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Bargain Hunters Throng Oil-Spill Auction, Drive Up Prices

October 10, 1990

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Bargain hunters by the thousands descended on an Anchorage industrial lot Tuesday to pick through acres of gear unloaded by Exxon after two summers of oil-spill cleanup.

″You really realize the size of the spill by all the garbage that came out of it,″ said Anchorage aviation mechanic Rod Meeks, who bought two outboard boat motors at the auction.

Many failed to find the deals they had hoped for, however, and blamed it on the crowd.

″We were looking for anything, but there’s too many people bidding high,″ said Doug Parr, a construction consultant who flew to Anchorage from Seattle for the three-day sale. He hoped prices would come down after the first day.

It looked like the day before Christmas at the world’s biggest bargain basement.

Parked cars lined the roads for miles in all directions. Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers International, which bought the merchandise last month from Exxon Corp. for a price Ritchie officials would only describe as ″millions,″ ran shuttle buses into the site.

There, an auctioneer was driven through the throngs in a booth atop a truck, stopping here to sell dozens of all-terrain vehicles, there for pallet after pallet of brand-new fishing nets, somewhere else for containers filled with flotsam, from life jackets to tables and chairs.

Half the yard seemed filled with boats - aluminum skiffs, inflatable power boats.

Inside a hangar, pallets reached to the ceiling containing more stuff: outdoor thermometers, clothing, even kitty litter.

And the site was just one of three filled with surplus merchandise from the Exxon Valdez oil-spill cleanup effort.

The tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989 and spewed nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in the nation’s biggest oil spill. Exxon crews worked that summer and this one to clean shorelines, and plan to return next spring for a shoreline survey.

Exxon officials said they didn’t sell any equipment that could be used for additional clean-up.

Ritchie Bros. wouldn’t say how much it expects the merchandise to bring. Nearly 8,000 potential bidders had signed up by midday Tuesday, and by the end of the day, company officials said everything on the first lot had been sold for a total of $3.8 million.

A 1966 turboprop float plane with an old Esso tiger painted on its tail sold for $435,000 to an undisclosed bidder. New, the plane would cost about $700,000, several air-taxi company officials in the crowd said.

Four used television sets sold for $2,000 - a price some frustrated buyers said was too high.

″A welding machine went for five or six thousand dollars - I can buy a new one for seven and it has a warranty,″ said Steve Pittillo of Anchorage, a drilling contractor who looked unsuccessfully for equipment.

Butch Johnson, from the Prince William Sound fishing community of Cordova, hoped to buy some nets but feared they would be too expensive. ″It’s a feeding frenzy,″ he said.

″It’s the biggest thing happening in Alaska,″ said a Kodiak fisherman who wouldn’t give his name. ″Prices are way out of line. The people we know - the fishermen - aren’t buying anything. They’re just shaking their heads.″

Dan League, pastor of the Hillcrest Church of the Nazarene in Anchorage planned to bid on tables and stack chairs for their Sunday school classes.

Melissa Stevison, co-owner of Alpine Aviation in Valdez, flew in to buy one of 38 Valdez mobile homes on sale so the company can have more office space.

Others were there to see what effect the auction would have on their livelihoods.

Phil Lian, owner of a net supply store in Cordova, angrily pulled out a notebook listing dozens of his customers whom he spotted at the auction.

He said he hasn’t received orders in a few months - ever since the auction was advertised.

″It impacts the fishing community when you put this much material on the market,″ said Lian, who attended the auction to see who buys the net and whether it will glut his market.

″This is depressing. We were impacted big time during the spill and now again. It’s probably cost us half a million dollars this year.″

Anchorage businessman Brian Watson, looking for equipment for his water purification business, was in awe of the sky-high piles of merchandise.

″People from all over the world are here looking for deals. It’s a great windfall,″ he said. ″The magnitude of this - and all because one ship blew it big. That’s amazing to me.″

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