MINTO (AP) -- Horrified sock puppets gaped at the sight of North Slope crude spurting from the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
''Get the cork!'' they shouted. ''Cork the hole!''
Protected with cellophane respirators and environmental suits fashioned from construction paper, the puppets scrambled to plug the spill -- black paper streamers gushing from an aluminum foil pipeline.
The fifth and sixth graders of Minto created the puppet show after a rifleman shot a hole in the real pipeline 2 1/2 months ago. The 285,000-gallon spill was only about 30 miles from the children's Interior river village.
The spill had a huge psychological and economic impact on Minto. The Tolovana River, about two miles from the oil spill, is the subsistence bread-and-butter for the roughly 200 people who live in the village. The specter of oiled northern pike brought shudders to residents.
But jobs on the spill cleanup crew put substantial cash in their pockets, with even more work coming before spring.
Minto residents invited Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. to the village last week to talk about the spill and the ongoing cleanup efforts. Armed with maps and handouts, the Alyeska representatives first walked from the brisk cold into the Minto School to talk with students.
The close attention paid to the spill in Minto is clear upon entering the school gymnasium. There is a black line drawn on the gym wall, about 10 feet from the floor, with a sign above it: ''The Livengood oil spill would fill the gym to about here,'' it reads.
Teachers and students alike wanted to know whether the river will be safe from the crude. ''We believe there will be no impacts to the Tolovana River,'' said Wes Wilson, lead Alyeska environmental specialist.
The oil spread about 800 feet from the pipeline, Wilson said, and the river is still about two miles away. The company reports it has so far recovered about 180,000 gallons of the 285,000 gallon spill.
This winter Alyeska plans to drive vehicles onto the frozen tundra and dig up the contaminated soils, the representatives said, in order to prevent spring break-up from threatening the river with petroleum.
Alyeska has taken baseline fish and sediment samples from the river and a nearby creek, Wilson said, and will compare them to samples collected next year to evaluate the situation.
Asked whether any wildlife was hurt by the spill, some of the kids giggled when told the only reported animal impact in the spill area was a squirrel that was spotted running around.
The Alyeska people, though, said they took the squirrel quite seriously. There was a little oil on the squirrel's back, said Alyeska environmental specialist Hillary Schaefer.
A teacher wanted to know how much the spill cleanup will cost Alyeska. ''So far we have spent over $7 million,'' responded Kalu Kalu, the Alyeska official who is overseeing the cleanup. ''It's going to be probably at least twice that.''
The Alyeska team had high praise for the contribution that the Minto cleanup crew made to the cleanup.
Moving heavy equipment through the boggy tundra was difficult. So members of the Minto group suggested using chain saws to cut out blocks of the vegetative mat for the trenches that helped catch oil. ''It worked great,'' Wilson said.
Rocky Riley, the head of the 25-member Minto spill response crew, told the News-Miner he has received a call from a national environmental firm that heard his people did a good job on the oil spill.
The firm put the Minto crew on its list for a possible mobilization to cleanups throughout the West Coast, Riley said.
Riley said the pipeline spill cleanup brought about $300,000 direct to the village residents who got about $19.50 an hour during the seven-day-a-week cleanup.
''In a really good firefighting year we would be lucky to get $75,000 in the village,'' he said.
Work at the spill site just outside Livengood has slowed with the arrival of deep winter. But in mid-January there will be a large remobilization as Alyeska removes the contaminated soil. The Minto workers are slated to be brought back to help.
Duke Silas, a Minto environmental technician, urged Alyeska to provide Minto and other river villages with pumps, absorbent booms and the training to respond to an oiled river.
''We have six rivers running through the Minto Flats,'' he said. ''And we're very concerned that a spill like that would be very devastating to our subsistence lifestyle.''
The Alyeska representatives said such steps are under consideration but they could make no promises.
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