms around the Exxon Valdez, where about 5,000 barrels of oil had been corraled, Iarossi said.
Meanwhile, irate residents of this fishing village complained that the foul-smelling oil is sickening cleanup volunteers and natives on the sound’s sparsely populated islands.
“Men are coming to town dizzy and sick to their stomachs when they’ve only been out there an hour,” said Doris Lopez, wife of a commercial fisherman.
Iarossi also heard complaints from a resident of Tatitlek, a small, native village on the mainland just behind Bligh Reef, where the Exxon Valdez is stranded.
The man said fumes from controlled burns of the oil made villagers nauseous and gave them headaches.
Iarossi promised to look into the complaints.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the shipwreck, and Iarossi said Monday that he would no longer comment on any of the circumstances of the accident.
Iarossi earlier confirmed reports that the Exxon Valdez captain, Joseph Hazelwood, had a history of drinking problems five years ago. But the company president said without elaboration that the reported problem was no longer “germane.”
At a news conference later Monday, Iarossi denied knowledge that Hazelwood had several convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol in New York, where he lives.
Exxon has admitted that an unqualified mate was commanding the ship when it first struck an underwater rock pinnacle just after midnight Friday.
The captain was below deck in his cabin, and it is not clear whether he assumed control after the first impact.
Staff writer Michael Parrish contributed to this story.