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Alaska Tries to Keep Big Oil From Colliding With Its Future

THE fundamental conflict facing Alaska is visible from the wharf here on the edge of Prince William Sound. All around loom the serrated caps of the Chugach Mountains, whose steep walls, cloaked in winter white, tumble down to cobalt waters through stands of hemlock and spruce. It is poetry drawn in rock and ice.

Across the harbor, three tankers sidle up to a series of pipes and pumps to fill their bellies with crude oil from Alaska's North Slope for the journey through the sound and on to the furnaces and Fords of the ``Lower 48.''

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For 12 years, the tankers traversed this bewitching slice of America without a major mishap, until, on a drizzly night last March 24, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef appropriately named Bligh.

Now, one year later, Alaska is still struggling to cope with the legacy of the nation's worst oil spill while trying to reshape its future to see that energy and environment do not collide again.

Along the cobblestone coves of the sound, fishermen and native villagers wonder whether the salmon will run as thick this year. In corporate boardrooms and government cubicles, scientists debate how clean is clean about beaches that nature scrubbed but did not completely scour this winter. Lawyers brandish tort laws. Lawmakers - and just about everyone else - give opinions on new rules to govern the transport of oil.

It is a process that is highly emotional in Alaska, where Big Oil has built everything from the state's schools to town skylines but where reverence for the land is as basic as glacial till.

Yet the debate transcends this state. As the country's major oil producer and unofficial national park, Alaska has always walked a balancing beam between resource development and wilderness values. Now, in the wake of the Valdez, this conflict has become magnified - the more so in an age when environmentalism (partly because of the spill) is on the rise and the nation's need for oil is, too.

``Will Prince William Sound come back to life?'' asks Charles Selanoff Sr., a moon-faced Aleut who has lived on the waterway for 66 years. ``I don't know. I wouldn't say it was destroyed. But this is something the people will never forget.''

IN a fourth-floor office in Anchorage, Exxon scientist Bob Mastracchio pulls out a plastic bag of rocks and pine needles. The sediments were taken from 12 inches below a beach in Prince William Sound that had been coated with oil last spring but had undergone a summer of cleanup and a winter of tidal and wave action. The rocks are still oily, but it is a light film, like sewing machine lubricant.

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``It is a different type of oil than we saw last summer,'' says Mr. Mastracchio, technical manager for Exxon's cleanup operations in Alaska. ``It has thinned out a lot.''

A few blocks away, in another office, salt-and-pepper bearded Steve Provant takes out his own rock samples from a series of mason jars. One is from just below the surface of a beach that was also flushed by winter storms.

``I was surprised to find this much oil there,'' says Mr. Provant, the spill coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). ``There definitely has been a decrease in the amount of oil, but there are problem spots that are going to have to be dealt with.''

In the polemics of Alaska's environmental cleanup, some see glasses half empty while others see them half full. What there is agreement on is that none of the 10.8 million gallons that were spilled from the Valdez last spring is still floating around in the water as a heavy slick. The crude has either washed up on beaches, been cleaned up, or has evaporated.

Heavy oiling remains in localized areas of Prince William Sound and to a lesser extent the Gulf of Alaska. Most fouled are the protected coves that acted as a natural catch basins after the spill. Waves that could reach 30 feet and some of the highest tides in the world helped flush some of the beaches over the winter, mainly those most exposed to storms.

Beyond that, the agreement begins to biodegrade.

Exxon's Mastracchio says, ``I can tell you very confidently'' less than half the 11 million gallons remains. The state says it is probably more.

Exxon believes as little as 20 miles of beach still have significant amounts of oil on them from a spill that once tainted 1,244 miles of coastline. The state, in a survey last fall, put the number at 117 miles of heavy to moderately oiled beach. They believe it is less than that now, but certainly more than 20 miles.

Otto Harrison, Exxon's top cleanup official in Alaska, says sites the company studied during the winter indicate that weathering reduced surface oil by more than 50 percent on some beaches and subsurface oil by 75 percent. State officials characterize winter's effect was more a buffing than a Maytag washing.

``It has done something beneficial in some areas,'' says Dennis Kelso, the state's commissioner of environmental conservation. ``We hoped it would do more.''

The definitive word on how much sullied coastline remains, as much as one can be reached in this environment, will come later this spring, when state, federal, and company officials walk every mile of fouled beach. From that will emerge the blueprint for this summer's cleanup. Last year Exxon hired 11,000 people to swab rocks, retrieve dead animals, and do other work as part of a $2 billion cleanup effort. Company officials say the crew will be in the ``hundreds rather than thousands'' to do the task this year.

There may be some squabbling over cleanup techniques. Some controversial methods employed last year, such as flushing beaches with hot water, which critics say sterilized them, probably will not be used. The company plans to rely mainly on manual pickup (workers disposing of oily debris and asphalt-like tar on rocks) and ``bioremediation'' (treating beaches with fertilizers to enhance the growth of oil-eating bacteria).

State officials, however, are not convinced this will be enough in all cases. Their worry is that oil pooled beneath some beaches, with wave and tidal action, could leach into the water and threaten aquatic life. To get at this, they believe some sections of beach may have to be dug up and washed. Nor is everyone enamored with dousing beaches with fertilizer, even though Exxon touts the technique as effective, and independent scientists say it is safe.

The National Park Service, for one, does not want any chemicals on the 390 miles of beach that were sullied at two national parks and one national preserve in the area.

``One of the purposes of a national park is not running a chemical experiment,'' says John Quinley of the Park Service in Anchorage.

PADDING somewhere in the wilds of Katmai National Park and Preserve, a land of heaving cliffs and peaceful islets along the Shelikof Strait, are 30 brown bears (the inoffensive term for grizzlies) with radio collars.

Scientists are tracking the movements of the thick-thighed carnivores, studying their feeding habits, even examining their feces. They want to know if the bears eat any beach grasses, clams, or other food contaminated with oil. No bears are known to have died as a result of the spill, but researchers are monitoring them to see if there might be any effects, such as on reproductive rates.

The study is one of dozens going on in what is one of the world's more diverse fish and wildlife areas to determine the long-term impact of 11 million gallons of crude in the environment.

Some islands in Prince William Sound where colonies of murres congregated were heavily oiled. Will these shorebirds return in the same numbers this year?

If too many sea otters died in one area, will the sea urchins, which otters feed on, grow too large in population and eat too much kelp, which other creatures depend on? Will the salmon, which rely partly on a sense of smell to navigate, find their way back to spawning grounds?

Many of the answers to these questions will not be known for years. What is known now is either disputed or shrouded in secrecy for legal reasons. Alaska is a state bound in hoops of lawsuits. Just about everyone - fishermen, native Americans, municipalities, the state - has sued Exxon.

This does not include the criminal proceedings against Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the ill-fated tanker the night it ran aground, nor the case the US Justice Department is pursuing against the company. No one wants to release data that might later become pivotal in court.

What can be deduced so far is that thousands of birds and animals have died, but there appears to be no loss of a particular population. Some 36,475 dead sea birds and 1,020 otters have been recovered since the spill.

(These are stored in five tractor-trailer freezers in Anchorage, all individually wrapped in plastic and tagged - more evidence for the lawsuits.)

While some of these animals perished from natural causes, they may not represent all the wildlife killed by the Valdez's cargo. Two biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently estimated that the recovered sea birds represent only 10 to 30 percent of those that were killed by the spill, meaning 90,000 to 270,000 perished. This would make it the largest number of birds killed by any spill in history.

Another recent federal study yielded grim statistics on eagles. Of more than 800 nests studied last summer, it found that nests in oiled areas of Prince William Sound produced only one-third as many eaglets as nests distant from the spill, though much of the impact was probably because of commotion from all the cleanup. One hundred fifty-one dead eagles have been found since the spill.

Exxon, for its part, says the spill has not endangered the population of any species and that recovery is occurring rapidly in areas that were affected. Officials say there are more than 100 million sea birds in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska and more than 30,000 otters. Surveys done for the company over the winter found no species missing or animals or birds that were ``stressed.''

``Nature was not decimated by any stretch of the imagination,'' says Mr. Mastracchio.

Counters Bruce Batten of the US Fish and Wildlife Service: ``We have never claimed the oil spill put any animal on the endangered-species list. But we still feel it has been a disaster for wildlife.''

What remaining threat there is to wildlife is more subtle than last year. There will not be otters swimming through slicks in the water. But some oil may be picked up from stains or tar on the beach. Scientists also worry about mussles, clams, and other creatures in sheltered intertidal zones - key parts of the food chain - where oil bleeds off beaches.

``Certainly there will be beaches with major amounts of oil and oil residue on them,'' says Bob Talbot of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. ``But it will be a much reduced impact.

Exxon says most of the toxic elements in the oil have evaporated. Its scientists believe the crude generally no longer poses a threat to wildlife or the environment. This includes commercial fishing grounds, which they think should be opened as usual this summer. Most commercial fishing in Prince William Sound was canceled or curtailed last summer, as it was in portions of Cook Inlet, and virtually all of the waters around Kodiak.

State officials say a few fisheries probably will be closed again this year and that the oil could still pose a threat for several years yet. Then there are the long-term unknowns.

``You've got a complex ecosystem in imbalance,'' says Gregg Erickson, head of oil spill impact assessment for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, sitting in an office in Juneau with a wolf pelt on one wall and a brown bear on the other. ``In a very important sense this has been an irreversible event. It won't ever be back to the state it was before it was insulted.''

Others see in man's misdeeds more fundamental questions.

``There has been desecration to the value of wilderness - how do you measure that?'' asks Nancy Deschu, a hydrologist with the National Park Service. ``Who are we in this speck of time to loose this land?''

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