After 13 years, Valdez's oil damage lingers

New evidence challenges perceptions that the spill damage is over, leading to calls for Exxon to pay more.

With the demeanor of a friendly sea captain, Gerry Sanger loves leading tourists out of port to spot humpback whales breaching on a glittery horizon framed by the fjords of Prince William Sound.

Nearly 14 years after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground here, causing the worst oil spill in US history, Mr. Sanger does brisk business with whalewatchers from around the world. But as marvelous as they find the oceanscape, the former federal wildlife biologist says their perception of the Sound as again pristine differs from reality.

"When you look out over the water, everything seems fine. But you can't judge the health of the environment on that," says Sanger. "The impacts of the spill are hidden beneath the surface."

A newly released assessment of marine life in Prince William Sound concurs with that view, highlighting a number of creatures that have yet to recover from the accident.

In the wake of these latest findings, the Coastal Coalition, a group of conservationists and scientists, is asking a federal judge to force Exxon Mobil to pay an additional $100 million to address damages unforeseen following a 1991 settlement between the company, the federal government, and Alaska.

But beyond the issue of monetary awards, the lingering effects have prompted another question: Can human environmental remediation really heal landscapes severely tarnished by industrial mishaps?

How do you define 'recovery'?

For some, like the oil industry, the answer is yes. "Our sense is that Prince William Sound essentially has recovered," says Exxon Mobil spokesman Tom Cirigliano. "Of course, it all depends on what your definition of recovery is." Exxon Mobil insists that damage awards of another $100 million are unnecessary until proved otherwise.

Yet others in Alaska see a bleaker picture and point to evidence of an ecosystem that, in their estimation, is far from recovered and may never recapture what has been lost. Rick Steiner, director of the Coastal Coalition and professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, says the insidious effects of pollution present in Prince William are clear, from oil still visible under rocks on many beaches, to wildlife populations that remain depressed in number.

A lingering aftermath

"People who spent a lot of time in Prince William before the spill will tell you it has become the 'Sound of silence,'" Mr. Steiner says. "There used to be a profusion of seabirds filling the sky with their calls but their absence is, I believe, symptomatic of something more far- reaching. The oil spill left the system in a condition of chaos."

On March 24, 1989, some 11 million gallons of North Slope crude escaped through a cracked hull into the Gulf of Alaska, spreading a toxic sheen westward across thousands of square miles of open ocean and soaking 1,500 miles of largely pristine coastline.

Exposure to oil resulted in the deaths of 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 250 bald eagles, nearly two dozen killer whales, and billions of salmon crucial to the thriving commercial fishing industry.

After the spill, Exxon enlisted a small army of independent scientists to assess the damage. "Exxon was horrified by this spill, and we are extremely sorry for it," Mr. Cirigliano says. "We stayed on the scene carrying out cleanup until the Coast Guard and the state of Alaska told us it was time to stop."

The Alaska Coalition's request for additional damages comes in the wake of an ecosystem assessment released in August by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. The council was created to oversee disbursement of roughly $1 billion paid by Exxon in the settlement aimed at restoring the sound to its former vitality. That fee is on top of the $2.5 billion charged to the company for cleanup in the two years after the spill.

But for some, the punative payouts have been insufficient. Mr. Steiner estimates that the economic and ecological damage is closer to $15 billion.

The council's latest report identifies several species as not yet having recovered. Among the wildlife on the list: loons, three species of cormorants, harlequin ducks, harbor seals, a pod of killer whales (orcas), and herring, a food staple for more than 20 species.

While the Trustee Council has listed six species – bald eagles, black oystercatchers, murres, pink and sockeye salmon, and river otters – as returning to prespill levels, Exxon says its own findings are more optimistic, reflecting nature's resiliency and ability to heal itself. Cirigliano says there is ample evidence by Exxon's scientists in peer-reviewed journals to suggest that ecologically speaking, the marine ecosystem is functioning again.

Irreconcilable differences

Prince William has become the most intensively studied marine environment in the world, yet the fundamental disagreement between the oil company's scientists and other assessments is difficult to reconcile.

In truth, there's so much humans still don't know about the ecosystem, says Trustee Council member David Gibbons, a fisheries biologist who vividly recalls the smell from the slick on the day it swamped the area.

If there's one thing that Exxon and environmentalists agree upon, it's that not enough money has been channeled into restoration. Much of the settlement money has gone into funding studies and buying up wildlife habitat to protect affected species against growing industrial development.

Steiner says the additional $100 million could address concerns that have surfaced only recently, but Exxon says any further payment must be requested by the federal and state governments, which so far, have been reluctant to act.

For ecotourism captain Sanger, the dispute over money misses the point.

"This kind of experience, in which people can witness the richness of the ocean, is becoming rarer every day," he says. "Wild nature has a value that you can't put a number on."

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