Alaska's Prince William Sound, 125 miles east of Anchorage, is so teeming with wildlife that one local says boating on it "is kind of like sailing through a zoo." In declaring the sound a disaster area on Sunday, two days after a 10-million-gallon crude-oil spill covered 100 square miles of water with patches of oil. Governor Steve Cowper said, "This may well be the greatest disaster to hit Alaska since the Good Friday earthquake."
That earthquake struck Anchorage almost exactly 25 years before last week's spill and killed 131 people. No human beings died in the oil spill, but the toll on the environment promises to be catastrophic. It began when the 978-foot tanker
ran aground on Bligh Reef, 25 miles southwest of Valdez, and sustained punctures in eight of its cargo holds. Prince William Sound is largely enclosed, which should prevent the oil from floating out to sea, where it might do less damage. Each year the sound supports a $100 million fishing industry. Fred Tiedeman, a fisherman from the soundside town of Tatitlek, spoke for his colleagues when he asked, "Who is going to buy my fish when they know where I got them from?"
In addition to fish, thousands of seals, porpoises, ducks and gulls populate the sound. The area is also home to bald eagles, and in a few weeks about 10 million migratory birds and waterfowl will begin arriving. But biologists were most worried about three species: sea otters, whose fur, once it is fouled by oil, loses its ability to insulate; young salmon now leaving their native streams for the sound, where they are apt to feed on oil-contaminated plankton and die; and spawning herring, whose eggs might be smothered by the oil.
The spill resulted from human error. According to the Exxon Shipping Company, which owns the tanker,
was at least a quarter-mile out of the shipping lanes when it hit Bligh Reef, a well-marked navigational hazard in the sound. Further, the tanker was being guided by the third mate, Gregory Cousins, who was not licensed to pilot the ship in the sound. Captain Joseph Hazelwood was reportedly in his cabin at the time. After the accident Hazelwood, Cousins and the ship's helmsman, Robert Kagan, were given blood-alcohol tests. The results were not available as SI went to press.
Cleanup operations were agonizingly slow getting started. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which is responsible for the first response to spills in the area, was supposed to have oil-containment equipment on the scene within five hours. Alyeska took 12 hours to arrive at the spill. "On this one occasion, I'd have to say yes, we were behind," said an Alyeska official.
The spill—the largest ever in U.S. waters—is too large to contain and skim up. Some of it will be burned off. By last Saturday Exxon had begun testing chemical dispersants, which bond to the oil and sink it as well as dilute it. But dispersants often present a cruel trade-off: Though they may keep the oil from reaching beaches, their solvents could leave a compound in the water that is toxic to creatures living in and on the sound. Exxon has reassured local fishermen that it will compensate them for their losses. Of course, such promises are no solace to dead and dying wildlife.
Much ado resulted when Prince Charles's thoroughbred. Devil's Elbow, won a hurdles race in December in Worcester, England. The win appeared to have broken His Royal Highness's long string of horse racing misfortunes. Allibar, Charles's first steeplechaser, died during a training gallop. And as a jockey, the Prince has suffered numerous nasty falls.
Alas, after reviewing the results of a postrace drug test, Britain's Jockey Club erased Charles's victory. Devil's Elbow had apparently been under the influence of three banned stimulants: caffeine, theobromine and theophylline. Charles and his trainer were absolved of responsibility—the Jockey Club deemed that Devil's Elbow had been fed the drugs inadvertently, in a dose of medicine. The Prince was, however, asked to return the $1,156 winner's purse. Perhaps His Royal Highness should stick to polo.