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Similarities Between Spill, Trapped Whales

April 3, 1989

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ There is an environmental crisis at a remote spot in the Alaska wilderness. Government officials gather. The oil industry weighs in with high-technology solutions. Plans are made, unmade, revised.

Finally, residents take matters into their own hands and do something.

The Prince William Sound oil spill?

No, that was the scenario last fall when three California gray whales were trapped in arctic ice near Barrow.

When the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground March 24, spewing more than 10 million gallons of oil into the sound, goverment officials and oil industry executives spent the first few days wrangling over what should be done.

The industry’s response plan called for deployment of containment booms within five hours of a spill. It was at least twice that long before the long absorbent booms reached the tanker on a barge that had been out of commission when the accident occurred.

The industry’s oil skimmers and dispersant chemicals proved woefully inadequate to the task.

Fishermen watched fearfully as the black slime threatened valuable salmon spawning streams and marine habitats. Then, they acted on their own.

Mobilizing a mosquito fleet of fishing boats to haul the limited equipment they could muster, they deployed booms across the mouths of bays and harbors leading to key fish hatcheries around the sound.

″Our people are responding gallantly,″ said Heather McCarty, a Cordova fisherwoman. ″People are angry and people are grieving, but there’s work to do, and we’re doing it.″

It wasn’t just the fishermen. A veterinarian, Ken Hill, headed for Green Island to join in an otter rescue. Businesses advanced food and other supplies for the fishermen at the hatcheries.

″This whole town has volunteered to help,″ said Patti Kallander, another Cordova fisherwoman.

The situation was similar in Barrow.

While government officials wondered what to do, the oil industry rushed in with several plans to move the whales about five miles to open water.

Suggestions included using giant helicopters to tow a 185-ton ice-breaking barge 200 miles from Prudhoe Bay, and dropping a 5-ton concrete cylinder through the ice.

No dice. Even a $600,000 Archimedes screw-type amphibious tractor supposedly capable of cutting a path to freedom sat virtually unused, also technically unfeasible.

Meanwhile, whalers in Barrow used chain saws and long poles to cut an escape route to the sea.

″We’re just getting tired of waiting for things to show up,″ a frustrated Geoff Carroll said of the Eskimos’ decision at the time. ″We’re getting away from the heavy equipment approach.″

One of the whales died, but the others eventually made it to sea after Soviet icebreakers cut the path.

Carroll, one of the North Slope Borough biologists who helped organize the whale recue, said he sees some parallels in the situations.

″There is a similarity in that nobody seemed to have any idea of what to do in the beginning,″ Carroll said. ″A lot of people were spinning their wheels and not much was getting done.

″Then the local people jumped in and sort of took things into their own hands, and got things done.″

There are other similarities. In both cases, presidents put the Air Force’s largest cargo plane, the C-5A, at the disposal of oil companies to carry tons of equipment to the areas. And the Soviet Union offered ships to assist.

A Soviet skimmer ship was heading to Prince William Sound to see what it can do.

The biggest difference is the magnitude of the problems.

″With the whales it was just kind of a game,″ he said. ″We were just trying to see what we could do. If we failed, it wouldn’t have been that big of deal.

″But the oil spill is certainly much worse,″ he said. ″It’s just a terrible thing.″

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