Tuesday, September 13, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Nature Of Oil Spills?

Environment: Did efforts to clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill help or hinder restoration of Prince William Sound? A controversial new book argues that the power of nature outweighed human efforts. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Science writer Jeff Wheelwright opens his new book about the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill with a startling portrait of the stricken tanker's ruptured, oil-smeared hull after it had been towed and anchored at Prince William Sound's Naked Island.

"Something strange had happened," he writes. "Marine life was booming in the cargo holds. . . . Fish of all sizes twist and snap at darting minnows. . . . The water is clotted with organic matter. (A federal scientist) estimated that the biota were four to 10 times richer than in the waters outside.

"The Exxon Valdez had become an aquarium, with a food chain in every tank."

Author saw some recovery

If timing is everything, it shows in this book. Journalists who arrived soon after the spill saw a heart-rending disaster of dead animals, blackened beaches and human stupidity. Wheelwright arrived seven weeks later and saw the beginnings of recovery.

The result is "Degrees of Disaster: How Nature Reels and Rebounds" (Simon & Schuster, $24) - the best book to date on oil-spill science, the most irritating in its dismissal of damages and the most controversial.

"I think it's an excellent book," said Bud Ehler, director of the office of ocean resources, conservation and assessment, which oversees oil-spill response for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C. "It's a fair, objective, accurate account of complex science."

"He's just one more East Coast establishment elitist who says we know what's best for you," groused Margie Johnson, mayor of the Prince William Sound fishing village of Cordova, where residents in lawsuits against Exxon blame the 1989 spill for long-term damage.

Cordova's lone bookstore won't even display the book, though owner Kelly Weaverling will order it if requested. "You can find it in the drugstore across the street," Weaverling offered disdainfully, "next to the tabloids and the girlie magazines."

What prompts some of these hard feelings is not just the book itself but "The Headline" that seared Alaska.

Four words appeared on The New York Times' opinion page on July 31 above a column Wheelwright wrote summarizing his findings: "Exxon Was Right. Alas."

"Exxon, though I choke to admit it," Wheelwright wrote in words blunter and less equivocal than in his book, "is correct in maintaining that the sound has recovered from the spill."

Bookstore owner Weaverling, who worked on rescue and monitoring efforts, thinks that goes too far.

"He contradicts himself"

"His own book says most of the science done isn't sufficient to draw any reasonable conclusion," Weaverling said in explaining his dislike of the work. "`He contradicts himself."

"I was fairly annoyed," said Sue Libenson, director of the Alaska Center for the Environment. "People come to Prince William Sound, say they've never seen anything so beautiful in their life and ask, `What are you complaining about?' "

Such emotions are not surprising. Wheelwright, a Morro Bay, Calif., resident who was a New York-based science editor at Life magazine for 11 years, has jumped feet first into the earliest and longest-running controversy of the 11 million-gallon oil spill: How much biological damage did it really cause?

His book appeared in stores as a jury in Anchorage met to decide what punitive damages to assess Exxon; plaintiffs were seeking $15 billion.

The day after the tanker grounding occurred, Cordova fisherwoman Riki Ott, who has a doctorate in sediment toxicology from the University of Washington, passed out to reporters a briefing paper arguing the oil would have a chronic, long-term effect on Prince William Sound's ecology. Just as quickly, Exxon spokesmen began trying to refute Ott's prediction.

Ott despises Wheelwright's book. "It's littered with one contradiction after another," she said, seething. Because it went to press before release of studies arguing genetic damage to salmon eggs, she added, "It totally jumped the gun."

The damage debate became the crux of litigation. Animal carcasses were counted and frozen, more than 1,000 miles of oiled beaches were mapped, and the government, oil industry and suing Alaskans hired platoons of scientists.

In a corruption of the normal scientific process, researchers were prohibited from sharing their information with the other side or releasing it to news media or public. Exxon later refused to even air its findings at a conference in Anchorage where it might be criticized, choosing instead a friendlier forum in Atlanta.

Wheelwright waited three years for the lawsuits to come to court and most studies to be unwrapped. His resulting book is a fascinating argument of what he judges science could and could not say.

Subtle long-term effects from the spill simply can't be detected amid nature's normal cycles, he wrote. And nature did a better job cleaning itself than the high-pressure, hot-water overkill of humans.

A different perspective

Wheelwright readily admits his perspective was different than most early journalists on the scene but added it was perhaps closer to that of the average American.

"I had lived through the terror of the spill as Americans did, on television," he said. "TV magnifies the drama and thus magnified the damage." His arrival in Alaska was something of a shock.

"I had to fight these feelings of elation in being in such a beautiful place," he recalled. "I was on this rescue vessel and there was nothing to do. We were swapping wildlife stories in the middle of Ground Zero. I found myself enjoying it and felt a little odd."

He decided to make Prince William Sound, not the tanker or the accident, the main character of his book. And he came up with a shrewd idea for judging damage and recovery: He compared the Good Friday oil spill to the Good Friday Alaska earthquake that heaved and drowned sound shorelines 25 years before.

Wheelwright found the quake damaged and permanently altered the sound, but did not destroy it: Nature struck a new equilibrium. And he concluded the same thing has happened after the oil spill.

"In this book I have argued that the ability of science to detect and measure hydrocarbons and their metabolites far exceeded science's ability to know what to make of those measurements," he concludes. "The measurements actually impeded understanding. There was the acute phase of the oil spill, which was soon over in the Sound, and now the chronic phase, whose events were unproved, most likely unprovable and diminishing fast into the background. That was the end of it as far as I was concerned. . . ."

Wheelwright's assertion of nature's resiliency confirms predictions made by federal oil-spill-response experts such as NOAA's Seattle-based Dave Kennedy and Jerry Galt. It borrows heavily from chief government scientist Bob Spies, a controversial figure for his skepticism of long-term damage claims. Some support from ecologists

The author's position gets some support from ecologists such as the University of Washington's Dee Boersma, who tracked spill damage in Alaska's Barren Islands. Boersma doubts claims that the more than 30,000 bird carcasses recovered suggested a total mortality in the hundreds of thousands, or that affected colonies will take decades to recover.

Boersma found a kill of murres in 1989, a 21 percent rebound in numbers in 1990-91, and minor increases thereafter.

"There is no scientific data to support these claims of long-term chronic effects," she said.

Jonathan Houghton, an Edmonds-based consultant for PENTEC who contracted first to Exxon and then NOAA to study the spill, thinks Wheelwright did a good job of laying out the scientific controversies.

As an example of surprises, Houghton said, the pressure-washed beaches he is monitoring are proving the slowest to recover, while the oiliest beach he watches, for unclear reasons, has the highest concentration of steamer clams.

For all its value, Wheelwright's book has several problems. The vividness with which he describes life colonizing the Exxon Valdez is not matched with descriptions of the initial environmental havoc, human anguish, or the incredible series of mistakes and indifference that led to the accident and bungled cleanup. A reader coming to the story for the first time will be mystified what all the fuss was about.

His emphasis on recovery, while intriguing, thus seems incomplete.

The author's decision to concentrate on "science in the snare of the law" leaves him mostly silent on what reforms, penalties and cleanup or preservation efforts should be undertaken. Yet the science was never performed in a vacuum; it was financed to shed light on exactly these political questions.

Wheelwright's interpretations of studies are sometimes debatable. For example, using another case to show that nature is tougher than assumed, he notes that contamination of Bainbridge Island's Eagle Harbor with creosote did not lower the total abundance of mud-dwelling organisms.

But EPA site manager Ellen Hale, who is quoted in the book, told The Times that such an example ignores that the organic abundance of the Superfund site is limited to polychaete worms. The diversity of mud-dwelling critters - as well as those in the water above - had severely declined, and the creosote damage was real.

When interviewed, Wheelwright said he thought the nearly $1 billion Exxon paid to settle government claims "was pretty fair" but said, "The cleanup was a billion to $2 billion wasted" because it recovered little floating oil and arguably hurt some beaches more than it helped. He agrees with recent jury findings, however, that Exxon was reckless and owes punitive damages.

And he and NOAA's Ehler agree the adversarial, initially secret science practiced in Prince William Sound was wasteful and should not be repeated. "The science cost twice as much as it had to," Ehler said.

Because of its conclusions, "Degrees of Disaster" will inevitably become a favorite tome of the oil industry. That alone will condemn it to those with bitter memories of the spill.

The book deserves a wider audience, including environmentalists, politicians and angry Cordova fishermen. Public support of expensive cleanups will ultimately rest on truth, not emotion, and Wheelwright challenges readers to judge environmental disasters from the perspective of time.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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