Special report: Will the cleanup make the BP oil spill worse?

CORDOVA, Alaska/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - More than half an inch of oil covered the sea when Dennis Kelso’s boat, piled with a few newly dead birds, nudged up against the side of the Exxon Valdez on Friday, March 24, 1989.

An oil soaked sea bird rests in a towel in an animal rescue center as it is covered in oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez in this March 31, 1989 file photo. A close examination of studies of the Exxon Valdez disaster and interviews with many people who took part in the cleanup offers a possible peek into what lies ahead for the Gulf Coast in the coming weeks, months, years -- and perhaps decades. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files

A rope ladder hung down the side of one of the biggest vessels on earth, which had run aground near midnight on a reef in pristine Prince William Sound, a haven for birds, whales and otters, brimming with fish that supplied a multimillion dollar industry.

It is also next to the end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and the Exxon Valdez had picked up millions of gallons of crude piped from the top of the frosty state to bring to gas-thirsty consumers in Long Beach, California.

Spring was breaking, migrations were starting -- and Kelso was gagging at the rush of chemicals from the liberated oil.

“At the beginning oil was literally boiling out of the tanker,” said Kelso, the head of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation at the time. The crude began changing as it hit the water, releasing benzene and other pungent chemicals into the air, the start of a months-long process of transforming from a light liquid to a tarry gunk that would cling to more than a thousand miles of beaches in southern Alaska.

A close examination of studies of the Exxon Valdez disaster and interviews with many people who took part in the cleanup offers a possible peek into what lies ahead for the Gulf Coast in the coming weeks, months, years -- and perhaps decades. Indeed, by one estimate, about 21,000 gallons of oil still linger on some of Alaska’s beaches, often in the form of dark brown globs just beneath the rocks.

What’s more, there are still some experts who argue that the aggressive cleanup following the Exxon Valdez spill proved more harmful than the oil itself. That continuing debate points to another potential cautionary tale about how conflicts among various groups looking to make things right can end up hampering cleanup efforts.


The Exxon Valdez was an unrivaled environmental disaster which forced the United States to set a new standard for response to oil spills. Nothing in the United States had come close -- until now. As oil spreads across the Gulf of Mexico, a continent away, from the remnants of a British Petroleum well, the debates over how to contain the crude and what to do when it hits shore are similar to the arguments in Alaska two decades ago.

Surprisingly, not much has changed in the technology of cleaning up oil spills, and research on what to do is dominated by “gray literature” funded by either oil companies or environmental organizations that makes some experts wary. It’s clear, though, that the warm Gulf waters lapping marshes in Louisiana and the white sand beaches stretching from Mississippi to northern Florida are a world of difference from Alaska’s chilly, craggy, rocky southern coast.

Two mercurial forces -- weather and people -- are key for any cleanup. In many ways both acted against Exxon, beset by storms of nature and among warring scientists and politicians, and have played to BP’s advantage. Prevailing winds have largely kept the giant Gulf oil slick offshore for two weeks since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig accident triggered the breach, and the coast guard is firmly in charge.

On the day two decades ago in Alaska, the question of who was in charge was open. The day was calm and the sea was smooth -- perfect conditions for containing a slick of crude.

But the view from the bridge, abandoned by the captain after his crew drove the Valdez out of shipping lanes and onto a well known reef, was eerily clear. Exxon had a plan to respond to spills, but the ‘designated responder’ it had hired wasn’t responding. In fact, the boat that was supposed to be in the water, ready to launch at the first word of an accident, had been in dry dock covered with snow.

The Valdez ran into the reef at four minutes after midnight. The captain wasn’t on the bridge and had been drinking alcohol earlier in the evening.

Eleven of the ship’s cargo holds were punctured, and the first of 11 million gallons started filling Prince William Sound. The Valdez, roughly three American football fields long, eventually lost 20 percent of its cargo, although the exact figure was never known, since seawater flowing into the ship made it difficult to measure how much was left.

The uncapped well in the Gulf has been spewing out around 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) a day.


Cleaning up oil is tough at the beginning and gets harder every day. The first job is to contain a spill, a nearly impossible task in the real world.

On the water, booms which absorb and contain spills on relatively calm seas can be used to herd it into big pools that can be sucked up or burned. Burning needs perfect conditions, and one engineer compared a siphon to a toothpick in the Gulf. Chemical dispersants which separate crude into fine droplets can be sprayed from ships and planes. Rusty-colored oil ‘mousse’ can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico where dispersants mixed into the water by waves are breaking down the oil.

Above all, the oil needs to be kept off shore, which over time is the most difficult thing to do. When oil hits land it’s often for a short visit -- dropping off a sheen and then moving with the tides up or down the shoreline. Eventually though, the oil ages, becoming a tar -- like a blob that gloms onto a surface and won’t let go.

That’s fine on a hard-packed sandy beach, which is the best place for an oil spill, since a careful lift of a thin layer of sand can get rid of most of the problem. But in marshes, new and old oil can spread thin and deep with a ferocity that makes any cleanup counterproductive -- boots kill more than the oil. Alaska’s rocky coast is somewhere in between the two extremes, and just where the risks lay, and what the risks involved, is still debated today.

The threats to wildlife are legion. Fish eggs in water and turtle eggs on land can be fouled by oil. Growing fish mutate, otters and whales swimming through oil can get sick or suffocate from the fumes or oil coating their breathing passages. Petroleum fouls feathers, and small sea creatures can ingest chemicals and die.

How that affects the environment is still being studied. Do tiny sea creatures eat the tiny droplets of oil, creating a food chain timebomb in the way that mercury levels concentrate in bigger fish? Researchers say they don’t know or disagree. The Southern Shrimp Alliance in the Gulf Coast fears just such long term effects.

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The experts converging on Alaska had seen hundreds of spills. Two decades later, they agree on one thing with regard to Exxon Valdez: the first three days were lost.

Al Maki, Exxon’s chief scientist at the time, flew in early and knew what to do: break up the oil with chemical dispersants. The chemicals, which are being used widely in the current Gulf spill crisis, break oil into fine droplets so that it can be absorbed into the water and degrade naturally. Warm water and wave action speed the mixing and energy.

“If we had a chance to use dispersants earlier in the game, it would have reduced the landing impact substantially,” said Maki. Exxon, which was in charge of the cleanup, wasn’t allowed to use dispersants for three critical, calm days, after the early Friday crash, he said. “The storm that came through on Sunday night moved the oil way out beyond our reaches and the use of dispersants was canceled,” he said.

Kelso remembers the early days differently, though his conclusion is the same. “The window of opportunity to move as much oil out of the water as possible was squandered,” he said. Exxon, which had relied on an unreliable contractor to prepare for the spill, was scrambling in the first few days. Dispersants weren’t at hand, and a trial of them was a flop in the cold, still water, he said.

Conflicts over dispersants were one of the first between the main players in the cleanup -- state authorities like Kelso, Exxon leaders like Maki, and the federal government, including John Robinson, the chief scientist at the spill for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Robinson remembers two years of animosity and contention, a management problem that contributed to the oil spill issue -- and which was dealt with directly by legislation the following year that gave the federal government clear authority to step in and take charge of a spill response, as it has done on the Gulf Coast.

The state was so unhappy, “it was difficult for them to agree to almost anything in terms of the approach to cleanup,” Robinson, now retired, said by phone.


The storm which swept through three days after the crash totally changed the game, making it a desperate attempt to keep oil away from sensitive areas and muster resources. A state report compared the work to “guerrilla warfare.”

An obvious solution to too much oil is to send it up in flames. “People think you just light a match,” said Stan Jones, spokesman for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, a commission that monitors tanker and marine safety operations in Prince William Sound and was established by Congress in response to the Exxon Valdez. “Burning’s just not that easy,” he said. Some 15,000 gallons burned in about 75 minutes in one attempt the day after the spill. But others proved futile.

Little seemed to be happening the day after the spill, and Exxon panicked at the lack of clear action.

“Kick ass and get stuff out there. I don’t care what it is. I don’t care if it picks up two gallons (of oil) a week. Get that shit out there and stand it around where people can see it,” executive Don Cornett said, according to a transcript of an audio tape of Cornett gathered for a 1994 trial on the spill.

Frustrated fishermen took to the seas, marshaling what they called the “mosquito fleet” of skiffs and small boats loaded with buckets and hand-skimmers that launched off a state ferry press-ganged into service.

There was no incident command system, the standard hierarchy that is used for responses to natural disasters and is now automatically activated to respond to oil spills. “Early in the oil spill, no one was in charge and everyone was in charge,” said R.J. Kopchak, a longtime Cordova commercial fisherman and development director for the Prince William Sound Science Center.

“It was sort of a spontaneous, grass-roots response where people saw that the oil-company response wasn’t working,” said Rick Steiner, a marine scientist and former Cordova fishermen who was part of the effort. “Some boats got booms. Some just got buckets.” A salmon fishery was saved and a good 100,000 gallons of oil picked up in the home-made effort.

Exxon coordinated with the group, and Kelso says it shamed the oil giant into action.

The oil kept spreading. In four days it was 37 miles from the spill site. In two weeks it was 150 miles. By day 56, a sheen of crude stretched 470 miles.

But two months in, guerrilla warfare had turned into a corporate campaign. Exxon had mobilized in full. Some 11,000 workers were washing rocks, first with rags and then with power hoses.

The main plan was to float the oil off the beaches. Since oil floats, flooded beaches would shed the oil, which could be caught at the waterline. The main problem was that by this time the oil was tar, stuck to rock, and wasn’t going to move that easily.

“This stuff became much more difficult to deal with plastered on the rocks than it was the first few days. and that is what led us to deal with it with the hot water,” NOAA’s Robinson remembers, describing the decision to rely heavily on high pressure hot water to wash the rocky beaches.

“The cleanup in Alaska didn’t get started for a couple of months, started in a serious way,” he said. “We eventually had to have about 10,000 people and several ships and support facilities and all the wherewithal to make hot water and deliver it to the coast. And that was a couple of months before that arrived, at least,” he said.

It was more than a big effort though. It was a big mistake, Robinson said. “The aggressiveness of the cleanup in the end contributed to more damage than the oil did,” he believes. Nine strips of beach were left untouched as an experiment, and those nine beaches look better today than the swept ones, where whatever was alive was cooked to death in superhot water.

Maki, the Exxon scientist, disagrees. Beach denizens -- mussels, clams, worms -- indeed were killed off by the washes, but birds could nest, seals could raise pups on the cleared beaches, sea otters’ chances of survival rose. “When you look at the hot water or warm water wash from a net environmental standpoint for all the species, it was a benefit,” he said.

Exxon also put fertilizer on beaches far and wide, calculating that naturally existing microbes that eat naturally seeping hydrocarbons would multiply with the fertilizer and munch up the oil, which many said was indeed the case.


Maki is in the Gulf today, so far as an observer and potentially as a consultant. The differences are stark, he believes. Dispersants are breaking up the oil far from land, weather has been good, keeping the oil at sea up to now, and the land oil may come to is a different world -- marshes and stretches of white, packed sand that lets oil rest on the surface, not rocks that oil slips down between.

That is not to say a white sand beach is easy to clean. The key to such an effort is to wait until all the oil has arrived, skim it and a little sand off with a shovel, and be done. But oil moves with tides, so the perfect time to clean is a moving target. Volunteers can easily dig too deep, or not deep enough. Heavy equipment works faster but can damage the beach. And so a simple one-two exercise can become a seemingly endless process that is repeated until there is no beach left.

More than 20 years after Valdez, there is hardly any difference in the tools available for cleanup, and very little research has been done to solve the question that divides Robinson and Maki -- what is the least of the evils?

The answers are mostly in studies that Environmental Scientist Nancy Kinner of University of New Hampshire calls ‘gray literature’ -- funded by either the oil industry or environmental groups, and thus suspect. Take the case of dispersants. There is broad agreement that they can be used in the warm waters of the Gulf, she said, but Alaska?

“I don’t know and I’m pretty sure from looking at the literature that other people don’t know either. They may they claim they do but again it’s a matter of the quality of these studies,” said Kinner, who is co-director the Coastal Response Research Center, a joint effort between the university and NOAA.

Funding for a great new generation of inquiry, studies that would answer, for instance, whether dispersed droplets of oil disappeared or collected in tummies of microbes eaten by shrimp, never happened. Congress authorized studies in the 1990 law which followed on the Exxon Valdez disaster, but it never approved the funds to carry out them out, she said.

Oil still lingers on some Alaska beaches, in surprisingly fresh condition. NOAA estimates that about 21,000 gallons of oil are buried in beaches. “There’s more oil out there, in larger quantities and in a more toxic state, than we thought there would be,” said Craig Tillery, Deputy Attorney General of Alaska.

Exxon spent billions on the cleanup, which Erich Gundlach, an engineer who consulted on the Valdez spill, still marvels at. “The line was -- we didn’t tell Exxon but -- thank God it was Exxon. The state couldn’t do it.”

Crude from Alaska’s north still comes down the pipeline, and Royal Dutch Shell is on the cusp of drilling exploratory wells in pristine, remote territory of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Today, a small beach at the end of a narrow cove on Prince William Sound’s Eleanor Island, a site hit heavily by Exxon oil in 1989, presents an iconic Alaska scene of natural beauty.

On a recent visit, a bald eagle flew overhead. The air was scented with kelp, clinging to beach cobbles, and fresh water rushed from a stream in the spruce forest down into the sound. Snowy peaks glitter nearby.

Dave Janka has been searching beaches like this for oil since the cleanup was declared officially complete in 1992. His oldest daughter, who was 3 years old at the time of the spill, wound up riding along while Janka took scientists and others around the sound.

He remembers her playing with a toy rod and toy fish. “She’d bring it up onto the boat and say, ‘Oh, it’s dead, it got oil on it,’” he said.

Two decades of his samples rest in jars on display at the Prince William Sound Science Center, headquartered in a cozy building at the end of a pier in Cordova Harbor, where the local fishing fleet is based.

On the recent visit, Janka plunged a shovel into the beach surface. Globs of dark brown oil surrounded by reflective sheen emerged, emitting a headache-inducing odor.

“Looks like oil. Smells like oil,” said Janka. “Right from the start of the spill, you didn’t want to see it, and then to be here 21 years later and still be seeing it....” He paused. “It gets old. It really does.”

Editing by Jim Impoco and Claudia Parsons