Alaska makes major progress after Exxon spill, says Phillips

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2004

Fifteen years after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil that contaminated more than 1,300 miles of shoreline in the Gulf of Alaska, the effects of the worst spill in United States history still are being felt.

However, much work has been done since the March 1989 accident in cleanup, research, habitat restoration and spill prevention and response planning, according to Gail Phillips, executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

"We have made some major progress since those days that needed to be done," she said. "Things are really much better then they were 15 years ago."

Phillips, a former state representative from the Kenai Peninsula, gave an update of spill response efforts and the work the council has done to an audience at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce's weekly luncheon Tuesday at the Riverside House.

The council was formed to oversee the cleanup and restoration of the damaged Gulf of Alaska ecosystem through the use of the nearly $900 million settlement against Exxon that was approved by the U.S. District Court in October 1991, Phillips said.

Phillips gave a brief outline of the council's work. In the first few years after the spill, cleanup and restoration work was the focus of efforts in Prince William Sound and the upper Gulf of Alaska. Spill responders used various tactics to contain and clean up the spill, but were not totally successful.

It is estimated that the oil killed 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales and billions of salmon and herring eggs, according to information from the council.

Some oil still remains trapped below the surface of some beaches.

"There was no way for human effort to clean up all the oil," Phillips said.

Phillips' political side came out in joking with the audience when one person asked why responders didn't just light a match to consume the oil.

"If (William) Egan had been governor, they would have. Steve Cowper (who was governor at the time of the spill) didn't have the courage to do that," she said.

About the fourth year after the spill, the council started working on habitat protection by buying land considered critical habitat to recovering species, including parcels in Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula, Phillips said. About $407 million has been spent in acquiring this land.

Since then, the main thrust of the council's work has been in conducting and supporting environmental research and monitoring programs, including the Gulf of Alaska Ecosystem Monitoring and Research Program (GEM).

"Now we are in full-scale research mode to accompany all the restoration work we've done," Phillips said.

When the spill occurred, baseline data for the region including information like how many fish, birds and sea mammals were in the region, what they eat and how often they reproduce was not available, so researchers had no way of precisely judging the full impact of the contamination. Now, scientists are collecting and compiling that information in a standard form that can be used by anyone who needs it.

"Scientific information from before the spill is limited," Phillips said.

"... (Now) they're creating baseline data that will be used for generations to come. They are creating information that can contribute to monitoring the health of the Gulf of Alaska."

Though much has been learned and much has been spent on this research including more than $90 million set aside for the GEM program alone still more information is needed, according to Phillips.

Several questions remain to be answered, like why some species still have not fully recovered from the devastation of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

"We haven't learned all the scientific data needed to bring back all those affected species and that's what we're working on now," Phillips said.

The Pacific herring, common loon, cormorants, harbor seal, harlequin duck and pigeon guillemot species have shown little or no improvement since the spill, according to information provided by the council.

Scientists have discovered unexpected findings that they are working to further understand, as well.

For instance, it was originally thought that the oil would have more long-term effects on species in the lower end of the food chain than larger creatures.

However, studies have shown that large animals have been affected, including sea otters suffering from inflamed livers due to hydrocarbon poisoning, said Rob Bochenek, data systems manager with the council.

Another area the council has worked on is spill prevention, preparedness and response. Several advances have been made in that realm, including having 40 miles of containment boom in place in Prince William Sound, requiring escort vessels to accompany tankers through the sound and Congress passing legislation that will require all tankers in Prince William Sound to be double hulled by 2015.

Phillips noted that it is significant when council directives are enacted, in part because they require a unanimous decision of the six-member trustee council.

"And if you don't think that's politically fun sometimes," Phillips remarked. "If you don't come up with a unanimous decision, we don't do it. It's quite a challenge to make things work so the trustees buy into it."

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