Oil Spill—It Will Never Happen Here
‘AN OIL SPILL in Prince William Sound? Never. It will never happen. The channel is very wide and very deep. There are no navigational hazards.’
So the public were led to believe. Unfortunately, on Friday, March 24, four minutes after midnight, the Exxon Valdez, a supertanker carrying 53 million gallons [200 million L] of crude oil, strayed a mile and a half [2 km] off course, ground its bottom over the jagged rocks of Bligh Reef, and ripped gaping holes in its hull. Over 11 million gallons [42 million L] of crude oil gushed out into the pristine waters of scenic Prince William Sound, just below Valdez, Alaska.
When the catastrophe happened, an unlicensed third mate was in command, and the Coast Guard supposed to monitor with radar the course of the Exxon Valdez couldn’t. And when the spill did happen, both the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and the Exxon Corporation were unable to fulfill their contingency plan for controlling oil spills.
Deep-sea divers were called to inspect damage to the grounded Exxon Valdez. One of the divers reports:
“Going to the tanker by boat, we saw that the oil was already inches deep on the water. We couldn’t even see the water in the wake of our boat. Once on the supertanker, the first concern was safety. Was the ship stable, or would it roll over on top of us? It rested on Bligh Reef, near an edge that dropped off into water several hundred feet deep. If it did shift with the incoming tide, it would go down all the way to the bottom, perhaps breaking open and releasing the remainder of its oil—42 million gallons [160 million L] of it.
“We inspected just about every square foot of the ship: the hull, inside the tanks, the framework. All the while the oil was gushing out. It didn’t mix with the water but streamed to the surface very fast. When we entered the tanks, our air bubbles would disturb pockets of oil, force it out, and it would swirl around our faceplate. We were not there to make repairs, only to determine the damage.”
Alyeska’s promise was to be at the spill with containment booms and oil skimmers within five hours. Nothing was done for ten hours and very little for the next three days. Gone were three days of calm when booms and skimmers could have limited the damage. On Monday 70-mile-per-hour [110 km/hr] winds blasted across Prince William Sound and whipped the oil into a frothy mixture of oil and water called mousse.
Everyone began blaming everyone else. Alaskan officials, residents of Valdez, and the Coast Guard blamed both Alyeska and Exxon for dawdling and letting the first three days of good weather slip by. Some blamed the Coast Guard for cost cutting that caused it “to replace its radar in Valdez with a weaker unit that failed to warn the ill-fated tanker it was heading for a reef.” Exxon blamed the state and the Coast Guard for withholding permission to use dispersants to break up the oil slick.
In two months the oil slick had traveled 500 miles [800 km] from Bligh Reef, washed up onto a thousand miles [1,600 km] of coastline, and blanketed a thousand square miles [2,600 sq km] of the beautiful waters of Prince William Sound. It didn’t stop until it passed Kenai Fjords National Park, rounded the tip of Kenai Peninsula, and turned into Cook Inlet. It also pushed farther south to pollute Katmai National Park and Kodiak Island.
Thousands were hired to work on the cleanup of beaches. One man working on the cleanup was interviewed, and he described the method and the results:
“Workers start at 4:30 in the morning and work till 10 at night with high-pressure hoses, some using cold sea water and some using hot steam mixed with sea water. These powerful streams are shot into the gravelly beaches, driving the water underground. The oil that is two or three feet [0.5-1 m] below floats to the surface. Then water from the hoses drives the oil into the ocean, where it is held by containment booms until skimmers come and suck it off. They get two hundred to four hundred barrels [30,000-60,000 L] a day from a section of beach 200 yards [200 m] wide.
“For a two-week period, they do this again and again, getting the same amount of oil each time. Then they have people with absorbent rags sit on the beach and wipe off each rock individually. The beach looks clean, but you stick your hand down between the rocks and into the sand three and a half inches [9 cm], and your hand comes up covered with this black goo. This after two weeks of cleaning. Go back three days later, and three to six inches [8-16 cm] of oil has oozed back up. The next tide will return it to the sea.”
Futile? Perhaps, but the work pays well. One worker makes $250 a day and says: “I figure I’ll pull $10,000 out of this, easy.” Another worker made nearly $2,000 for a seven-day, 12-hour-a-day workweek. “We got two beaches clean today,” he said, “but with the tide coming in, I’m sure tomorrow those beaches will be just the same.” Some beach areas in Prince William Sound are buried in three feet [1 m] of oily muck.
Once the Exxon Valdez had ripped holes in its hull and spilled 11 million gallons [42 million L] of its oil into Prince William Sound, what would have helped cope with the disaster? Prompt action with booms and skimmers the first three days when the sea was calm might have contained the spill enough to keep it within the sound, not letting it get into the Gulf of Alaska.
Would the use of dispersants have helped? It does not seem so. Dispersants do not work in calm water; the sea must be agitated to mix in and distribute the chemicals so they can do their work. They would have been useless on the first three calm days, and when they might have helped on the fourth day in the storm-tossed waters, the gale force winds grounded the planes needed to spray these chemicals. Their use is controversial, anyway. An article in the Anchorage Daily News explains:
“Dispersants work a lot like detergents. When sprayed onto the surface of an oil slick and agitated by the sea, the dispersants break the oil into smaller and smaller particles and cause them to diffuse in the water. Environmentalists don’t like dispersants because, they say, the chemicals just spread the oil through every level of water, posing a threat to life forms from top to bottom.” Even so, dispersant chemicals are less effective in cold water, “hardly work at all on Prudhoe Bay crude oil,” and “are almost useless more than a day after oil has been spilled.”
Moreover, the dispersants are themselves toxic. The claim is made that those used on the mammoth oil spill from the supertanker Torrey Canyon affecting the coast of France in 1967 caused more toxicity than the oil did. “Plant and animal life was wiped out.”
Pete Wuerpel, director of emergency communications for Alaska, confirms what has already been stated by the beach worker quoted: “Oil won’t stand still. It won’t go away. Even the oil now on some of the beaches will be carried off by wave and tidal action to other beaches. It is a continuing disaster. To clean beaches is a mind-boggling venture when you consider the depth that the oil has penetrated. You may clean the surface, but wave and tidal action will cause the oil below to percolate back to the top. At what point do you recognize the ineffectiveness of man’s efforts?”
Wuerpel concludes that man’s technology cannot yet cope with massive oil spills. He says that at this point the job must be left to nature. Others agree. Marine biologist Karen Coburn declared: “The fact is that we don’t have the ability to recover more than about 10% of the oil in a large spill, even under the best of circumstances.” One report says: “Nature could take a decade, maybe longer, to remove the last traces of North America’s largest oil spill from the waters of primeval Prince William Sound,” this according to scientists who study oil spills.
Two weeks after the accident, the Anchorage Daily News headlined: “Oil Spill Cleanup Battle Is a Lost Cause. Crews Win Small Victories, but Experts Say Sound’s Recovery Is Up to Nature.” It continued: “The people from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have said all along that the war was unwinnable.” They have monitored every major spill in the last decade, including the 65-million-gallon [250 million L] spill by the supertanker Amoco Cadiz off the French coast in 1978. Their verdict: “In none of them have humans ever come close to mopping up the oil.”
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Imagine a ship that is as long as a one-hundred-story building is tall. A ship whose prow crashing through the ocean waves is nearly a quarter of a mile [half a km] ahead of the man steering it. A boat so vast that some have even wondered if its movements might be affected by the rotation of the planet. This is the supertanker, or ultra large crude carrier, and it is no work of the imagination; such vessels and others nearly as large ply the seas in great numbers. Why? Well, ours is an oil-hungry world. Tankers, by dint of their great size, have proved to be an economical and lucrative method of transporting that oil.
But as recent events have made painfully clear, large tankers also have their drawbacks. For one thing, their great strength is also their weakness. Their awesome bulk and mass can work against them, making them notoriously difficult to maneuver and handle. When the ship’s helmsman wants to stop the ship or turn it quickly to avoid danger, the basic laws of motion (in particular, that an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force) take on truly epic proportions.
For instance, when an 800- to 900-foot [240-270 m] tanker is fully loaded and plowing along at its usual pace (the Exxon Valdez, 987 feet [300 m] long, carrying 53 million gallons [200 million L] of oil, going 12 miles per hour [19 km/hr]), shutting off the engines does not make for a sudden stop. The ship will coast for another five miles [8 km] or so. With the engines in reverse, the ship still needs two miles [3 km] to come to a halt. Anchors will not help; if lowered, they would catch hold of the seabed and then simply be torn from the decks by the tanker’s momentum. Maneuvering a tanker is likewise a daunting challenge. It may take nearly half a minute for the rudder to swing after the wheel has been turned. Then the tanker may take an agonizing three minutes to lumber through the turn.
With the helm perhaps 1,000 feet [300 m] behind the bow, 150 feet [45 m] from the far side, and 100 feet [30 m] above the sea, it is not surprising that tanker collisions do occur. Accidents, whether by running aground or by collision, can mean sprawling oil spills. The once pristine coastlines of Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America, as well as those near the earth’s poles, have all been sadly blighted.
But tankers do not foul the oceans solely by means of their catastrophic accidents. Tankers dump some two million tons of oil into the seas every year. Past studies have shown that most of this oil may come from more routine matters, such as unscrupulously flushing the oily residue from empty tanks while out at sea. As Noël Mostert wrote in his book Supership, “every tanker, however well managed, drops some of its oil into the sea in some form or another; badly managed ships are ceaseless polluters and, like garden snails, can often be followed by the long iridescent trail of their waste.”
Ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau once made a powerful comment on mankind’s drastic assaults on the environment. He said: “We are vandals of the earth. We are destroying everything we inherited.”
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Beaches cleaned one day are covered with oil the next
[Picture Credit Line on page 2]
Mike Mathers/Fairbanks Daily News-miner
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Cover photo: The Picture Group, Inc./Al Grillo