Thousands of dead birds, snared in a giant glob of sticky oil, line a beach 300 miles southwest of here, victims of the spreading crude that has devastated Alaska's coast for weeks. While environmentalists, the government, and Exxon officials trade barbs over blame, the oil drifts inexorably, fouling the shoreline and leaving dead, dying, or dirtied birds, fish, otters, seals, and sea lions. Brown bears have also been seen prowling on oil-caked beaches.
The oil is selective: It leap-frogs large stretches of coast, then hits others with contamination ranging from a light film to ankle-deep goo.
``We landed along a wide tidal basin, about six miles of beach,'' says Ray Bane, superintendent of Katmai National Park. ``We found oil debris in large quantities throughout the tidal zone. We saw 2,000 to 3,000 dead birds. You can't really tell what they are. They're one big blob of oil.''
Since March 24, when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound and leaked 10.1 million gallons of crude through its ripped hull, the reports of destroyed wildlife have multiplied steadily.
The spill has reached Chignik, 525 miles southwest of Valdez, and residents there fear that the oil may interfere with their salmon season, which begins next week.
``What we found, say in every 100-foot distance, was four to eight dead murres on the average,'' Bane said of the sea birds. ``We also saw fresh bear tracks going back into the impacted areas. There was evidence of foxes and other scavengers. We observed one bear - a sow and three yearlings - that was in the contaminated area, feeding on dead birds. ... We saw eagles carrying oil-covered birds. We saw one eagle so coated in oil that it couldn't fly.''
One state scientist said wind-whipped oil ``mousse'' was pounded into a beach by wave action and buried a yard below the surface. Another reported seeing otters surrounded by floating oil.
Exxon Monday offered a revised plan to clean up 364 miles of tainted coastline by September, but environmentalists and Coast Guard Adm. Paul Yost, the federal government's top official monitoring the spill, criticized it as inadequate.