Nature's censure on human folly

February 23, 1996|By William McCloskey

OIL SPILLS at sea still harm marine life, as we are reminded by the lobster-destroying 828,000 gallons of home heating oil dumped off Rhode Island last month and the devastation now under way from the mid-February grounding of the Liberian-registered supertanker Sea Empress off the coast of Wales. The effects of these spills remain to be assessed and dealt with on tens of thousands of crustaceans, finfish and sea birds, acres of shellfish beds and hundreds of livelihoods.

Spills less frequent

Yet, spills have become less frequent, at least off the United States, since the supertanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Alaska seven years ago and disgorged 11 million gallons (the new spill off Wales is even bigger) of stinking crude into the beautiful waters of Prince William Sound. The Valdez disaster led directly to the Oil Spill Protection Act of 1990, a measure previously blocked in Congress by oil interests for 15 years.

The Alaskan event still casts its shadow. A return to some of the affected areas last year showed that beaches are clean, though residual oil still nestles in some deep gravel; that marine mammals and sea birds are abundant, though certain colonies and groups have never recovered; and that while some area stocks of fish have recovered, others have become diseased and unproductive.

One year after the spill, I returned to look for herring in the first fishery halted by the spill. Our boat harvested abundantly within sight of the reef where the tanker struck, and it seemed that man once again had escaped nature's censure.

But subsequently this fishery became a disaster: Herring

reproduction plummeted, and those born were unhealthy. Since 1993 Alaska has closed the stocks to commercial fishing, leaving a big hole in regional incomes.

Huge tankers continue to ply through Prince William Sound between the oil-pipeline terminal at Valdez and the Gulf of Alaska. But now, thanks to the new law, each tanker is escorted by two tugs with spill-containment gear aboard while barges wait at strategic points along the route, ready to skim any oil that might be spilled.

Standby force

In addition, the oil companies now pay some hundred selected skippers, most from the fishing port Cordova, to serve as a standby auxiliary cleanup force. The boats assemble periodically for spill drills, providing the chosen fishermen with extra income.

A trustee council established in 1991 with $900 million paid for by Exxon has just set out a projected three-year work plan. This year's agenda includes habitat restoration and research on affected fish, birds and marine mammals.

A proposal intensively advocated by Cordovans has died, however. It would have allocated money to buy up virgin timber lands that have been sold to the Japanese for clear-cut logging. Last summer I saw the dismal spectacle of mountains in the Cordova estuary being denuded. Trees in the far north grow slowly and are usually shallow-rooted, making them unstable in high winds. Cordovans feel helpless and angry that forces beyond their control dictate their environment.

Exxon says it spent more than $2.5 billion to clean up the spill and paid more than $300 million to claimants, as well as $900 million to the federal and Alaskan governments. In August 1994, the U.S. District Court in Anchorage assigned Exxon further compensatory damages of about $287 million and punitive damages of $5 billion. Exxon has persuaded the court to progressively whittle the compensatory verdict to about $20 million. The final judgment has not yet been entered.

The oil giant has also challenged the $5 billion punitive judgment, the largest ever entered against any company. The amount is roughly equal to Exxon's annual income. But Exxon did not willfully dump the oil and it did make serious efforts to repair the damage; this penalty is too heavy.

Exxon continues to irritate fishermen by claiming all is well. But one cannot blame Exxon entirely for the spill. The true villain was the oil consortium Alyeska, of which Exxon was only a 20 percent partner and British Petroleum the 51 percent controlling partner. Alyeska was supposed to be prepared to clean spills in Prince William Sound.

Monitoring a golden goose

Its readiness should have been monitored by Alaskan state environmental agencies, but oil revenues not only have freed the state's residents from income tax, but give them an annual revenue-sharing check. The year of the spill each Alaskan adult and child had received $826.93. Would Marylanders in such a fortunate situation have pressed too hard for the regulators to press their golden goose?

An environmental upset can produce chain reactions, as it did with some Alaskan salmon and herring. Both species are anadramous: birth in fresh water, adulthood in salt water. The spill occurred in late March just before herring returned to spawn and salmon fry migrated to sea, while the oil slicks that lasted all summer met adult salmon on other cycles returning to spawn.

The state, as a precaution, closed fishing on any fish that had encountered oiled water. Many more fish than usual swam from the sea upstream to spawn. The resulting oversupply of hatchlings the next spring competed for a finite food supply. Eventually a lesser, weaker new generation swam to sea.

''Complete recovery from the Exxon Valdez oil spill may not occur for decades,'' the trustee council concluded last December. ''Populations of several injured fish-eating birds and mammals . . . are not recovering in Prince William Sound.''

Our dependence on oil shipped by sea will not slacken in the foreseeable future. The sea, when it takes control, gives no quarter. The best we can do to prevent catastrophe is to be hard-nosed about tanker safety and to refuse to be complacent. as the the pre-Valdez Alaskans were.

William McCloskey, a Baltimore writer, specializes in opera and commercial fishing.

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