WITH the Alaskan winter fast approaching, it's not surprising or unreasonable that Exxon Corporation's cleanup effort in Prince William Sound is winding down. Trying to hose off rocks and scoop up tar balls in a 70-mile-an-hour gale would be too dangerous and in the end unproductive. Exxon says most of the 1,100 miles of befouled coastline have been ``environmentally stabilized,'' whatever that means. Mother Nature does have a way of healing itself after natural disaster, as it has in surprising ways since the eruption of Mount St. Helens. But the dumping of 11 million gallons of oil - most of which remains on the beaches and under the water - is not natural. And there can be no doubt that wildlife and commercial fishing continue to be severely affected by man's negligence and lack of forethought in this case.
There are three areas now where close followup is called for.
First, whatever can be done to complete the cleanup - as long as the presence of crews and equipment don't do more harm than good - should be done. No excuses. No dithering. Exxon is responsible. Either it organizes the next effort itself or pays to have somebody else do it, as EPA administrator William Reilly says.
Second, there needs to be much more pre-spill preparation. Oil companies are responsible for doing it. Government agencies are responsible for making sure it gets done. This includes gear and trained crew in place to immediately contain a spill as well as better preventive measures like more use of experienced harbor pilots to take tankers beyond rocky shoals. It also means cracking down on drinking and use of drugs by tanker crew members.
Third, ways need to be found to cut back the US consumption of oil and thereby reduce the need to drill in (and transport oil through) environmentally-fragile areas. Every 14 hours and 40 minutes Americans consume as much oil as was spilled from the Exxon Valdez last March.
Exxon and its captain were the main culprits when the Valdez ran aground, but Coast Guard Vice Admiral Clyde Robbins was right when he told the New York Times the other day: ``Everybody can share a little of the blame for this spill.''