WASHINGTON -- The southern Alaska coast is recovering well after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March last year, and cleanup work should be curtailed to allow natural recovery to continue unhindered, according to British scientists who were hired by Exxon Corp. to assess environmental recovery in the region.
"The area has lost its virginity, and there is nothing much anyone can do about that. You can't lose your virginity twice," said one of the scientists, Robert B. Clark, in an interview.
But the scientists' findings, made after a two-week study of the area in April, have angered field workers and state scientists in Alaska who, after 17 months of cleanup, are still calling for removal of the oil-saturated sand that lies under vast stretches of coastline in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.
They say the underground oil pockets will continue to threaten coastal wildlife for many years, possibly decades.
"The beaches are like sponges. You cut into them, and the oil oozesand flows," said Mark Kuwada, a zoologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "There is continuing concern that the oil will be exposed every time there is a storm or heavy wave action."
The British scientists disagree.
"There will be no evidence of oil spill within a few years," said Mr. Clark, contending that continued cleanup work could actually set back ecological recovery in many parts of the sound and gulf.
Exxon Corp. flew Mr. Clark and another member of the study group, Jenifer M. Baker -- both internationally recognized experts on oil pollution -- to the United States this month to talk with journalists about their assessment.
Their views bolstered those of Exxon, which has been arguing -- against stiff opposition from Alaskan conservation authorities -- for an end to the cleanup operations in and around the sound that already have cost the company more than $2 billion.
"The recovery process is well under way," the scientists said in their report. "Once started, if it is allowed to proceed without interruption, it will continue and be robust, as it hasbeen following other spills throughout the world."
Most of the damage disappeared after the first year, they said. They had observed the return of shellfish and shoreline vegetation to the area, even grasses and plants emerging from some of the oil-soaked beaches
"The area has retained its natural beauty; there are abundant signs of plant and animal life. ... The overall impact ... is likely to be short-lived."
Stan Senner, Alaska-based co-chairman of the joint state and federal committee that is overseeing the restoration program, called the scientists' observations "superficial."
"It's insulting, I guess, that these generalities should have been made after only a two-week visit to the area, while both state and federal governments have invested billions of dollars in trying to establish the long-term effects of the spill."
Mr. Senner said the committee had read preliminary damage assessment reports that suggested "more than short-term damage" to the environment.
He would not disclose details of the reports, saying that all parties had agreed to keep the results confidential, pending the outcome of litigation against Exxon.
"As to permanent damage, I can't say," Mr. Senner said. "But what I do know of the damage assessment results gives cause for concern, beyond just the short term."
The return to the sound of vast numbers of pink salmon this season has prompted some skepticism of the Alaskan authorities' concern over the remaining oil. Fishermen, who earned big money hiring out their boats for the cleanup, have once again reaped sizable profits fromrecord catches of salmon.
But Mr. Senner, a biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game, said it would be misleading to look at this year's salmon run in terms of last year's oil spill because this season's salmon hatched before the spill. One would have to see whether next year's salmon run -- which would include the first generation of fish hatched since the spill -- had been affected, he said.
Regardless, he said, while fishing had been exceptionally good in the sound this year, salmon catches had fallen dramatically in adjacent areas, such as Kodiak and Lower Cook Inlet to the south and west, which may also have been polluted by the Valdez spill.
The cleanup, in any case, is to be put on hold from Saturday until next spring, if it resumes at all.
"We'll be back around May 1, and then it will be up to the authorities to see if more needs to be done," said Don Carpenter, Exxon's operations manager in Alaska.