Alaska Gets a Bath - Stone by Stone


`THE only pay we get is satisfaction and we manage to scrape a little bit of that out along with the oil we're cleaning up,'' says Jim James, a member of the Homer Area Recovery Coalition (HARC). This group of volunteers has banded together with people across the country to clean up Mars Cove - an oil-soaked wilderness area in Alaska. Mars Cove is located 40 miles east of Homer and 300 miles south of where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound last March. After six months of an Exxon clean-up effort, more than half of the 11 million gallons of oil spilled from the tanker remains stuck to rocks or embedded in the sub-surface of Alaska's beaches.

Exxon's clean up ended last month, and the company has made no promises to resume work. HARC is frantically working to clean up before winter sets in. The group hopes to finish restoring the cove, stone by stone, by the end of this month.

Nestled among Alaska's mountains and glaciers, Mars Cove is only accessible by air and skiff. About a dozen volunteers cycle in and out each week.

``I grew up near this area and I thought `here's my chance to make up for some of the gasoline I've bought during my life,''' says Mr. James.

Jerry Brennermann, a fisherman and an Alaska native, also joined the recovery effort. ``The work here is a statement. It's a pretty modest effort compared to Exxon's clean-up work, but this is truely a worthwhile thing to do,'' he says.

The volunteers use a simple but effective technology to clean the beaches. First, they set up specially-designed, absorbent, recyclable booms to soak up surface oil. Then they remove shoreline rocks in buckets, and run the oiled stones through a washer. Finally, they clean them by hand with a common floor scrubber.

``In our project the only thing left is the oil,'' says Bill Day, who co-designed the rock washer with fellow Homer resident Benn Levine. Mr. Day says the goal of the Mars Cove cleaning project is ``to perfect the cleaning process and educate the public about the consequences of an oil spill.'' Day says that about $15,000 worth of equipment was donated to the Mars Cove project.

The rock washer, which looks like a giant barbecue, is considered enviromentally sound but cleans very slowly. No chemicals are used. Oil and water enter the tank from the cove, and the mixture passes through packs designed to separate the oil from the water. The oil is forced to the surface of the packs while the water continues through the washer. A generator heats the water to about 120 degrees F. The water is then forced through a simple hose sprayer at high pressure onto the rocks. Five gallons of stones can be cleaned at a time.

Once the oil is collected, it is either sent to a hazardous waste incinerator on Alaska's North Slope or to a hazardous waste landfill near Portland, Oregon.

``As you shovel this oily, mucky, terrible stuff from the cove, it just makes me more and more mad at Exxon,'' says Mr. Brennerman.

Jack Briscoe, a furniture builder and former school principal from Maine, says the situation is worse than he expected. ``The environment's been changed and we won't know for many years all the ways that nature's been affected by the spill.''

Unlike the HARC volunteers who remove the rocks to clean them, Exxon blasted beaches with a mixture of hot water and solvents. This cleans the rock and beach surfaces, but leaves the oil beneath untouched. The company is hoping that beaches doused with chemical fertilizers to promote the growth of oil-eating bacteria will eventually consume the remaining oil. But, it's still too early to tell if the fertilizer process will be effective.

Levine says, ``Given the time frame we've set for ourselves, we can clean one 70-by-30-square-foot area of the Mars Cove beach by late October. There's no good, clean, fast way to remove oil from a beach. The bottom line is not to put it in the water in the first place.''

After the volunteers remove the estimated 200-300 gallons of oil, they will plan for spring clean-up work wherever its needed. Organizers hope that state and federal money, combined with private contributions, will yield about $20,000 for equipment.

Coincidentally, as the volunteers rush to finish their work, the state of Alaska has just mailed out oil dividend checks. The state makes huge amounts of money off of big oil, and divides the interest among Alaskans. This year, each resident will receive a check for $873.16.

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