JUST how far the oily tentacles of the Exxon Valdez spill have reached since March 24 can be discovered if you fly 550 miles from Prince William Sound to the shores of Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. One of the most remote and least visited of the National Parks, the 537,000-acre Aniakchak had dead sea birds covered with hardening oil washing up on its beaches in June. The beaches are still being reoiled as currents change.
``You can't be lulled into thinking we have the technology to completely eradicate the oil from those beaches. It's with us. It's in the beach sand,'' says Ray Bane, superintendent of both Aniakchak and the Katmai National Park and Preserve, 350 miles southwest of the spill site.
Katmai, a 3.9 million-acre park famous for its brown bears and salmon, had its shores fouled with oil in early May. The hydrocarbons ``are in the system, and they're not going to be removed by human intervention,'' says Mr. Bane, who is pessimistic that damage done to the once-pristine volcanic parks on the Alaska Peninsula can be reversed.
``This is not a matter where the spill is over and we're still mopping up in places,'' says Dennis Kelso, commissioner of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). ``The areas outside the sound have never received the attention in either equipment or shoreline treatment crews that Prince William Sound has.''
Floating oil tarballs recently closed a commercial fishery in Chignik Lagoon, about 50 miles southwest of Aniakchak. That closure came after air-whipped oily ``mousse'' in the water closed the salmon fisheries around Kodiak Island, some 300 miles from the tanker accident site.
Last year's commercial salmon fisheries in Kodiak were worth $96 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the Kodiak port was the nation's top-volume fishing port.
Yet most of Exxon's cleanup efforts have been in Prince William Sound, where the Coast Guard has identified 520 miles of beach as affected by the spill. Of its 10,895 company and contracted employees, Exxon has about 2,000 workers cleaning the beaches in the sound and about 1,000 on beaches outside the sound, says Steve Provant, Alaska's state cleanup coordinator. Most of Exxon's workers are performing support roles in Valdez, site of the company's cleanup headquarters, Mr. Provant says.
``They have not taken the spill seriously enough outside of Prince William Sound,'' Mr. Kelso says. He has been particularly critical of Exxon's reluctance to apply the subsurface so-called ``Type B'' flushing cleaning methods (which involve the removal of rocks and sometimes beach soil) to areas outside the sound.
``It's no accident that every major initiative that has been taken in that area has been the result of direct action by the [US] Coast Guard or DEC,'' Kelso says.
Provant says that Exxon's efforts around Homer, Alaska, a community some 200 miles southwest of the spill site, have been particularly lax. The work effort there ``is essentially lip service,'' Provant says. ``They're doing very little that is useful over there.''
Homer Mayor John Calhoun says he thinks the lack of real effort is because Prince William Sound has a higher public-relations value to Exxon than areas near his city.
``What has made Exxon function in this thing is public pressure,'' Mr. Calhoun says. ``There has been little evidence, publicity-wise, outside the sound. And subsequently, you'll find that their efforts have been somewhat less outside the sound.''
Exxon spokesman John Nicholls defends the company's response outside Prince William Sound. The company has set up command posts and installed community-relations officers in Homer, Kodiak, and Seward, a Kenai Peninsula community 100 miles southwest of the spill site, as well as in Valdez, he says. ``We're very conscious of their needs,'' Mr. Nicholls says.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Clyde Robbins, the federal on-scene coordinator of the spill cleanup, says the areas outside the sound might actually be better off without the Type B cleanup methods.
``I'm very concerned about the heavy washing and pushing [oily] sediments down below,'' he says. Still, he agrees there is some justification for critics who cite a failure to use the most intensive techniques outside the sound.
``There's always some paranoia there, as you can imagine, because they aren't in on what's happening in Prince William Sound,'' Admiral Robbins says, standing on a beach outside Valdez. ``But yes, there is some justification for it. We haven't used the very intrusive methods down there that we have here.''
For the National Park Service's Mr. Bane, who has seen more than 800 tons of oiled debris and 8,000 dead birds removed from Katmai's shores, the argument over cleanup methods outside of Prince William Sound is less important than future wildlife policies.
Bane proposes establishment of a research program to monitor the oil's long-term effects on wildlife. He also wants wildlife protection increased.
``I'd like to see people focus in on more than just removing the physical evidence,'' Bane said. ``I'm afraid people are looking for a panacea - and I'm afraid in doing so, people are being led from the truth.''