Scientists Say Valdez Spill Impacts Slow To Fade
ANCHORAGE Crude oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill still lingers in Alaska's Prince William Sound and nearby areas, with parts of the environment still far from recovery, several scientists said at a three-day conference.
Crude oil that percolated into beach soil remains largely locked in place until otters digging for food loosen it, while eight types of sea birds affected by spilled oil show no signs of recovery, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey said in a report issued late Tuesday.
"I guess we didn't anticipate that the oil would stay in the inter-tidal (zone) as long as it did," said Jim Bodkin of the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center, who has studied the oil spill's chronic effects on sea otters.
"It certainly is unanticipated. Is there anything we can do about it? No, I don't think there is," Bodkin said.
The conference was hosted by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the federal-state group that administers the 1991 natural resource settlement, as well as by several other organizations.
Exxon Mobil Corp., the successor to Exxon Corp., has argued that Prince William Sound and the affected parts of the Gulf of Alaska recovered long ago from the 11-million-gallon oil spill.
But effects from the spill are still seen in some of Prince William Sound's killer whales, where certain populations have shrunk dramatically since the Valdez incident, said Craig Matkin, a marine biologist who also is a whale specialist.
"We projected earlier that they'd recover in 10 years," Matkin said. "We didn't think the effects would drag on."
Scientists say the surprising persistence of spill effects could also have financial implications. Under a $900 million civil settlement struck in 1991 with Exxon, the federal and state governments have until September 2006 to seek up to $100 million more in payments from the oil company for natural resource damages that could not have been reasonably predicted shortly after the spill.
But in order to use that re-opener provision, the state and federal governments must also have specific plans to address the unexpected damages.
Bodkin, whose study of sea otters showed continued elevated levels of an enzyme that indicates oil exposure, said he doubts the case will be made for the additional money.
"The last thing that I think we'd like to see is any more litigation to re-open this mess," Bodkin said.