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One Year Later, Effects of California Spill Debated

February 6, 1991

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) _ One year ago Thursday, 400,000 gallons of oil spilled by the ruptured tanker American Trader churned in Southern California waters, blackening beaches and killing wildlife.

The oil is gone now from the surf and shore, scrubbed away by time and a $35 million cleanup effort. But there is a lingering effect on the environment and the local economy, some experts and residents contend.

″It’s like a piece of shrapnel,″ said Alan Schoff, who lives near the beach. ″It’s going to be worse right away, but you’ll have a scar for the rest of your life.″

There is agreement that the spill, coupled with the much larger 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, strengthened the fight for stricter laws governing oil tanker operations and provided important lessons in cleanup operations.

BP America Inc., which owned the oil that spilled when American Trader split itself on its own anchor Feb. 7, 1990, says its consultants have found no lasting environmental damage.

But state officials, who are suing to gain restitution for the harm to wildlife and beaches, disagree. Officials say they want to reach a settlement over the spill that closed marinas and 15 miles of beach for several weeks and killed about 1,000 birds.

Marine life off the coast has not returned to normal and probably won’t for years, said John Grant of the California Department of Fish and Game. A marine biologist, Grant coordinated marine damage studies after the spill.

He refused to release details of the state’s findings because it is evidence in the pending lawsuit against BP America and two other companies. But he said the area has lowered populations of marine birds and fish.

″The spill is not over,″ Grant said. ″The ecosystem has not fully recovered and it won’t for some time.″

The economic impact also is given different readings.

″I think the spill served to highlight the city and its potential for nationwide tourism,″ said Art Aviles, president of the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce. There has been no negative long-term effect, agreed Richard Leuhrs, president of the Newport Harbor chamber.

″The oil spill was the start of a financial disaster for us,″ counters businessman Jim Lane. Closure of the pier for renovation and the general economic downturn have combined with the spill to make things ″pretty gloomy down here.″

Cleveland-based BP America says knowledge gained from the disaster has been shared with other oil companies. And BP America has learned valuable lessons about training of cleanup teams, equipment use and communications with officials and the public.

″It was an extremely unfortunate event, but it has spawned an intense level of activity, and all of that has to benefit society in time,″ said Chuck Webster, crisis manager for BP America, a British Petroleum subsidiary.

In the aftermath of the spill, the state Legislature approved a bill that establishes a $100 million emergency cleanup fund and creates new full-time teams of oil-spill wardens and biologists. The teams, stationed at five sites throughout the state, will investigate spills and analyze damage.

On the federal level, Congress addressed a major spill-prevention issue last year by requiring all new tankers to be double-hulled beginning in 1995 and authorizing the Coast Guard to evaluate installing vessel radar systems in busy ports.

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