Enough, say Exxon and its supporters. "The fact is, Prince William Sound is a heart-stoppingly beautiful place, and to say it's ruined forever is just not true," says David Page, a chemistry professor from Bowdoin (Maine) College who from 1989 to '96 conducted Exxon-funded research on the toxicity of the sound. Page testified for the company as an expert witness during the 1994 civil case brought by the fishermen. "I think at some point you have to say it's time to get on with things," says Page. "It's time to get over the spill."
Alaskan officials agree that the sound is not ruined for all time. "But that doesn't mean that the ecosystem hasn't been damaged and that all parts of it are recovering well," says Ernest Piper, who is the chief of restoration and the damage assistant with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and who was in charge of the cleanup after the spill.
And some of the oil is still there. At Sleepy Bay on Latouche Island, about 50 miles from the site of the accident, oil high on the beach has turned to asphalt. Turn over a rock along Rua Cove on nearby Knight Island and you'll find a greasy, brown emulsion of oil and sand that has the consistency, in Piper's words, "of the inside of a Twinkie."
Scientists say the oil no longer poses an environmental threat. It's ugly but not likely to further harm fish or wildlife. However, residents of the island village of Chenega Bay have successfully lobbied for a $2 million cleanup around their island, which sits about 20 miles from the accident site, near where Prince William Sound empties into the Gulf of Alaska. That will be the final official step in a task that seemed impossible from the start, when crews stood on beaches hand-washing rocks and boulders, sometimes leaving just before the tide washed in a fresh coat of goo.
With the cleanup all but over, the state and federal governments are using the nearly $1 billion they collected from Exxon in out-of-court settlements to find other ways to try to erase the stain of the spill. After those settlements, government agencies fought over which of their pet projects would be bankrolled with the windfall. Environmentalists had a long list of projects that they wanted the Exxon money to fund. In 1993, the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) criticized the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council (formed five years ago to guide the use of the civil settlement funds) for approving too many government projects. The Trustees Council comprises the state attorney general and representatives from Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. departments of the Interior and Agriculture, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The GAO, for example, felt that one salmon study promoted by fish and game interests had no real link to the spill problems. Also, the GAO took the trustees to task for "spreading bad science," as demonstrated by "incomplete analyses, overreaching conclusions and imbalanced presentations."
The GAO criticism forced the trustees to remain more faithful to the settlement agreement between Exxon and the federal and state governments, which requires the bulk of the $1 billion to be used to "restore, rehabilitate, replace or enhance the natural resources and services" affected by the spill. And so the trustees have embarked on a wilderness-land-buying spree. So far, they have authorized the spending of $215 million to buy more than 400,000 acres to create or expand national forests, wildlife refuges, state parks and marine sanctuaries. That's not likely to bring back any of the species hurt most by the spill, but the trustees decided that the next best thing was to lessen other environmental threats in the spill area. In general, the goal has been to protect the land from logging, development and an excess of wilderness tourism.
Nearly all the money spent on land so far has gone to Alaska Native corporations, which were set up 25 years ago to receive 10% of the state's acreage in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Now, paying up to four times the appraised value, the government is buying back that legacy out of fear that, in their drive for profits, the Native corporations will develop the land. Not all Alaskans are happy that the 1971 act is being turned on its head.
The only project most people in Alaska will ever visit is the SeaLife Center under construction in Seward, a tourist port south of Anchorage. The project is being funded with $37.5 million from the Exxon settlement. In Alaska, the center is called Wally's Water World, in reference to former governor Walter Hickel. Hickel had originally proposed a theme-park-like aquarium, but what the trustees agreed on, with Hickel's blessing, is more of a research center. "It's not a whale jail," says Molly McCammon, executive director of the trustees, "but scientists at work for tourists to watch."
Scientists have been studying the Exxon Valdez spill since the first gurgle of oil. The federal and state governments have spent more than $200 million on studies, and Exxon has funded a whole fleet of researchers, including Page. Not surprisingly, the two sides differ in their views. Exxon declared that Prince William Sound recovered three years ago. "After that, if you did good science, it was really hard to find any effect that could be attributed to the spill," says Page. "There are so many other factors that were causing change." He says government-funded scientists won't agree with him because their funding would dry up if they did. "Once a resource is declared recovered, you can't spend money to study it anymore," Page says. "So there is an Arabian Nights thing here—if you stop telling a story, you're in big trouble."
Nevertheless, the story is disturbing. Today the sound is home to fewer harbor seals, harlequin ducks, seals and sea otters. It's too soon to tell the long-term effects of the spill on common murres, loons, trout, clams and rockfish, but a pod of killer whales that patrols Prince William Sound has inexplicably lost several of its members. According to Stan Senner, science coordinator for the trustees, the pod has also seen an unprecedented disintegration of its social structure; with many adults missing, it is like a pack of wolves without a leader.