Equally clearly, its rehabilitation had just begun. Throughout the sound and down the Gulf of Alaska as far as lower Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island, the damage had been staggering. Oil had drenched or spattered at least 1,200 miles of shoreline. Experts believed that as many as 100,000 birds had died, including some 150 bald eagles. At least 1,000 sea otters had perished, despite an eight-million-dollar rescue and rehabilitation program. Economic costs had been staggering as well: The state had canceled the opening of herring fisheries and restricted the salmon take, together worth more than one hundred million dollars a year.
Meanwhile the Exxon Corporation, owner of the ship and the spilled oil, had spent a billion dollars on a cleanup campaign in which some 11,000 workers had scoured beaches with everything from high-pressure hot-water jets to rakes and shovels and paper towels.
Now, as winter approached and Exxon closed down its effort, new controversies were added to older ones. Was Exxon quitting too early with the job half done, as state officials claimed? Had the cleanup actually done more harm than good? Many scientists now felt it time to let nature cleanse herself with the tides and violent storms of winter.
"Sometime in July the cleanup crossed the line from being beneficial to being harmful. In effect, we created a second oil spill," I was told by Dr. Jacqueline Michel, a science adviser to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "Our tests showed large-scale mortality in beach organisms after some of the hot-water washes. Also, because of the flushing away of oil-coated sediments, we found up to ten times more hydrocarbons in the intertidal and subtidal zones than we did just after the initial spill."
Dr. Michel has researched the effects of oil spills for the National Science Foundation and NOAA since 1974, participating in studies of the Amoco Cadiz disaster, which dumped 68 million gallons of oil on the coast of France in 1978. Within three years scientists found that most of the major impacts had disappeared.
"The story is much the same in all crude-oil spills," she told me. "On exposed rocky beaches with much wave action, little oil is left after a year. On quieter beaches the oil persists from two to three years and is frequently mixed with sand and buried. Salt marshes suffer the most damage, and efforts to clean them are too destructive to do any good. In general, fish and bird populations tend to be replaced. The possible long-term effect on the tidal and intertidal ecosystems will take years to learn."