AS Exxon begins its exodus from this Alaska seaport, residents are wondering just what comes next in the aftermath of the nation's largest oil spill. There is little feeling here that anything is final. Oiled beaches are being ``treated'' instead of cleaned, with Exxon spokesmen long ago dropping the term ``clean.'' Such are the tiny things, among issues large and small, that have some residents worried a disaster might be repeated.
``We have fears about what is going to happen,'' says Valdez Mayor John Devens. ``We'd like to think that everybody will do the right thing. But reality has shown us that that doesn't always happen.''
In mid-August, Exxon announced plans to withdraw all its cleanup crews from Prince William Sound by Sept. 15, and to withdraw crews in the Gulf of Alaska earlier. The US Coast Guard, overseer of the cleanup, approved the winter plan with some modifications.
``Transition ... to the winter program will be accomplished in a carefully planned manner to avoid unsafe working conditions caused by deteriorating weather,'' said an Exxon spokesman. ``Safety of personnel involved in the cleanup effort is the overriding consideration....''
Alaska state officials, however, have attacked the Exxon plan as vague and inadequate. Steve Provant, the state's on-scene cleanup coordinator, says Exxon's plans fail to state specifically where emergency crews and equipment would be located.
Mr. Provant's critique points out that Exxon's plan: has most of its personnel wintering in Alaska far from spill sites; neglects mention of research during the winter into new methods for recovering oil-stained beach; inadequately addresses the likely winter problem of still-floating oil; omits any commitment for cleanup in the spring.
Exxon's winter plans call for it to keep temporary housing, warehouses, and offices standing, albeit empty, in the spill-affected communities. The company also says it will keep community liaison officers on duty in the various towns through the winter, survey shorelines regularly, and work with local communities in case beaches get re-oiled.
Most cleanup equipment will be stored in Anchorage with some emergency equipment in ``strategic locations,'' the company says. Its staff will be cut from 10,000 to 300, with most of the 300 working in Anchorage, 300 miles by highway from Valdez.
The company says it plans to hold multi-agency and research committee meetings; have four oil-cleanup boats ported in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska for contingency response; and continue to map and research the oil's effects on the environment.
Still, an Exxon commitment to clean up floating tar balls and other remnants of the oil next spring is critical to the future of Prince William Sound's fisheries, Mayor Devens says. Millions of local dollars could be lost if fishing is restricted because of oil contamination, especially if oil, along with fish, becomes caught in the nets.
``For them to walk away from it right now, that would be very wrong,'' Devens says. But whether Exxon stays or leaves, the company's oil - and its effects - remain much in evidence. Signs of the times
At the Valdez airport visitors see hand-printed signs warning people to ``Please remove oily boots prior to entering terminal.'' Those who seek salvation from the entire mess are invited by leaflets to an old-fashioned tent revival where they can ``Hear what the Bible says about: Israel, Exxon & Muslims.''
Signs that Exxon is pulling out abound. An Anchorage travel agency recently set up temporary offices in a Valdez hotel. Cars and motor homes parked along streets bear ``For Sale'' notices.
Some effects are much less obvious. ``People are having to install locks because they never locked their doors before,'' said Richard Cook of the Valdez Counseling Center.
As cleanup workers and would-be cleanup workers migrated to Valdez, the city's population ballooned from 3,300 to about 10,000 people. Many newcomers slept in cars, tents, and under bridges. The crime rate tripled, Devens says. Violent crimes, once almost unknown in Valdez, became frequent.
To reimburse Alaska communities for incremental local-government costs, such as police and clerical overtime, Exxon has doled out $5.5 million so far, says Monte Taylor, head of Exxon's community liaison program.
``What we're trying to do is reimburse the incremental expenses, and I expect (expenses will) go down over the winter,'' Mr. Taylor says. He is unsure when the Exxon social support ends.
But Valdez's new social problems are not likely to disappear when Exxon's money and crews do, Mr. Cook says. The city is also bracing for mid-September, Devens says, when thousands of out-of-state cleanup workers swing through Valdez, their pockets full of money, for the summer's last fling. Thirty feet of snow
Mayor Devens hopes Exxon will encourage nonlocal workers to leave the city for the winter if they are not actually cleaning up. If those workers stay, hoping for first crack at cleanup jobs in the spring, ``along about February they're going to run out of money,'' he predicts.
``Winter in Alaska is tough, and you've got a lot of kids from the southern part of the country,'' Devens says. ``They really don't know what 30 feet of snow is.''
Beneath the social turbulence in Valdez lies deep-seated concern that the causes of the spill have not been addressed.
The Cordova District Fishermen United is planning a flotilla on Sept. 9 to protest the traffic of Liberian-flagged tankers to the Valdez terminal. The Liberian-flagged tankers taking crude oil from Valdez to an Amerada Hess refinery in the Virgin Islands are up to 50 percent larger than the Exxon Valdez, says Kelley Weaverling, one of the protest organizers.
There is particular concern about who would take responsibility if a ship, flagged as Liberian for convenience and cost savings, caused an Exxon-Valdez-size spill, Mr. Weaverling says.
``When you're trying to get hold of the owner of a (Liberian-flagged) vessel, it's a post office box somewhere,'' he says.
Some environmentalists, too, wonder how Exxon can insist that winter cleanup of the spill is unsafe and impossible, while Exxon and other companies insist they can safely transport North Slope crude in Alaskan waters year-round.
``Face it, they are running tankers through that sound all winter,'' says Lauri Adams, an attorney representing the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in a lawsuit against Exxon. ``What happens if there was a spill on Sept. 16?''