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Latest Tests Show No Trace of Oil in Slick From Tanker

Times Staff Writer

Coast Guard tests released Thursday showed no evidence of oil in an offshore slick probably caused by the Exxon Valdez, contradicting earlier state tests that confirmed that the tanker’s discharges were petroleum-based.

Exxon Shipping Co. officials welcomed the announcement. But Coast Guard officials downplayed those results, and state authorities insisted that the substance leaked in the 18-mile slick discovered 30 miles offshore Monday was in fact oil.

In a related development, Alaska state officials said the Valdez trailed a 1-mile sheen of oil as it left Prince William Sound on June 23.

“They definitely trailed a sheen, and we definitely believe it was oil. It’s probably similar to what you have off the coast right now,” said Bob Flint, regional program manager for the Department of Environmental Conservation in Anchorage.

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The slick off San Diego, on Monday within a mile of the Valdez, and two smaller discharges that leaked from the tanker Tuesday and Wednesday, have dissipated, Coast Guard officials said.

However, new discharges were reported to be coming from the ship Thursday morning, and officials said they would keep the ship about 50 miles from the San Diego coast and continue to lower it in the water until the discharge stops.

Continuing Mystery

The continuing mystery about the discharge meant that the Valdez was no closer to resolving the problems that have delayed its entrance into San Diego Bay for repairs. Before the ship can enter the bay, divers must remove as many as five huge steel plates that have peeled downward from the hull and wouldn’t clear the bottom of the bay. Before that can happen, the discharge has to stop so the tanker can receive permission to move to a protected area closer to the coast to make repairs.

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On Thursday, Cmdr. Frank Scarborough said preliminary Coast Guard tests had found no oil in samples of the slick, but could not explain the discrepancy between that finding and the opposite conclusion reached Tuesday by the the state Department of Fish and Game.

“The tests indicate no presence of oil, but some unidentified organic matter,” Scarborough said. “But we’re still assuming we have discharges of oil.”

One fish and game department scientist said state tests might be more fallible than those of the Coast Guard.

“Our laboratory had inherent limits on its ability to identify crude oil,” said Greig Peters, an environmental specialist with the state water quality control board, which analyzed the original samples.

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“I think the true test is whether this stuff is going to be toxic or not. And we won’t get a good sample until divers can actually get inside and take scrapings off the inside of the vessel.”

But other officials rebuffed Thursday’s test results.

“Based on preliminary lab results, appearance, smell, feel . . . based on 24 years of experience with oil, yeah,” it’s oil, said Reed Smith, pollution response coordinator with the Fish and Game Department.

Scarborough said that, to prevent further discrepancies, scientists from the Coast Guard, state and federal agencies, and Exxon have formed a single team to test more samples of the original and subsequent discharges coming from the tanker. Gary Patrae, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, arrived Wednesday to head that team, Coast Guard officials said.

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Meanwhile, officials Thursday still had not determined where the ship could be taken to remove the five steel plates jutting from the tanker’s hull.

Although Pirate Cove near San Clemente Island appears to be the primary choice, officials also are considering Long Beach as a removal site. Pete Bontadelli, director of the fish and game department, said Thursday in San Diego that removing the plates in Long Beach poses less risk to the marine environment than the San Clemente Island site.

Conditions Demanded

State politicians continued to demand that Exxon meet certain conditions before entering state waters to remove the steel plates from its hull, and kept the possibility of a lawsuit against the oil company hovering.

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Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, head of the state Lands Commission, late Thursday said Exxon had verbally agreed to commission demands expressed Wednesday, but he wants a written confirmation of that agreement.

The demands included no pollution of state waters by the Valdez, no leaking for a 24-hour waiting period or when the ship is moved for removal of the steel plates and a contingency plan provided by Exxon to prevent or clean up any spills.

Growing involvement by state and federal politicians and agencies clarified on Thursday, as the state Fish and Game Department was acknowledged as the lead representative for all state agencies. But the decision on what happens to the tanker, officials stressed, remains with the Coast Guard.

Scarborough, who has had that responsibility, today will hand it over to Cmdr. Don Montoro. Scarborough is retiring and will be moving to Miami to teach business classes at a small Catholic university.

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The giant tanker hit a reef in Alaska on March 24 and spilled millions of gallons of oil, fouling hundreds of miles of pristine Alaskan shoreline, killing thousands of animals and upsetting the fishing industry.

The crippled Valdez arrived off the coast late Sunday from Alaska, and was to have docked Tuesday morning at the National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. in San Diego Bay for a $25 million, nine-month repair job.


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