Doubts Surface Over Exxon Oil-Spill Cleanup Plan

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

EXXON Corporation is vowing to get the worst part of the Valdez, Alaska, oil spill cleaned up by Sept. 15. ``We're not just talking about getting sterilized rocks up there. Our intention is to get this back as best we can ecologically,'' says Lawrence Rawl, the chairman of Exxon.

At a press conference April 18, Mr. Rawl conceded that a year from today there might still be some ``black places on some rocks.'' But, he added, ``I am telling you that a year from now the toxicity will be eliminated.''

To show how it plans to do this, the beleaguered oil company released Tuesday the details here of its plan to clean up the oil-fouled shoreline. Rawl disputed conservationists who predicted thousands of miles of shoreline would need to be cleaned up over a period of five or 10 years. Instead, he said the damaged area was about 305 miles of shoreline around Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez spilled 240,000 barrels of oil March 24.

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However, Vice-Admiral C.E. Robbins, the United States Coast Guard's on-scene coordinator, says he has ``serious reservations'' that the company can do what it promises, because favorable weather conditions deteriorate in mid-September and it gets colder. The state of Alaska likewise says it doubts Exxon will return Prince William Sound and the surrounding waters back to their pristine state by this fall. ``We think Exxon has underestimated the problem,'' says Dave Ramseur, a spokesman for Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper.

Dennis Kelso, the state commissioner of the environment, sent a letter on Monday to the Coast Guard about what he called the ``serious shortcomings'' of Exxon's shoreline plan. He asked that Exxon expand its plans to include the recovery of oil from other areas besides Prince William Sound and the disposal of waste related to the cleanup. Mr. Kelso also said Exxon needed to improve substantially the recovery of oil still in the water.

Some of these concerns were also voiced by the Coast Guard, which gave Exxon until May 1 to detail how it would dispose of the spill-related waste and to address the potential impact of the spill on the Kenai Peninsula, the Cook Inlet, and the Kodiak archipelago.

According to Exxon's estimate of April 14, 110,000 barrels of oil are still in open water or on the shoreline. Although a significant amount of the oil has evaporated or degraded, Exxon itself has only recovered 22,000 barrels of oil - or 9 percent of the spill.

Exxon may soon get some help in sucking the remaining oil out of the sea. The Soviet Union is sending a 400-foot boat that can skim the oil from below the surface of the water.

Floating hotels are also on their way to Alaska. Mr. Ramseur says these barge-hotels are essential for lodging cleanup crews because they have self-contained sewage systems. The state is concerned shore-based camps will present another pollution hazard. Exxon's plan anticipates its hiring will peak at 4,000 workers - most of them local residents. The Coast Guard is recommending Exxon run double shifts, because its cleaning technique will have to run through the night to take advantage of the 12- to 15-foot tides.

Exxon will be running a large fleet. At its peak, the company will have 200 vessels, 87 skimmers, and 26 airplanes in Valdez, according to Rawl.

If the Exxon army of workers is based in shore camps, Mr. Kelso warns Exxon may have to get a permit for these camps. This could delay the cleanup since it would require a public comment period.

Any further delay would add fuel to the disagreement between Exxon and the state over who was at fault for the delay in getting the cleanup underway. Rawl maintains that Exxon could not obtain the immediate approval of governmental agencies to begin spraying dispersing chemicals on the oil. ``The most damaging charge is that we delayed.... That is absolutely not true,'' Rawl says.

But Rawl's contention, Alaska spokesman Ramseur replies, ``is flat out not true - the state is not at fault.'' He says Exxon had prior approval to spray, but could not do so because the water was too calm. But Rawl says the chemicals worked in tests in calm waters. ``So why not use them?'' he asks.

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