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High Winds Threaten Cleanup Just as Oil Is Reported Dissipating in Gulf of Alaska : (Southland Edition) Oil Spill Victim

Times Environmental Writer

High winds Monday threatened to sweep down on Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, complicating the task of workers struggling to hold back a black tide from the nation’s largest oil spill.

Winds of 20 knots were predicted for the sound and along the north gulf coast late Monday, which could push the slick closer to the pristine Kenai Fjords National Park.

But while the storm threatened to undo much of the gains made during cleanup operations since the spill from the Exxon Valdez on March 24, it appeared that the oil slick was beginning to break up in the Gulf of Alaska--good news for Kodiak Island, one of the nation’s most productive fisheries.

Approximately one-third of the oil spill has now flowed out of Prince William Sound and into the gulf, but state and Coast Guard officials said Monday that the slick in the gulf has advanced little and has begun to break up.

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“The oil is in the same place and it has appeared to thin out and dissipate,” Jim Hayden of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said.

“The leading edge of oil is about 100 miles away from Kodiak Island. It’s been in the water for about two weeks and is breaking up and turning into tar balls,” Coast Guard spokesman Bruce Pimental added.

In other cleanup action Monday, a plan by Exxon to dump 26,000 gallons of a chemical dispersant to further break up the oil in the Gulf of Alaska was vigorously opposed by scientists involved in the sea otter rescue program.

In a letter to Alaska’s congressional delegation and state officials, the scientists said the dispersant, manufactured by Exxon under the name 95-27, would “substantially increase” the toxicity of the crude oil. Michael Fry, a pollution toxicologist at UC Davis, said the dispersant is more toxic than the oil and mixing it with the crude would do nothing to break up the oil. Exxon had not yet received word on its application for a permit to use the dispersant.

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Meanwhile, Hayden said a slick reported headed toward a salmon hatchery on Esther Island in Prince William Sound has remained in place and is little more than an oil sheen.

Asked if nature had been able to do more than humans in cleaning up the spill, Hayden said: “Up to this point the natural processes have by far outweighed ours.”

Boats have been able to glean 18,000 of the 240,000 barrels spilled by skimming oil from the calm surface and floating booms have been strategically positioned to block the oil’s advance.

But heavy winds and choppy waters would suspend such operations and could allow the oil to breach the booms.

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A turn for the worse would threaten the prime Port San Juan salmon hatchery within Prince William Sound at Sawmill Bay.

Southeastern Wind Feared

“There’s not much that can be done to save the hatchery if we got a strong southeastern wind,” Hayden said.

But high seas would be welcome in the gulf because they will help break up the oil slick, officials said.

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The slick has moved farther offshore and is 20 miles from the Kenai shoreline at its closest point and 30 miles away at its farthest. However, the Chiswell Islands located closer to the Kenai shoreline were splattered with oil several days ago.

John Robinson, chief of the hazardous materials response branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Monday that 30% of the oil has evaporated.

The official otter death toll was 150 and the toll among birds has risen to 1,242. But the official body count is not believed to be an accurate assessment of the toll.

“I cannot emphasize strongly enough that these bodies we have are only a small number of the deaths,” Sheila Nickerson of the state Fish and Game Department said.

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Separately, Exxon announced that it is processing 400 claims and has established a $10-million fund to provide interest-free assistance to those who are not yet able to submit full claims but nonetheless require help.

The company also promised to pay the government in full for help in the cleanup, although it was acknowledged that the consumer might ultimately foot the bill.

“It’s just like any other normal expense of doing business,” said Don Cornett, Exxon’s coordinator for Alaska. “If it gets to the consumer, that’s where it gets.”

In Valdez, Exxon USA paid $250,000 to Cordova District Fishermen United, company spokesman Jan Cool said.

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Meanwhile, the odds that Congress will approve oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge continued to drop Monday as criticism of the cleanup operations mounted. Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Interior Committee, agreed that legislation to allow oil lease sales in the refuge is dead this year, but would not rule out passage next year.


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