A small fleet of local fishermen rushed to protect valuable salmon hatcheries from the fast-moving Exxon oil slick Tuesday while cleanup crews faced the daunting task of washing fouled islands by hand.
The fleet of about 10 boats helped deploy thousands of feet of containment boom around four key fishing grounds in the hope that the nautical fences will deflect much of the spreading oil.
Of chief concern are three pink salmon hatcheries, where 30 million to 35 million harvestable fish are expected to return this year. The run begins in June, but fishermen said the baby fish are being released now.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board began questioning the captain and crew of the Exxon Valdez about the two separate accidents that unleashed the worst oil spill in U.S. history five days ago on a calm, clear night in Prince William Sound.
With the ship still impaled on a rock pinnacle, the Coast Guard reopened the paralyzed Port of Valdez, southern terminus for the Alaska pipeline, on a “very limited basis” Tuesday.
Keeping a 1,000-yard “safety zone” around the vessels, the Coast Guard began escorting through the waterway the first of 10 tankers stacked up outside the port.
No Serious Effect
Reporters flying over the 100-square-mile oil slick said they spotted some seals and waterfowl wallowing in the muck, but so far no serious effect on the area’s abundant marine life is visible and no major rescue efforts have been undertaken.
The oil company conceded that it is too late to catch the 240,000-barrel spill before it has a major impact on shorelines in the sound.
“The big opportunity we missed Sunday was to use dispersants when the oil was like a big sitting duck,” said Don Conratt, Alaska coordinator for Exxon Shipping Co.
Use of the detergent-like chemicals at that time “could have diverted an awful lot of shoreline contamination,” he told a news conference.
Conratt blamed the state Department of Environmental Conservation for failing to approve a permit for the dispersants before high winds scattered the oil Sunday night.
The state agency in turn blamed the Coast Guard, which it said had final say on when dispersants could be used.
Now, cleanup is expected to take months, experts say.
Dennis Kelso, state commissioner for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the main focus now is on “defensive measures” to protect the most precious environmental resources.
“The spill is widely distributed in some highly sensitive areas,” he said.
“We are not going to be able to keep the oil out of all sensitive areas by any means,” Kelso added. “Most of those areas we’re not going to be able to even touch.”
Exxon said it has mobilized 200 workers so far to head for the rugged shores where the oil has sloshed up in heavy globs on at least four islands.
“On rocky shores, you can’t use the shovel and rake method,” Conratt said. “You have to blast it off the rocks with high-pressure hoses and then come back with absorbent pads and rags and wipe off the rocks.”
“You mean you have to wash the island?” asked an incredulous reporter.
“You got it,” Conratt replied.
He defended Exxon’s ability to mechanically skim only 3,500 barrels off the sea’s surface since the 987-foot ship rammed the rocks at 12:04 a.m. Friday.
“That’s 3,500 barrels we don’t have to pick up with a toothbrush,” he said.
Valdez Mayor John Devens said local fish processing plants were projecting losses of $140 million this year because of bad publicity alone.
“Even if every salmon comes back alive, the processors are hearing that buyers aren’t interested in products from Prince William Sound,” he said.
“It’s quite clear right now that this area faces destruction of our entire way of life,” Devens said.
A few local residents shouted angry accusations at Exxon executives during press briefings Tuesday but were generally stonewalled or ignored.
“You’re financially motivated and to hell with the Alaskans,” one grizzled man said to Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi.
“You treat Alaska like a Third World country,” the man complained.
Iarossi has refused to answer questions about the actions of the Exxon Valdez crew since reports surfaced that the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, had a history of drunken driving arrests.
Hazelwood, 42, met with NTSB investigators Tuesday, as did Third Mate Gregory Cousins, who was mysteriously in command of the $125-million vessel that night, although he lacked Coast Guard certification. The helmsman, Robert Kagan, also was questioned. The session was closed to reporters.
The NTSB plans to hold a public hearing into the disaster next Tuesday in Anchorage.