Top Bush Administration officials said today that the cleanup of Alaska's oil-polluted Prince William Sound was marred by a "slow start," but they said a federal takeover would be counterproductive and President Bush ruled it out.
At the same time, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost said it was "almost unbelievable" that the supertanker Exxon Valdez could have gotten outside a 10-mile-wide shipping lane to run aground last Friday.
"Obviously something went very badly wrong," Yost said at a White House news briefing after he and two other senior officials met with Bush after a two-day fact-finding trip to the site of North America's worst oil spill.
"This was not a treacherous area, not treacherous in the area where they ran aground," the admiral told reporters. "It's 10 miles wide. Your children could drive a tanker up through it."
Yost said allegations of alcohol use by the ship's captain would be thoroughly investigated.
'At Full Speed'
Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner said cleanup operations are now well coordinated. "All of us are convinced that the effort, after a somewhat slow start, is going at full speed," Skinner said.
He said that there was "no need to federalize this effort" and that such a move "might be counterproductive." Bush had initially mentioned a federal takeover as one option.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly called the spill "obviously a disaster of enormous magnitude." He said, "It seems inevitable that there will be a very substantial impact, particularly on the habitats of sea otters and sea lions."
However, Reilly said, "it's too soon to say in any conclusive way what the impact on habitat or on the wildlife will be."
He said Bush had directed that environmental and wildlife protection in the once-pristine sound be given top priority.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the officials would continue to monitor the cleanup from Washington and would report back in 30 days with "broader recommendations," including possible options for long-term action.
Skinner said that Exxon Corp. is making "an all-out effort" but that the federal government would make sure that the corporation honors its commitments. He declined to criticize Exxon for its current efforts but said its initial response "could have been quicker."
He said most of the damage was done in the first few hours after the 978-foot tanker ran aground, spilling more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into the sound.
Bush, departing from his prepared text in a speech before a junior colleges group today, called the spill "a major tragedy."
"The cleanup will not be easy," Bush said. "But, as with other serious disasters, we must and will work together at all levels, public and private, to remedy the damage that's been done and then to safeguard the precious environment for the future.
"There's no doubt this is a major tragedy, both for the environment and for the people up there," Bush said.