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Exxon Valdez oil could persist for 'decades and possibly centuries'

March 9, 2009 |  1:33 pm

Oily beach on Eleanor Island

The “stunning” legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska is the persistence of oil along the beaches of  Prince William Sound that in places is “nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill,” says a new report from the group charged with monitoring the cleanup.

Prepared for the 20th anniversary of the tanker accident that spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into one of the West’s most majestic waterways, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council said surveys even 14 years after the spill found an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil lingering below the surface of beaches — some of it more than 450 miles away from the spill, on the Kenai Peninsula and the Katmai coast.

"At this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely,” the report said.

Schools of herring crashed in 1993 and have not recovered. Salmon are up and down, but at generally lower levels than before the spill. Harlequin ducks on Northern Knight Island, which feed on oiled shellfish, as recently as 2007 showed elevated levels of P450, an enzyme that can reflect relatively recent exposure to oil.

And mysteriously, the resident killer whale pod in Prince William Sound has shown signs of “unusual social breakdown.” First, several females disappeared, leading to a loss of about half the pod’s newborn calves, and finally the highly unusual defection of one matrilineal group to a different pod, never before seen among orcas in the North Pacific. The region’s transient killer whales, meanwhile, “show no signs of recovery and continue to decline,” the report said.

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: Oil was persisting on Eleanor Island as recently as 2004. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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