Wildlife Toll Mounts as Slick Spreads
VALDEZ, Alaska (AP) _ The nation’s worst oil spill spread into the Gulf of Alaska on Friday as the Soviet Union promised to send a ship to aid in the cleanup. The disaster threatened 600 miles of coastline that include fishing communities and a national park.
In Washington, the FBI announced it would conduct a criminal investigation into the spill, which occurred when the 987-foot tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground March 24.
Exxon Shipping Co.’s daily briefing on the spill turned into a shouting match, meanwhile, as fishermen and unemployed workers angrily accused the company of being reluctant to hire them for the cleanup and environmentalist s tried to force their way into the session.
State officials sighted more than 1,000 oil-covered sea gulls, murres, pigeon guillemots and other birds, as well as oil-soaked sea otters on Green Island about 75 miles south of Valdez, federal wildlife experts said.
The number of animals affected is expected to rise dramatically.
″The area impacted is so large that we have not been able to get people to all the areas to look,″ said Everett Robinson-Wilson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ″It’s still early to tell how bad the disaster is. I think we’re going to see more dead and oiled animals in the next week.″
In Washington, President Bush reiterated his support for Alaskan oil exploration, saying a policy reversal would be ″irresponsible″ and would ill serve an energy-hungry nation.
″What we will do is redouble efforts to bring about proper safeguards,″ Bush told reporters in Washington who asked him about his Alaskan oil policy in light of the tanker disaster. ″We are becoming increasingly dependent on foreign oil, and that is not acceptable to any president. We have to transport oil. What we will do is not go backwards.″
Gov. Steve Cowper’s office announced that the Soviet Union would send a skimmer ship and Norway would send five environmental experts to assist in the cleanup.
The Norwegians are expected to arrive in Anchorage on Saturday, and the 11,400-ton Soviet ship Vaydagursky is expected to arrive in four or five days, said spokesman Terence O’Malley.
″Since the oil is starting to enter the Gulf Of Alaska ... we’d like to use it down there to try to head off the oil heading west″ toward Seward and the Kenai Peninsula southwest of Valdez, O’Malley said. A dozen skimmer ships are already working on the cleanup, the Coast Guard said.
Last fall, the Soviets provided two icebreakers to help free two trapped gray whales.
The FBI investigation will center on possible felony violations of the Clean Water Act, which prohibits the negligent discharge of a pollutant into navigable waters, spokesman Bill Carter said. The state also has started an investigation.
The tanker’s skipper, Joseph Hazelwood, was fired by Exxon Thursday after the National Transportation Safety Board announced that tests showed the amount of alcohol in his body after the accident exceeded the Coast Guard limit for operating a commercial vessel at sea.
Hazelwood, 42, was not on the bridge when his ship hit Bligh Reef a half- mile outside normal shipping lines. The third mate, Gregory Cousins, was piloting the tanker at the time but was not licensed for those waters, officials have said.
The Coast Guard is conducting an investigation that could cost Hazelwood his license. After that probe is completed in the next few days, any charges would be presented to an administrative law judge in Seattle, said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Rick Meidt.
Hazelwood’s father, Joseph, reached by telephone at his Huntington, N.Y., home, said the family had no comment, and would not say where his son was. The tanker disaster spewed more than 10.1 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into once-unspoiled Prince William Sound. The slick already covers 600 square miles.
Wind and tides flushed some of the iridescent slick out of the sound and into the Gulf of Alaska. Other communities prepared for the oil’s arrival as scientists warned that most of Alaska’s southern coastal communities could be affected.
The city of Seward, which is about 160 miles southwest of Valdez, bought about 10,000 feet of containment boom to protect sensitive sections of Resurrection Bay.
At Kenai Fjords National Park on the Kenai Peninsula near Seward, workers hustled to protect fertile salmon streams.
″We expect the windward side of our boundary ... to be slimed,″ said park Superintendent Anne Costellina. ″There’s not a lot we can do about it.″
The prevailing current could also drive oil into fishing grounds in Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet on the western side of the peninsula, well southwest of Valdez.
The briefing at the Valdez Civic Center, which was attended by area residents as well as reporters, broke up when a bird cleanup expert hired by Exxon Shipping burst into tears and had to be escorted offstage under hostile questioning about efforts to help oil-soaked birds. The woman, Alice Berkner, was mistaken for an Exxon official by questioners.
At the news briefing, Exxon Shipping spokesman Don Cornett denied a reporter’s suggestion that the spill has gotten out of control and that the cleanup has been a failure.
″We are making good progress on this cleanup,″ Cornett insisted. However, he conceded that only about 300,000 gallons of spilled oil have been recovered.
″Most skimming equipment is inefficient″ because of the changing consistency of the oil, which now resembles ″black mayonnaise,″ Exxon Shipping President Frank Iarossi said.
About 28 million gallons of oil have been pumped off the stricken tanker, and nearly 14 million gallons remain aboard, Exxon said. By late Saturday, officials predicted, about 1.3 million gallons of oil and 600,000 gallons of oily ballast water will remain.
Outside the auditorium, security guards struggled with environmentalists trying to get into the briefing.
″We are as sad and angered as everybody,″ Iarossi said earlier. ″But we are not letting those feelings out because there’s so much work to be done.″
Workers in Valdez hurried to build cages for an expected flood of oil- soaked otters at a wildlife recovery and rehabilitation center set up at Prince William Sound Community College.
An otter brought to the center was cleaned and appeared to be recovering Friday. If the otter recovers, it would be the first time one of the marine mammals survived serious oil contamination, said Mike Herlache of the California Department of Fish and Game’s pollution unit.
Another otter was turned in dead, said Robinson-Wilson.
Wildlife experts focused much of their attention on the otters, the most plentiful marine animal in the sound. Cathy Frost of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated the sound’s otter population at 4,000 to 5,000.
Biologists believe the otters are most susceptible to the oil because they depend on their fur for warmth and buoyancy. The otters constantly preen, putting them at risk of ingesting oil.
Exxon has hired people from the Sea World Research Institute in San Diego to help rescue otters.
In Anchorage, a second class-action lawsuit was filed accusing Exxon of gross negligence in the spill and cleanup effort. Plaintiffs included fishermen, seafood processors, kelp harvesters, tour boat operators and maritime shippers. The first lawsuit was filed by two Prince William Sound fishermen.