Alaskans Try Impossible Job: Cleaning Up Oil

Times Staff Writer

Sealed inside a yellow rain suit taped shut at every cuff, Rick Zufelt grabbed a slippery rock, wiped it swiftly and tossed it a few feet up the beach, beyond the high-tide--and high-oil--mark.

Next to him, two others methodically did the same. About 100 more laborers toiled nearby, some wiping rocks, some polishing boulders, a few skimming the island’s lifeless tide pools with shovels, spades or their bare hands.

It is, many of the workers concede, an absurd job. It takes a six-hour boat ride round trip from Valdez to let them do six hours of work a day; each shift gives them only enough time to barely start restoring a few hundred yards of the estimated 800 miles of fouled beaches; some nights, the tide buries their work under more oil.


“I compare it to trying to build a sandcastle--one grain of sand at a time,” said one worker, who asked that his name not be used. “A handful of guys on a beach with rags wiping up something like axle grease--it’s very slow.”

It also is the first step of the enormous and complicated beach cleanup of the nation’s worst oil disaster, the spill of 240,000 barrels of thick North Slope crude oil from the gaping hull of the wrecked tanker Exxon Valdez.

Exxon, which has been criticized for its slow and often ineffective response to the March 24 disaster, has promised to improve the cleanup effort soon. But for now, about 100 day laborers work seven days a week, trying to mop up a few million gallons of oil by hand.

“It’s not the right thing to do. No way,” Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi was telling reporters in Valdez as the Naked Island cleanup crew slogged across the oil-slick rock beach with their plastic bags and absorbent pads they call “diapers.”

Iarossi explained that the company realizes the futility of their efforts, but is merely “responding to pressure to put somebody out there.”

The pressure, restated again Monday by Dennis Kelso, chief of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, has been so great, several workers said, that their first few days of employment consisted of little more than simply being seen getting on a boat in the morning and off again at night. They said that in those first few days, they did little or no actual cleanup work.

Exxon officials concede some organizational problems but pledge to do the job right in the end. The company took out advertisements apologizing for the spill in 165 publications nationwide Monday.

“I want to tell you how sorry I am that this accident took place,” Lawrence J. Rawl, Exxon’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in the ads. “We cannot undo . . . what has been done. But I can assure you that since March 24, the accident has been receiving our full attention and will continue to do so.”

“We intend not to leave until the job is done,” Iarossi promised. “We intend to leave Prince William Sound close to what it was before the tragedy.”

Large Area to Cover

It is a big promise. It can take an hour to fly in a helicopter or light plane from the fishing village of Cordova on the east side of the beautiful, wildlife-rich sound to the hamlet of Whittier in the west. Valdez in the northeast is 110 miles from Cape Cleare in the southwest.

The oil slick--in the form of thin sheen, dirt-brown windrows, or solid, inches-thick patches--covers more than 1,000 square miles. It already has hit hundreds of miles of inaccessible, difficult-to-clean rock beaches and is drifting into the Gulf of Alaska, where it threatens the port of Seward and the delicate shoreline of Kenai Fjords National Park.

The oil spill has already closed the sablefish and shrimp fisheries, and it was announced Monday that the Prince William Sound herring fishery, which generates $12 million in annual revenues, will not open this year.

The decision came after more than half the spawning habitat used by the herring was fouled, said Dennis Haanpaa, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

More than 1,000 sea birds and at least 20 sea otters caught in the oil have died, and the death toll will probably go much higher, officials said.

Exxon spokesman Brian Dunphy said that the company’s primary goal remains keeping oil off beaches in the first place by skimming it from the ocean’s surface. Once all the oil is off the water, and thus unable to recontaminate cleaned beaches, he said the company will assess the best way to permanently clean beaches.

One method that he said is being considered now is to boom off a part of the sound near a beach, then blast the rocks with high-pressure hoses. The oil thus washed off into the water would be skimmed by boats. Giant vacuum cleaners are another option under study, as is the laborious hand-scrubbing session attempted on Naked Island.

However, for the areas already hit, including sea lion rookeries and other wildlife habitats, the rock-wipers--which Dunphy called “very preliminary, very rudimentary”--are Exxon’s only response so far.

Beach cleaning crews begin their day early, assembling in the dark at 5:30 a.m. on Valdez’s tiny municipal marina for a 6 a.m. departure on the Glacier Queen 2, a tour boat hastily converted to use as a worker transport. The trip to Naked Island, one of the closest to Valdez, takes three hours, during which crew members sleep, eat, play cards or read day-old newspapers.

‘Drop in the Bucket’

“There is so much out there, it doesn’t really make much sense to wipe it up with absorbent pads,” said Mike Roullier, a plumber from nearby Copper Center, as the Glacier Queen steamed toward Naked Island on Sunday. “What we’re doing is just a drop in the bucket, really. But you’ve got to start somewhere.”

When the island came into view, crew members--about 95 men and a handful of women--scrambled to suit up in their protective rain gear.

Treacherous pinnacle rocks in the sound kept the ferry far offshore, forcing workers first to transfer over the ship’s side to small fishing boats called bowcatchers, then transfer again in a few hundred yards to skiffs that ran them ashore in groups of eight to 10.

“In the shade all day,” moaned one disappointed man as the skiff blasted over the frigid water.

“It is going to be a cold mother . . . today,” added another.

Workers who struggled on oil-slick rocks to hold the skiffs close to shore greeted each boatload of rock-wipers by shouting, “Welcome to Omaha Beach,” a reference to the Normandy invasion of World War II. New arrivals vaulted over the side, then hustled up the shore.

Foreman Bob Dawson, normally a heavy-equipment operator for Veco, an oil-maintenance company that is one of two cleanup subcontractors hired by Exxon, directed the new arrivals to their jobs across about 300 yards of beach.

After receiving their assignments, they grabbed gear from among the piles scattered on the packed, oil-stained snow--a few dozen shovels and spades, rolls of 40-gallon plastic garbage bags and stacks and stacks of white absorbent pads.

Most worked in silence, the thick lapping of oily waves the only sound in their ears. Wiping a few hundred rocks among the millions on the beach was silly, many conceded, but the work paid well and, besides, was easier than what they had done the day before--shoveling thick, emulsified oil from deep pools on Smith Island into the plastic bags. They said they had filled 1,000 such bags the day before and still the beach was coated.

As the day wore on, bright yellow rain slickers turned black under the oil, as did the bright orange and blue disposal bags.

“You try to keep this stuff off yourself, but it’s impossible,” said Zufelt, from nearby Soldotna, as he taped shut his pant and sleeve cuffs. “It’ll find an opening and walk right up your pants all the way to the back pocket.”

One man said he knew that the boulder he was wiping would be clean “when our boss tells us it’s time to go.”

Some said they were pleased just to be able to do something--anything--to take even a little of the oil out of the environment they love.

“If we have to clean rocks from now to Doomsday, that doesn’t bother me,” said Tim Hodge of Valdez. “I just want to help.

“What’s discouraging,” he added, “is that (the slick) is still moving down out there, fouling more beaches. And now, it’s in the Gulf of Alaska and people say it might move into Cook Inlet. How many more lives would that screw up? How many more salmon streams? How many fishermen? What are those people supposed to do, move to Southern California and work in a factory?”

Exxon said it is trying to contain the spill, which is now larger than Rhode Island, or at least keep oil out of the most sensitive salmon hatcheries and habitat areas.

Supplies Flown In

Exxon officials said more than 1,100 tons of cleanup supplies and equipment had been shipped into Valdez aboard 49 cargo jets during the first eight days after the spill. Twelve oil-skimming boats are deployed and more than 16 miles of absorbent floating boom either has been deployed in the water or is ready, with another five miles on the way.

Such efforts have had little effect so far on the enormous volume of oil still floating atop the sound.

On Knight Island, for example, the company was unsuccessful in efforts to boom oil out of Herring Bay, so it now uses booms to keep oil in some of its coves. This way, the oil cannot spread, but neither can it disperse. It sits several inches thick on the water and percolates deeper into the rocky beach every day.

On Evans Island, Exxon efforts along with the labors of local fishermen have so far kept oil out of a major salmon hatchery on Sawmill Bay. But the oil boomed out of that bay in the southwest corner of the sound has drifted instead into the Gulf of Alaska, where easterly winds threaten to push it onto natural salmon-rearing habitats along the Kenai Peninsula.

“We are booming off two coves . . . that are major salmon fisheries and we are trying to boom off a third today,” said Dixie Dies of the incident command team established by the National Park Service to protect the peninsula.

“A substantial amount of the local economy depends on fishing--it is that or tourism,” she said. “And most of the fishermen make their money in the coming three months. They (local residents) are desperate to protect the fish.”

Meanwhile, police continued hunting for Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez. An arrest warrant has been issued in Alaska for him, but he is presumed to have gone home to Huntington, N.Y., and Sgt. Clifton Smith of the New York State Police said there were indications that he had contacted a lawyer and might surrender soon.

In Washington, Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. warned oil executives Monday that “the image of an uncareful and uncaring industry” would hamper future oil and gas development and called on the companies involved to review their procedures and safeguards.

“Let the American people know that you are looking at your own safeguards,” he said at an annual meeting of the National Ocean Industries Assn. “Let them know that you care, and that you will continue to care.”

If the public perceives the oil industry as “complacent,” Lujan said, “then we can kiss goodby to domestic oil and gas development.”

The chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Alaska pipeline will fly to Alaska today to examine the damage caused by the oil spill. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), whose Interior subcommittee on water, power and offshore energy resources will be considering legislation that would allow exploration for more oil on Alaska’s North Slope, said the spill could change congressional attitudes about future drilling.

Staff writer Michael D. Shear in Washington contributed to this story.