With the nation's worst oil spill prompting a personal inspection Tuesday by three top Bush administration officials, Exxon conceded its effort to clean up millions of gallons of Alaska crude is in trouble.
"Recovering the oil that was released after the grounding is not proceeding well," said Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi late Monday. "Believe me, that is an understatement."Ever since the 987-foot tanker Exxon Valdez sliced into a reef Friday and spilled about one-fifth of its 53 million-gallon cargo of oil into pristine Prince William Sound, Iarossi has voiced optimism about his company's ability to deal with the spill.
But he has come under increasing attack by state officials, environmentalists and fishermen for Exxon's efforts to corral the oil using chemicals, spot fires and skimming boats.
Meanwhile, authorities were investigating reports that the captain of the tanker responsible for a 100-square-mile oil spill had drinking problems.
"We look at all areas in an investigation and that's an area of concern," National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Bill Woody said of reports that Exxon Valdez Capt. Joseph Hazelwood had a drunken driving conviction as recently as September. Hazelwood likely will be required to testify at NTSB hearings that begin April 4 in Anchorage, Woody said.
Hazelwood, 42, was not on the bridge when the vessel left shipping lanes on Friday to avoid ice, rammed a charted reef and ran aground in Prince William Sound, said Exxon Shipping Co. officials. The third mate, who did not have proper certification, was in charge, Iarossi said.
Investigators said the results of drug and alcohol tests on crew members will be made public in perhaps two or three days.
President Bush dispatched Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly and Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost to Alaska "to take a hard look" at the spill and clean-up operation.
"The main thing is to get it cleaned up," Bush said, "to protect the very precious environment save Alaska's fragile coastal environment.
Iarossi's comments that the clean-up was not going well represented the first Exxon admission about something state officials have been saying all along - that Exxon was failing to check the spill or recover oil.
The first three days after the spill, Exxon made plans, mobilized forces and conducted spill-fighting tests - but virtually no real cleanup.
Exxon planned to launch its cleanup effort Monday, but by then the perfect weather had been blown away by a windstorm. Winds whipped the oil into a thick frothy goo that Coast Guard Cmdr. Steve McCall labeled "chocolate mousse."
"What happened was our worst fears," Iarossi said, "and that was that very high winds gusting up to 73 mph essentially stampeded that slick out of the center of Prince William Sound."
The oil took off to the west and washed ashore on several islands, and 8-foot-high waves even took oil into the trees, said Al Kegler of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Weather also prevented aerial spraying with chemical dispersants until late in the day, but the effectiveness on the oil and the safety of the chemical on underwater life was debated.
Fishermen said the oil threatened their $100 million fishery but that the dispersant threatened the quality of the fish.
Numerous fishermen said international buyers may turn their backs on fish from Prince William Sound, which just a few days ago was considered one of the most pristine marine environments on Earth.
Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation Dennis Kelso said the state was intent on protecting sensitive areas Exxon still has not moved to protect.
Ten tankers were anchored nearby waiting for the oil port of Valdez to reopen, perhaps Tuesday or Wednesday, so they could load Alaska crude, just as the Exxon Valdez did before it went aground.
Ways to clean up oil spills
-Floating booms contain the spill near the source or block it from sensitive areas
-Skimmer boats herd the wil together to be vacuumed up onto collection barges
-Strings of absorbent pads soak up oil on beaches and in water too shallow for skimmer boats
-Oil must be fairly concentrated to burn, and crude is hard to ignite
-Chemical burning agents and lasers improve effectiveness
-Coagulating agents cause floating crude to gather together for easier pickup or sink to the bottom where it does less harm
-Dispersing agents break slicks
-Disadvantage: Chemical agents are pollutants just as the oil is
-Wind and wave action emulsify some oil int the water (like shaking salad dressing)
-Bacteria consume some crude over time