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Can Alaska Heal?

Eleven years after a devastating oil spill, scientist worry about Alaska's health

Sailing the cold bright waters of Prince William Sound off Alaska's southern coast, you might spot a steel pylon, or marker, rising from the shallow waves off rocky shoals. The pylon is blanketed with navigational aids for mariners, but shoreline residents grudgingly refer to the pylon as "Hazelwood's Stick." It's named after Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the ill-fated oil tanker Exxon Valdez.

Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the tanker set sail from Port Valdez bound for California, its hull brimming with crude oil from the Alaskan pipeline. Had the tanker reached its destination, the oil would have indeed up as refined gas for thousands of thirsty cars (see chart). But instead, the Exxon Valdez plowed into Bligh Reef's jagged rocks, ruptured, and began to hemorrhage 11 million gallons or about 41,000 tons of thick black oil into the sound.

Waves and currents eventually carried to oil along 1,300 miles of the Alaskan coast. A viscous or sticky film smothered beaches and adjoining state forest preserves, killing as many as 5,000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 22 killer whales, more than 150 bald eagles, and an estimated 250,000 waterfowl and other birds. Hazelwood's Stick now pinpoints the exact site of one of North America's most devastating spills.

Oil spills are merely one striking example of hoe the world's use of energy can despoil Earth's environment; disasters involving gas explosions or nuclear energy plants are others (see SW 2/21/00). Exxon Valdez riveted worldwide attention with dramatic media coverage and photos of oil-slicked birds, animals, and beaches. Yet the spill's magnitude dwarfs in comparison to the largest global spills over the last three decades (see chart).

Accidentally spills from tankers account for only 20 percent of the crude oil discharged into the world's oceans each year. The remainder is mainly the result of routine oil tanker operations like emptying hull tanks. Now scientist are studying not only the long-term effects of such ecological disasters, but devising strategies to prevent them in the first


The morning after the Exxon Valdez accident, Katherine Berg, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist, gathered oily bird carcasses strewn on beaches and floating in Prince William Sound. "Entire bird colonies were wiped out in the spill's direct path," she says. "I nearly cried." Berg and a team of scientists catalogued carcasses of such local species as murres, guillemots, and cormorants, placing their remains inside the freezer in a van. "We wanted to keep scavengers like eagles away, and document injuries for damage assessment," she says. That assessment resulted in Exxon Corporation shelling out more than one billion dollars in criminal and civil damages.

Cleanup crews tried to read beaches of oil by deluging sand with cold water to force the gooey film out to sea, and blasting rocks with hot steam--which ended up cooking thousands of tiny organisms. Since oils seeps deep into gravel and rock, workers brought in bull-dozers to churn up hidden oil globs, then applied chemicals to break apart oil molecules. But ultimately the natural flushing action of waves--in which sunlight and oxygen naturally decomposes oil particles--proved more efficient than all the mops, sponges, power hoses, and well-meaning human effort.


A decade after the spill, Prince William Sound's waters sparkle, and its green shores hardly betray signs of damage. But walk along a lonely marsh, and your footstep might draw an oily sheen; lift a rock on a beach and you'll spot globs of oil, and oil hardened into asphalt on sandy beaches. "The ecosystem today isn't the ecosystem before the spill," says conservationist Stan Senner at the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trust Council in Anchorage.

Before the spill, harbor seals were already in decline due to habitat loss, but their population has greatly diminished even further. The number of harlequin ducks, sea otters, and guillemots has dropped dramatically. On the other hand, the local bald eagle population has fully revived. Native birds like murres seem to be more plentiful after losing 40 percent of their population. And pink salmon, one of the regions top commercial species, have rebounded after several years of high egg mortality in their spawning streams.

To prevent future spills, safer tanker operations such as new escort procedures, radar coverage, and reduced speed limits are in place. Three large vessels equipped to assist a stricken tanker constantly stand by in Prince William Sound, and containment and cleanup supplies are stockpiled in a number of communities.

Scientist continue to ponder the Question, "Will the wilderness heal?" The consensus seems to be: Yes, but with long-lasting scars.

Here are some facts about energy use and how it pollutes the environment

WORST OIL SPILLS (plus Exxon Valdez)

This graph shows the amount of oil dumped into the oceans by the 5 worst oil spills in history. The combined amount of oil spilled would have provided more than 1 billion gallons of gasoline for the world's cars.
 Oil Spill

Sea Island, Kuwait 1.5 million (tons)
Jan. 25, 1991

Gulf of Mexico 600,000
June 3, 1979

Persian Gulf 600,000
Feb. 1983

U.S. East Coast 590,000
German attack on
U.S. tankers, 1942

Off Trinidad and 300,000
July 1, 1979

Port Valdez, Alaska 41,000
Mar. 24, 1989

Source: United Nations Data.


This pie chart shows the various sources of ocean pollution. Although oil spills make the biggest headlines, they're not he biggest culprit in causing dirty seas. What sources pose more serious threats? What steps can people take to minimize or prevent ocean pollution?
Air Pollution 33%
 includes emissions from
 cars and factories

Boating 12%
 includes exhaust
 and oil

Dumped Wastes 10%

Offshore Oil Production 1%

Runoff from Land 44%
 includes fertilizers
 and chemicals spilled
 on land

Key: One ton equals 269 gallons

Source: United Nations Environment Program, The State of the Marine Environment.


This chart shows different types of energy used in the U.S. The majority of energy come from fossil fuels, like oil, coal, and natural gas. At the current rate of consumption, the U.S. has enough oil to power the country for only 12 more years!
Petroleum 39%
Hydroelectric 3.4%
Other 3.6%
Nuclear 8%
Natural Gas 24%
Coal 22%

Source: Energy Information Administration.


The vast majority of Americans drive to work each day in cars, trucks or vans. If only 10% more people used mass transit (like buses or trains), the U.S. would save 135 million gallons of gasoline yearly!
Car, truck, or van 86.5%
Public transportation 5.3%
Walk 3.9%
Work at home 3.0%
Other 0.7%
Bicycle 0.4%
Motorcycle 0.2%

Source: The U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996 Census of Population, STF#C.
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Title Annotation:aftermath of Exxon Valdez accident
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 10, 2000
Previous Article:Short Takes.
Next Article:Hanging BY A Thread.

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