Such research was widely published before the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the first minutes of Good Friday, March 24, 1989. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Clyde Robbins, appointed to coordinate the responses of a welter of state, federal, and industry agencies, wishes the research had been more widely read.
"It was almost as though this spill was the first one we've ever had," he told me. "From the start we tried to establish committees to get organization into the activities. But people on the committees had never dealt with oil before. All they saw was oil, and they wanted it GONE! Everyone had a veto vote. And anyone who said ‘maybe we should wait to see what nature does' was angrily questioned."
As I tried to learn more about the longterm consequences of the spill, I found that many scientists were not permitted to discuss their findings. By congressional decree federal and state agencies are authorized to make a damage assessment that will result in a financial claim against the spiller sufficient to cover costs of complete restoration.
"We've been instructed that our work is litigation sensitive, so I can't comment or speculate about our findings," I was told by Kimbal Sundberg, a habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "But I can tell you what we plan to do. We will make a three-year study of the near-shore coastal habitat, from Bligh Reef to as far as the oil was carried down the Alaska Peninsula, almost to Aniakchak. We've established 98 oil-affected sites, which we'll study from about 65-foot water depth in the subtidal zone to the so-called supratidal zone, where oil has been splashed up by waves. We'll compare these with 28 control sites unaffected by oil—although these have been hard to find.
"But how do you put a price on a barnacle? How much for a limpet? Or a mink, a river otter? We're considering intrinsic value, not just a price tag. We're all heading for court. We'll have to make our case, and Exxon will certainly dispute. This adversarial science is unfortunately necessary."
Studying beach areas is not easy, he told me. One party on the Alaska Peninsula found that a brown bear had attacked their parked helicopter, raking the door and biting through one of the floats. "The weather is dangerous too, particularly in the bays along the Shelikof Strait. The winds there can go from 5 knots to 35 or 40 knots in five or ten minutes. Above all, we don't want to kill anybody."