Exxon spill damage exceeds predictions, U.S. says

April 10, 1991|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In the most comprehensive account of the damage from the Exxon Valdez oil spill yet made public, the government said yesterday that far more wildlife had been killed and the environmental damage in Alaska's Prince William Sound would persist much longer than scientists had originally thought.

The government said that populations of sea otters, harbor seals, bald eagles, murres, sea ducks, clams and snails plummeted after the Exxon Valdez ran aground two years ago and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. It said it did not expect the animal populations to recover for years.

Perhaps the most surprising finding noted in the 18-page summary of 58 scientific studies was that spraying beaches with highly pressurized hot sea water, which was widely used in the spill, proved to be more destructive than the blanket of oil.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the hot water sterilized beaches, killed marine life and changed the character of beaches by washing sand and rocks down the beaches into oily sediments in shallow waters. They said yesterday that Exxon came up with the idea of washing beaches with hot sea water and that they approved. The beach washing began within weeks of the spill.

In November 1990, NOAA received preliminary evidence from its scientists about the damage caused by the practice and three weeks ago notified the Coast Guard that the washings should be discontinued on nearly all beaches.

"At the time, it made sense," said Dr. Sylvia Earle, the chief scientist atthe oceanic administration. "You had a great desire to do something. People were running around with towels wiping rocks."

Dr. Earle added: "Sometimes the best and ironically the most difficult thing to do in the face of an ecological disaster is to do nothing. As far as Alaska's shoreline is concerned, the environment would have been better off if there had been less aggressive hot-water treatment and we had let nature take its course."

The enormous toll on wildlife in the sound, the report said, includes losses of killer whales, extensive reproductive defects in salmon and herring fry, and widespread and lingering damage to sea grasses and other plants in tidal zones along 1,200 miles of the western boundary of the sound and down the coast in the Gulf of Alaska, which were coated by oil for months.

Thomas A. Campbell, general counsel at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the studies were used as the basis for negotiating the deal the government and the state of Alaska reached last month with Exxon Corp.

The $1.1 billion agreement would settle civil and criminal claims from the spill, which occurred after midnight on March 24, 1989.

Two federal judges are reviewing the settlement, and their rulings are expected next month.

Although government officials said they were releasing the studies to bolster their assertions that the settlement with Exxon was fair, critics said the same information could be used as evidence that the settlement was not adequate.

Officials said that the detailed report indeed confirmed that the disaster had taken a heavy toll on wildlife and would produce environmentaldamage that, in some cases, would be permanent.

"Exxon has not had time to study the summary in detail," said Karsten P. Rodvik, a spokesman for Exxon in Anchorage. "We will withhold comment on it until we have had time to do so.

"However," he went on, "we can say that on the basis of our own and published studies and reports that Prince William Sound is an advanced state of recovery. Little oil remains on the shoreline. The water is clean. Fish are abundant and safe to eat and wildlife is thriving."

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