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Study: Valdez oil spill toll worse than thought

A containment boom surrounds the Valdez in this 1989 photo
A containment boom surrounds the Valdez in this 1989 photo

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) -- A study published in the journal Science has found the devastating effects on Alaska's waters and beaches from 1989's Exxon Valdez oil spill lasted far longer and are far worse than first suspected.

When the Valdez supertanker slammed into a reef and started pouring 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, scientists knew thousands of birds and sea mammals would die quickly. But they predicted the environment would recover as soon as the oil weathered and dissipated.

Instead, sea life suffered for years, because even tiny patches of remnant oil lowered survival, slowed reproduction and stunted growth. Lingering oil has created cascading problems for fish, birds and marine mammals, according to the new study, published Friday.

"Everything wasn't all right in July 1989, and it wasn't all right for a number of organisms years after that," Charles Peterson, a University of North Carolina professor and the report's principal investigator, told Reuters.

An important lesson of the spill, the authors said, is that environmental regulations must consider more than immediate, acute effects of oil exposure. That may mean stricter water-quality standards or tougher rules on limiting water pollution created by storm drainage, they said.

The report combined government studies about the oil spill with problems seen in sea otters, harlequin ducks, juvenile salmon and shellfish. Patches of oil that persist on some beaches release enough hydrocarbons to cause chronic problems that, for some species, continue even today, said the authors.

Oil effects linger

"It will still take time. Some mussel beds will probably take 10 years more," said co-author Stanley Rice of the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory in Juneau.

Valdez oil was still embedded in Prince William Sound beaches this summer, Rice told Reuters.

"The oil is oozing into holes," said Rice, who led a team that dug about 1,000 pits in beaches this summer. "There, the oil is like it was, say, two or three weeks after the spill."

Sea otters digging in sand for food are gradually removing that oil, he said. In doing so, they are exposed to the oil and all its ill effects, he said.

Exxon Mobil Corp. disputed the scientists' findings.

"What science has learned in Alaska and elsewhere is that while oil spills can have acute short-term effects, the environment has remarkable powers of recovery," Frank Sprow, the company's vice president for safety, health and the environment, said in a statement.

Those few beach sites that still have oil represent only about 26 acres of the total 5,000 kilometers of Prince William Sound shoreline, Sprow said. That amount is not affecting fish or wildlife, he said.

The spill was the worst tanker disaster in U.S. waters, killing at least 250,000 sea birds and thousands of marine mammals. It forced closures of commercial fishing seasons and areas traditionally used by locals to gather wild foods.

Exxon spent over $2 billion on the cleanup and in 1991 agreed to a $1.025 billion settlement to resolve state and federal civil and criminal charges.

In 1994, a U.S. District Court jury ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive fines for the spill. That award, later reduced to $4 billion, remains under appeal.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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