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They Just don't make beaches like they used to...Timely

Gravel beaches trap oil from 1989 Exxon spill
Last Updated: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | 1:12 AM ET Comments68Recommend64The Associated Press

An engineering professor has figured out why oil remains trapped along kilometres of gravel beaches more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Prince William Sound.

Temple University engineering students dig one of numerous wells along the beach in Alaska, as part of a study to determine why an estimated 75,000 litres of crude oil remain in Prince William Sound following the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. (Temple University/Associated Press) An estimated 75,000 litres of crude remain in Prince William Sound, even though oil remaining after the nearly 41-million-litre spill had been expected to biodegrade and wash away within a few years.

The problem: The gravelly beaches of Prince William Sound are trapping the oil between two layers of rock, with larger rocks on top and finer gravel underneath, according to Michel C. Boufadel, chairman of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Temple University. His study appeared Sunday in Nature Geoscience's online publication and will be published in the journal later.

Boufadel found that water, which could have broken up and dissipated the oil, moved through the lower level of gravel up to 1,000 times slower than the top level.

Once the oil entered the lower level, conditions were right to keep it there, he said. Tidal forces worked to compact the finer-grained gravel even more, creating a nearly oxygen-free environment with low nutrient levels that slowed the ability of the oil to biodegrade.

"The oil could be maybe one foot [30.5 centimetres] below the beach surface and in contact with sea water with a lot of oxygen, but the oxygen doesn't get to it," Boufadel said.

He found that the upper layer of beach is so permeable that the water table falls within it as fast as the tide. However, the permeability of the lower level is so low that the water table does not drop much within it, he said.

Spill has lingering effects Boufadel said the study points out the susceptibility of beaches worldwide to long-term oil contamination, especially at higher latitudes where beaches tend to be gravel or a mixture of sand and gravel.

"As global warming is melting the ice cover and exposing the Arctic to oil exploitation and shipping through sea routes such as the Northwest Passage, the risk of oil spills on gravel beaches in high-latitude regions will be increased," the study says.

Boufadel and his team dug about 70 pits between one metre and 1.5 metres deep on six beaches during summers from 2007 to 2009. His report focuses on data collected on Eleanor Island, about 25 kilometres away from Bligh Reef where the Exxon Valdez grounded on March 24, 1989.

Peter Hagen, program manager for Exxon studies for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Boufadel's study is a continuation of previous work that began in 2001 when 9,000 pits were dug around the sound, confirming the presence of oil.

While the remaining oil likely remains somewhat locked up in the beaches, the spill's lingering effects are ongoing, Hagen said. Sea otters, sea ducks and some sea birds are producing an enzyme showing exposure to oil.

Boufadel's study was funded by a $1.2-million US, three-year grant from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. The council was formed after the environmental disaster to oversee restoration of the sound.

Boufadel doesn't know how long it might take for the remaining oil to finally disappear but predicted it will take a long time.

"It will be a slow process because the oil is relatively sheltered from water motion," he said.

© The Canadian Press, 2010


  • laker1963laker1963 Posts: 5,046
    In order to provide some background information for this article, I also found this...

    19 Years After Worst Oil Spill In U.S. History, Alaskans Will Find Out If Company Pays Damages

    Steve Smith, a 69-year-old Cordova fisherman, stands by his fishing boat in Cordova, Alaska, Feb. 7, 2008. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on Feb. 27 from Exxon about why the company should not have to pay the $2.5 billion punitive damages awarded to victims of the disaster. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)

    Nancy Bird shows oil-soaked soil collected from Smith Island in Prince William Sound on May 20, 2007, on display at the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova. Eleven million gallons of crude oil spurted into the rich fishing waters of Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Alaska's Bligh Reef.

    Exxon Oil Spill: Pain Remains

    The Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred 17 years ago, was the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history. Byron Pitts reports on how the ripple effects of the accident are still being felt.

    Exxon Valdez Fines Unpaid
    Exxon still owes billions in fines to people in Alaska 15 years after its disastrous Valdez oil spill, the worst in U.S. history, John Blackstone reports.

    (AP) For many in this coastal town, the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster was an event so crushing that hard-bitten fishermen still get teary-eyed recalling ruined livelihoods, broken marriages and suicides.

    But mostly, people in Cordova talk about the discouraging wait for legal retribution for the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

    It's been almost 19 years since the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground at Alaska's Bligh Reef, spurting 11 million gallons of crude into the rich fishing waters of Prince William Sound. In 1994, an Anchorage jury awarded victims $5 billion in punitive damages. That amount has since been cut in half by other courts on appeals by Exxon Mobil Corp.

    Now the town of 2,200 looks anxiously to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments Wednesday from Exxon on why the company should not have to pay punitive damages at all.

    Scores of Cordova residents are among almost 33,000 plaintiffs - including commercial fishermen, Alaska Natives, landowners, businesses and local governments - who could see the $2.5 billion judgment taken away by the high court.

    "With this legal system the way it has been protracted out, people can't put it behind them," said Cordova Mayor Tim Joyce. "The final recompense has never been made."

    Steve Smith, a 69-year-old Cordova fisherman, worries that big business will prevail.

    "I really wonder, what do you do if you don't get a just decision out of the Supreme Court," he said on his boat Prince William. "I mean, there's no other court to take it to. What do you got left, really? Anarchy?"

    The spill soiled 1,200 miles of shoreline and killed hundreds of thousands of birds and other marine animals, inflicting environmental injuries that have not fully recovered, according to numerous scientific studies. Exxon contends it should not be liable for the actions of the Exxon Valdez skipper, Joseph Hazelwood, when the supertanker ran aground on March 24, 1989, with 53 millions gallons of oil in its hold. Prosecutors said Hazelwood was drunk, but he denied it and was acquitted of the charge in criminal court.

    Cordova itself, 45 miles from Bligh Reef, was not directly touched by the slick. But residents say the spill was a crippling blow for a town so dependent on commercial fishing, particularly for herring, whose numbers plummeted several years after the spill and have yet to return.

    The mayor at the time of the spill later killed himself, leaving a long suicide note that mentioned Exxon.

    Mike Webber, a 47-year-old Native Alaskan artist and fisherman from Cordova, said his marriage did not survive the strain; he and his wife divorced two years after the spill. With the fishing industry in shreds, he also began drinking heavily, finally checking himself into rehab in 1998.

    He said that he has been sober ever since, but that others kept drinking and abusing drugs and sank into severe depression and, in some cases, suicide.

    Quote What do you do if you don't get a just decision out of the Supreme Court? I mean, there's no other court to take it to. What do you got left, really? Anarchy?

    Fisherman Steve Smith, 69 Webber carved a "shame pole" last year to commemorate the spill and will be in Washington this week with the 7-foot carved piece of cedar, which depicts former longtime Exxon chief executive Lee Raymond with dollar-sign eyes and a Pinocchio-like nose. An oil slick pours from Raymond's mouth along with the words uttered by a top Exxon official soon after the spill: "We will make you whole."

    "Well, they didn't," Webber said, his voice breaking. "They just put a hole in us is what they did, right in our hearts and it hurts. And they took part of our soul."

    According to plaintiffs, Exxon knew Hazelwood had begun drinking again after seeking treatment, but the company still put him at the helm of the nearly 1,000-foot ship.

    At issue is whether Exxon should have to pay any damages under the federal Clean Water Act and centuries-old laws governing shipping.

    Exxon maintains that punitive damages would be excessive punishment beside the $3.5 billion in cleanup costs, compensatory payments and fines it already has paid. As for the environmental effects of the spill, the claim about severe, continuing damage to the sound "is simply untrue," according to the Texas company, which earlier this month posted the largest annual profit by a U.S. company - $40.6 billion.

    "The environment in Prince William Sound is healthy, robust and thriving," Exxon spokesman Tony Cudmore said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "That's the conclusion of many scientists who have done extensive studies of the Prince William Sound ecosystem."

    To the casual observer, the sound's stunning beauty has been restored, its many islands, fjords and glaciers a photographer's dream. But residents in Cordova and other communities say the region is still a long way from healing. It took years for salmon to rebound, and sea otters and Harlequin ducks are still below pre-spill numbers.

    An estimated 85 tons of crude linger, according to a federal study released last year. Jars of oil-stained sand and rocks still being dug up in the spill area can be examined at the Prince William Sound Science Center at the south end of town.

    Most devastating to Cordova residents, the once-lucrative Pacific herring fishery has not returned in significant numbers since 1993, a failure precipitated by the spill, according to a recent report by science center researchers. Exxon maintains there is no link between the spill and the virus that reduced the number of herring.

    The herring catch used to kick-start the entire town after the quieter winter months. Herring meant a quick bounty for fishermen and ready cash for boat insurance, equipment repairs and new gear. For many, it represented a half-year's earnings. Herring also brought auxiliary ships, processor vessels, and plane crews for spotting the fish.

    "A whole lifestyle has gone," said restaurant owner Libbie Graham. "Life was great. I mean, you worked hard but you were rewarded for it."

    The year before the spill, Cordova received $1.2 million - or 2 percent of the value of fish caught - through the state's raw fish tax, according to Joyce, the mayor. Post-spill, the town's annual cut has averaged around $500,000, reflecting the loss of the herring and the falling price of salmon.

    "When our budget is just $6 million, that's a big hit for us," Joyce said.

    Steve Picou, a sociologist with the University of South Alabama who has been researching the effects of the spill on Cordova residents, said that initially, reports of stress and depression were directly linked to the loss of jobs for fishermen and the damage to the environment so crucial to Alaska Natives who hunt and fish for their food. Later, he said, the stress increased because of the drawn-out court battle with Exxon.

    "I find it not only ironic but tragic that the very process that is supposed to resolve the social impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill - that is, litigation - has, over time, become a source of stress and disruption itself," Picou said.
  • denniskingdennisking Posts: 3,703 ✭✭✭
    From what I personally know of this incident, I can tell you that Exxon has absolutely no plans to pay any monies for this. They would rather pay the lawyers to keep this thing in court than pay a settlement. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, just adding info.
    On a side note, I don't like it when people target oil companies for profiting. Their profits are much smaller in percentage than what a clothing manufacturer makes but they provide something used daily by everyone for more than just gasoline, so they have a very captive audience.
  • laker1963laker1963 Posts: 5,046
    From what I personally know of this incident, I can tell you that Exxon has absolutely no plans to pay any monies for this. They would rather pay the lawyers to keep this thing in court than pay a settlement. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, just adding info.
    On a side note, I don't like it when people target oil companies for profiting. Their profits are much smaller in percentage than what a clothing manufacturer makes but they provide something used daily by everyone for more than just gasoline, so they have a very captive audience.
    I agree that any company should be able to do business and make a profit without some people trying to use shaky or irresponsible data to make them stop or curtail their operations.

    That said, I also believe that any company that does any environmental damage should be forced to pay for ALL those damages. In a case like this, EXXXON does indeed seem more willing to pay a bunch of lawyers (business expenses, don't forget) rather than repair the damage that they did to both the environment of Prince William Sound and the people who were making a living there prior to the Valdez spill.

    20 plus years later and they have obviously NOT cleaned everything up, so they should be forced to go back and do it right. They tried to claim they should stop the cleanup at one point because they were afraid they were doing more damage to the environment then what just letting nature take it's own time to recover could accomplish.

    While I don't like people trying to take advantage of companies, in cases like this one. I also don't like it when companies feel they can just refuse to take care of their environmental responsibilities, and that the laws of the land are inadequate to force these dangerous companies to do the right thing. As far as I am concerned, if they are willing to continue to pay lawyers to defend themselves in this case, they still have ample amounts of money for the Government to go after in order to effect the PROPER cleanup of Prince William Sound, and the compensation for people who's livelihood's were distroyed. Having their fines reduced by the courts was like telling EXXONN to go out and continue in their good work, and that is SICK !!!
  • denniskingdennisking Posts: 3,703 ✭✭✭
    for once we agree. They did make a lot of money off this deal, the whole oil eating enzyme.
  • laker1963laker1963 Posts: 5,046
    for once we agree. They did make a lot of money off this deal, the whole oil eating enzyme.
    Well I don't remember saying anything like that, but ok. Then I guess it would follow that we also both agree that Exonn should be required to finish cleaning up their mess, and properly compensate the people of Prince William Sound for the loss of their livelihoods.

    Maybe they can use their wonder enzyme, for the oil and their record profits to pay for destroying so many peoples lives. That is NOT likely to happen, right or wrong, and THAT I bet we both really do agree on. LOL
  • denniskingdennisking Posts: 3,703 ✭✭✭
    I think the reason that I can agree with you on this is that there is enough tangible evidence for me to touch and feel. This is the same reason that people do and don't believe in certain faiths and the list goes on, but I digress.
    I believe that Exxon should assume the responsibility of cleanup as well as helping to rehabilitate the business that have suffered. As a capitalist, I believe that you make hay when the sun is shining, but if you cause that sun to set, you also need to right the wrong. After this all happened, Exxon went on to securing 75% of all the natural gas rights in China. Is there any wonder, they are so far relaxed compared to the US in their levels of responsibility they place on a corporation
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