By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - "A thick pancake of shiny black" covered the still waters of Prince William Sound in the hours after the Exxon Valdez split open in an ecological disaster that offers lessons for any future forays for Arctic oil, eyewitness and conservationist Dennis Kelso recalled.
As Alaska’s environment conservation chief 20 years ago, it was Kelso’s job to enforce clean-up standards around the supertanker on March 24, 1989, as it leaked oil into prime fishing grounds.
The Valdez ultimately spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaskan waters, fouling 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline and disrupting or killing marine wildlife.
The clean-up cost more than $2 billion and is still proceeding. Exxon, now known as ExxonMobil (XOM.N), paid some $1 billion in damages, and state and federal governments are seeking $92 million more.
Kelso, now with the environmental group Ocean Conservancy, remembered traveling to the spill site in a small Coast Guard vessel with Alaska’s then-Governor Steve Cowper, about six hours after the Valdez hit Bligh Reef.
"There’s a thick pancake of shiny black, it was really calm," Kelso said in an interview. "We were right next to the vessel, the Coast Guard (boat) nosed up against the Exxon Valdez, which was listing and hanging on the reef, and the governor and I climbed up the rope ladder ... up to the deck.
"There was a skeleton crew there, but no one from Exxon," he said.
What struck him, apart from the pungent smell of newly spilled oil, was that Exxon’s legally approved clean-up plan was not under way as it should have been. But he found plenty of Exxon personnel at an "incendiary" town meeting in the town of Valdez.
RUBBER BOOTS AND THREE-PIECE SUITS
"The governor and I walked into this meeting and were the only ones who’ve been on the tanker," Kelso said. "We’re obviously oily ... we’re both wearing rubber boots ... and the Exxon officials are there but they’re wearing three-piece suits."
Kelso saw the Valdez spill and its aftermath as a systemic failure.
"It was the breakdown of an industrial system that the public had been assured would not break down," he said. "And because it was thought to be so reliable, some of the safeguards had been dismantled."
Beyond the ecological devastation, Kelso said, the damage from the Valdez disaster calls into question whether Arctic offshore drilling should be part of U.S. energy strategy. Clean-up and recovery of oil has never been successfully accomplished in rough, ice-laden Arctic water, he said.
The Bush administration’s decision to offer millions of acres (hectares) of oil and gas leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and Bristol Bay were based on 40-year-old information that failed to take the effects of global warming into account, Kelso said.
Climate change spurred by human activities — such as the emission of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and fossil-fueled vehicles — has hit the Arctic region roughly twice as hard as temperate areas. Arctic summer sea ice has decreased dramatically in the last two years.
"At a time when the entire set of ecosystems is under deep stress from global climate disruption, we would be well advised to go carefully when we think about extending these industrial activities," Kelso said. (Editing by Vicki Allen)