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Exxon's "cleanup" leaves dirty beaches

Column by Mauricio Roman

Last week Exxon stopped indefinitely its cleanup efforts on its March 24 Alaskan oil spill, leaving behind thousands of dead birds and sea otters, shattered ecosystems, hundreds of miles of beaches covered with tar, and thousands of unemployed fishermen. Exxon only managed to clean up a fraction of the spill it created, leaving nature to repair the damage and the public to pay for the consequences. The question Exxon is forgetting about is: will nature repair the damage, and if so how long will it take?

A recent report says Exxon only cleaned up 2.5 million gallons out of the 11 million spilled, mostly with the paid help of fishermen and their boats. According to another report, hundreds of miles of coastline fouled by the spill still remain uncleaned and those that were treated were inadequately cleaned.

Exxon promised to clean up every barrel of oil spilled. However, as it faced the reality that it was almost completely unprepared to do so in the first few days after the spill -- when it would have been much easier to collect the oil -- and that as time went by the cost of an effective cleanup soared, Exxon decided to clean up its image instead of its spill and pull out indefinitely as soon as summer was over.

As is widely known, Exxon lacked organization and equipment when the oil spill occurred. A reconstruction study published in The New York Times shows that much of the 11 million gallons of oil spilled on Alaska's shorelines could have been contained in the first hours of the accident. According to the study, the first full emergency crew from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a subsidiary of Exxon and other oil companies with interests in Alaska, did not arrive at the spill for 14 hours and the crippled tanker was not surrounded by floating oil containment booms for another 21 hours. By the time full emergency action was taken, the oil was out of any effective control, the study says.

Exxon claims that if it had been allowed by the Coast Guard to apply chemical dispersants the magnitude of the spill would have been significantly smaller. In fact, this method breaks up the oil but does not eliminate it; instead, it hides it underwater. According to scientific studies done on previous oil spills, the dispersed oil descends in the water column and in large quantities can be dangerous to fish and other marine creatures.

The oil spill rapidly extended southward. After seven days it extended ninety miles, and after two months oil could be found as far as 470 miles away. By July it was estimated that 730 miles of beach were contaminated with oil. The Wilderness Society makes the observation that if the Exxon Valdez had gone aground off Cape Cod, oil would be fouling most of New Jersey's shoreline and all the beaches of Cape May, Delaware, and Maryland as well as the northern Outer Banks of North Carolina -- all this after devastating most of the Eastern Seaboard between Boston and New York City, including Long Island Sound.

As the deadly blanket of oil spreads southward, the public saw on its TV screens workers in orange suits wiping rocks with cloths and blasting out oil with hoses. Exxon's beach effort, however, was limited to the same 1500 yard stretch of beach for the first six weeks, according to a report released by the Wilderness Society. At the same time, Exxon was sending a pamphlet to millions of credit card holders saying that "by mid-May, essentially all of the oil on the water had been removed or had been dissipated."

It was not until May 2 that Exxon released a plan to clean the coastline affected by the spill. The plan stated that only 364 miles of coastline would be "treated" and made no provisions for continuing cleanup beyond mid-September. It also said that 191 miles of lightly-oiled coastline would not be cleaned at all.

By accepting this plan, the Coast Guard, which supervised the cleanup since two weeks after the spill, not only signed off 200 miles of coastline but allowed Exxon to clean up the coastline according to its own standards.

Exxon's treatment of beaches consisted of washing the oil ashore with high-pressure hoses and wiping it off rocks with absorbent pads. Exxon's claim, echoed by publications such as Newsweek, is that they have done their best and it is nature's turn to repair the damage. Some scientists and government officials disagree; they have reasons to believe that Exxon's beach treatment is superficial, and that fragile ecosystems might have been radically affected for many years to come. Some of the reasons they give are:

O+ Oil becomes embedded in the fine-grained sediment in the intertidal zone and shallow bottom areas when washed ashore. Wave and tidal action and storms then cause the sediment to act like a time-release capsule -- emitting clouds of oil into the water periodically over months, years, even decades, to continuously infect the microorganisms on which fish and other marine life depend. Marine ecologist Robert Howarth estimated in Science magazine that this effect will last for more than 20 years. To reduce this effect, treatment of oil-affected coastline should include shoveling the sand and sediment in order to remove the oil that has penetrated the surface, according to the Wilderness Society report.

O+ Exxon's coastal cleanup was concentrated on beaches exposed to wind and storms, which help remove the oil, rather than in coves and inlets where the oil is likely to remain much longer.

O+ Beaches where treated only once; many of these will be blanketed again with the oil remaining in the water.

O+ While studies of oil spills in tropical waters have shown that certain bacteria help decompose the oil, the gelid temperatures on the Gulf of Alaska will most probably slow down the bacterial effect.

The long term effects of the spill are unknown, but will most certainly be worse than that of any other spill in this country, especially when there are still 8.5 million gallons of slowly decomposing oil in Prince William Sound and its surrounding coastline. To ignore the potential destructive power of the remaining oil on the ecologic system is to turn the back on the future of Alaska's ecology and economy. So far, ruined fishing seasons and death tolls show the effect on the ecosystem: 33,000 birds and 980 sea otters are known to have died.

In retrospect, the Bush Administration's decision to leave the cleanup to Exxon instead of federalizing the spill response was a colossal blunder. However, if Exxon promised to "leave Prince William Sound the way we found it," as Don Cornett, Exxon's public-affairs manager said just after the spill, then it should either do so or admit its failure, but not launch a campaign of disinformation. Six months after the spill, it is virtually impossible to retrieve every drop of oil from the ocean or wipe clean every rock on the coastline. However, with a net income of $5.26 billion, Exxon can do a much better job than it has done so far. The federal government, with the help of Congress and the state of Alaska, should ensure that Exxon complies with its promises by pressuring it to continue the spill cleanup next spring in a more thorough and organized manner than it did this summer.


Mauricio Roman, a junior in the Department of Architecture, is a photographer and news writer for The Tech.



In retrospect, the Bush Administration's decision to leave the cleanup to Exxon instead of federalizing the spill response was a colossal blunder.


Six months after the spill, it is virtually impossible to retrieve every drop of oil from the ocean or wipe clean every rock on the coastline. However, with a net income of $5.26 billion, Exxon can do a much better job than it has done so far.