Influx of Experts Institutionalizes Spill Cleanup Efforts
Apr. 09, 1989
VALDEZ, Alaska (AP) _ It is D-day plus 16, two weeks into the chaotic effort to contain and clean up the nation's worst oil spill.
Sounds wafting from dozens of makeshift offices are reassuringly familiar to the hundreds of strangers who have converged on this village of 3,000. Xerox machines hum, speaker phones squawk, computer keys click, walkie-talkies crackle and polite secretaries say: ''Can I put you on hold?''
The experts and bosses have established a bureaucratic beachhead. No longer are workers flying by the seat of their pants.
''We're much better organized than it appears,'' said Henry Beathard, an Exxon spokesman from Houston. ''We've even got IRS forms for people who want to file for extensions on April 15 because they're not home to finish their income tax.''
All around him at Exxon's command center, the once-vacant entire second floor of a private office complex, giant machines were spitting out 10,000 photocopies every 48 hours. Carpenters were pounding nails to convert cavernous rooms into partitioned cubicles. The latest revision of the in-house phone directory, all six pages of extensions, was being handed out.
''Fortunately,'' Beathard said, ''we've got real good credit.''
''Things are definitely looking up,'' said a security officer dispatched from Anchorage.
In one week he and his uniformed cohorts had gone from sharing a single folding chair in an empty hallway to enjoying a desk, three chairs, a bulletin board, a tape dispenser, a guest book, an ashtray and a telephone. A fresh carnation in a blue vase topped off the scene.
On March 25, the day after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and dumped 10.1 million gallons of crude oil into the sea just south of this town, Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi arrived from Houston aboard a company jet with 10 co-workers. When he touched down, Exxon had no office in Valdez, just a 30-person staff in Anchorage.
Before he returned to Houston on Saturday, Iarossi said the oil giant had 400 of its own employees and 600 others on the Valdez payroll. At least 110 vessels were under contract, nearly 4 million pounds of equipment had been flown in on 70 flights, and the cost was mounting by ''many, many millions of dollars.''
The meter was running, and not just for Exxon. The state of Alaska owed a restaurant $3,600 in pizza bills alone.
With President Bush's decision Friday to send federal troops to help with the cleanup, military flights arrived with personnel and equipment and the Coast Guard began to move into the command center over the weekend.
In the state and federal bureaucrats' offices, organizational charts as complex as Henry VIII's family tree were taped to doors. Plastic clip-on ID badges materialized from somewhere. Elaborate laminated maps covered walls.
Stick-on message pads, computer paper and coffee machines arrived in aircraft cargo holds along with oil booms, crates of dishwashing liquid to wash off dying animals, and arctic survival suits for pilots.
''We need speaker phones so we can make conference calls,'' said Adrienne Stewart of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation as she jumped into a truck to inspect more new office space.
In some cases, too many experts complicated decision-making. With the marine mammal rescue center bulging with veterinarians, a pathologist, husbandry specialists and an expert on otters pup, a dispute developed over the poor creatures.
Five sea otters initially were rescued, cleaned, and shipped to Sea World in San Diego to recuperate. Three later died, and there was disagreement over the cause because toxicology tests were incomplete.
When more otters were slated to be shipped to the Vancouver Aquarium, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service halted transfers until further tests indicated whether traveling harms the animals.
''The logistics here are phenomenal,'' said Terrie Williams, supervisor of the mammal rescue center. It started out in an office at the community college but soon outgrew that building and moved to an elementary school gymnasium.
''It's like trying to run 60 bathtubs at the same time, as well as assemble special heaters and build cages as well as train an increasing corps of volunteers,'' she said.
As she spoke, a subdued otter that had just spent two hours being dipped in five different batches of dish soap stared up at her with sorrowful eyes.