In the months after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, photographs of workers steam cleaning Alaska's contaminated beaches came to symbolize the frustrating cleanup effort.
But now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the cleaning of Alaska's oil-soaked coastline with pressurized hot water likely did the environment more harm than good."Certainly, as far as Alaska's shoreline is concerned, the environment would have been better off if there had been less aggressive hot- water treatment and we had let nature take its course," Dr. Sylvia Earle, the agency's chief scientist, said Tuesday.
The NOAA report urged that the hot water cleanup technique be avoided in future oil spills.
The Exxon Valdez tanker spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in March 1989. Exxon spent an estimated $2 billion in cleanup efforts and has promised to pay an additional $1 billion in fines and penalties for additional restoration and environmental recovery efforts.
Karsten Rodvik, a spokesman for Exxon USA in Anchorage, said the decision to use the hot-water cleanup method was reached "by consensus" with state and federal agencies.
He said the hot water was used on about one-fourth of the more than 350 miles of coastline contaminated by the spill. "The fundamental objective first was to remove the gross contamination and hasten the recovery process," Rodvik said by telephone.
Earle agreed that federal agencies, including NOAA, went along with using the technique.
"Everybody did it with best of intent. It seemed like the right thing to do," she said. But she said NOAA scientists would have opposed using the hot water method "had they known then what we know now."
Some environmentalists, however, were not as quick to rule out such water treatment in future spills.
To eliminate any plausible cleanup technique would allow oil companies to rely extensively on natural remediation after a spill and avoid costly cleanup efforts, said Douglas Wolf of the National Wildlife Federation.