Sunday, June 07, 2009

No Longer Pristine

Sea Otter / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

At the time of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, Prince William Sound and its surroundings were described as pristine (or perhaps formerly pristine). This is something I remember well because it was a new word for me at the time. I find a sad irony in learning a word to describe something unsullied or primeval via one of the worst recorded environmental disasters. That aside, pristine is hardly useful to describe the sound today. Despite the massive cleanup, there is still oil lurking beneath the ground.
Here, on Death Marsh, Mandy Lindberg, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Alaska's Auke Bay, turns over a shovel of sand and broken rock to reveal a glistening pool of brackish oil. The crude can be chemically typed to the Exxon Valdez, and more oil can be found beneath the beach at Death Marsh and at a number of islands around the Sound. "I wouldn't have possibly believed the oil would last this long," says Lindberg. "Studying the spill has been a great learning experience, but if we had known in the years after the spill what we know now, we would have been looking for oil much earlier."

What scientists like Lindberg know now is that the legacy of the Exxon Valdez is still visible — physically, on the beaches of Prince William Sound and in the animal populations in these sensitive waters that have yet to rebound fully. Using funds from the original spill settlement between Exxon and the state of Alaska, scientists from NOAA have carried out major studies that show oil still remains just beneath the surface in many parts of the Sound — close enough for animals to be affected by it. "The oil may not leak out in quantities that are immediately visible, but that doesn't mean it's not there," says Jeep Rice, a NOAA scientist who has led the studies. "We thought the cleanup would be a one-shot deal — but it's still lingering."

Rice and his colleagues picked a sample of 90 random sites at beaches around the Sound and dug about 100 small pits at each site — more than 9,000 in all. They found oil in over half the places they sampled, despite the fact that only 20% of the beaches that had been hit hardest by the spill, like Death Marsh, were included in the study. Altogether, the NOAA scientists estimated that about 20,000 gallons of oil still remained around the Sound, usually buried between 5 in. and 1 ft. below the surface.
The main danger is to creatures that dig in the mud like sea otters, which have regular exposure to a variety of toxins as a result of the spill.