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Doubts Run Deep Over Alaskan Oil Spill

Dismal pink salmon run fuels local concerns that the devastating impact of the Exxon tanker disaster persists

TWELVE jars of fresh-smelling crude oil collected two months ago from a Prince William Sound beach contradict Exxon Corporation claims that the Alaskan environment has recovered from the 11 million-gallon oil spill that occurred there four years ago, fisheries scientist Gary Thomas said.

"They talk about the Sound being fully recovered. There's stuff that's still being exposed," said Mr. Thomas, head of the new Prince William Sound Science Center, authorized by Congress after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

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Holding an oil-filled jar, Thomas spoke of this year's dismal pink salmon run in the Sound, which contrasts with a record run in Kodiak less than 200 miles to the west and a strong run in southeastern Alaska. "I think there's been a general collapse of the food web in Prince William Sound."

Local salmon fishermen agree, and many blame the spill. Upset at the salmon return - now expected to total only about 3 million instead of the 20 million-plus predicted this year by state officials - Cordova-area fishermen last weekend took their boats to Valdez Narrows, the port entrance of Valdez and marine terminal of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Intervention by United States Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on Sunday ended the three-day blockade, which prevented at least three tankers from reaching port. Mr. Babbitt, who made a detour to Valdez during a three-week Alaska trip, enlisted representatives from key Alaska oil producers Atlantic Richfield and British Petroleum to meet with fishermen.

Exxon declined to send representatives to the Sunday meeting and denied that the salmon return was linked to the spill. "The fishermen's concerns about [the salmon return] and the lack of a herring season are understandable, but their attempt to attribute this problem to the oil spill four years ago simply cannot be supported," an Exxon statement said.

After their blockade, Cordova fishermen were upbeat, though they may face fines up to $25,000 for disobeying port orders to clear a path for tankers. "I think we made our point that Prince William Sound is not all well," said fisherman Earling Carlson.

Their protest erupted after four years of bitterness in the fishing-dependent town of 3,000. Cordova is one of Alaska's prettiest ports. But since 1989, residents say, the mood here has been ugly since the man-made disaster.

"It's very different from a natural disaster, where you have people coming together, setting aside differences," said Duane Gill, a Mississippi State University sociologist studying Cordova's post-traumatic stress. Perhaps most stressful for residents, Mr. Gill said, is the litigation.

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Exxon in 1991 settled criminal- and civil-damage complaints filed by the US and state governments for $1.025 billion, to be paid over 10 years, but Exxon still faces damage claims of more than $2 billion from fishermen, native Americans, recreational users, business owners, communities, and others.

Even this week, there were reminders of the spill's emotional toll. A sign reading "Welcome Home Seiners, Thanks for all your effort," one of several lauding the blockade, was displayed on the window of a bar that was owned by former Cordova Mayor Bob Van Brocklin, who committed suicide in May. Local police said he left a note mentioning Exxon.

The most bitterly divisive issue in Cordova is the new logging industry. The impoverished Eyak Corporation, owned by area Aleuts and Indians, has turned to logging its land as its sole cash source. Eyak land already clear-cut is visible near Sheridan Glacier and the Copper River Delta, which the Forest Service touts as the largest continuous wetlands on the West Coast and a critical stopping point for migratory birds from all over the world.

Environmentalists, appalled at the clear-cutting techniques employed by the logging operation that started in 1989, have urged that Exxon settlement money be used to buy and preserve the timber. That way, they say, the Sound will be spared another environmental assault and be able to begin healing naturally.

"Wildlife, whether it's fish or birds or whatever, is connected to habitat. No habitat, no wildlife," said Kelley Weaverling, the current Cordova mayor and a Green Party member.

Indeed, at the meeting with Clinton administration officials here, the contractor doing the logging admitted his practices were environmentally destructive. "Sure, it's going to take another 80 years, maybe, for it to come back," said Perry Beecher, owner of Sound Development, a firm that has also logged extensively on native American lands in southeast Alaska. "Really, sustainable harvesting in this area is very, very expensive."

But he and his supporters argue that Cordova needs the new, albeit temporary, logging industry, especially since fisheries have collapsed. After a record harvest of 44.2 million pink salmon in 1990, Sound fish degenerated in quality in 1991 and quantity after that, said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Results from some $100 million worth of government-funded studies unveiled in February were discouraging about fishery prospects. The studies said salmon in the Sound were plagued by reproductive problems and genetic defects after the spill. Herring were affected by die-offs and mutations; other species were contaminated.

This year's pink salmon harvest will be the worst in the Sound run since the area's hatchery system was built in the 1970s, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials. Of the 270 seine [a kind of fishing net] permitholders in the Sound, only about 100 have tried to harvest the pink salmon, said blockade organizer Jim Gray.

Also this year, the spring herring harvest was nearly nonexistent. Nearly a third of the herring that did appear were marred by lesions, and quantities were too small to sustain any roe harvest, normally an important infusion of local cash because herring roe is prized in Japan.

Exxon, which in April released studies saying fisheries were untouched by the spill, has denied a link to the bad seasons. But in earlier ads and brochures, it pointed to the 1990 catches of salmon and herring as proof that the Sound had recovered. "Based on recent fish catches in previously oiled areas, the outlook for commercial fishing is a positive one," a February 1991 Exxon pamphlet said.

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