At a small inlet on Knight Island in Alaska's magnificent Prince William Sound, thick oil smothered every rock, every pebble, every grain of sand, soaking the beach and covering my boots.
I was traveling with David Lawn, district supervisor in Valdez for Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, on his hourly rounds as he tracked the recent massive oil spill. Lawn lifted a stone with his toe. He loves the wild, untouched sound so much that his voice cracked when he spoke of what has happened to it."There's even oil under rocks that probably have never been turned over by human hands," he said, nudging another stone as if trying to find perhaps just one that had escaped.
David Grimes, a fisherman accompanying us, often set his salmon nets off this beach. "It will be a long time before we are fishing here again," he murmured wistfully, his eyes scanning the sea as two fishing boats slipped by, towing what looked like mere threads of orange boom. The boats were trying to gather one of the thousands of traveling oil slicks that had dispersed from the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
It is not just that once-pure water is now marbled with globs of oil. It is not just that beaches have been so dirtied one would simply rather not look at them. It is not that I saw even bald eagles, the very symbol of the United States, sullied with grease. Or that these great birds will feed on oil-soaked animals and may die, too. It is that in Prince William Sound, the spill has created ecological anarchy.
Standing on this island, sometimes ankle-deep in oil, I felt that the details of what happened the night the captain of the Exxon Valdez left his command were increasingly irrelevant. All that seemed to matter was how to prevent another Prince William Sound - not just the spill itself, but its chaotic aftermath.
We cannot eliminate human frailty or error. But we can at least equip ourselves with more than the hope it will never recur.
Around the middle of May, seals will begin to pup on beaches that, when I saw them, were covered by oil. In June, salmon migrations will start. Waterfowl begin migrating en masse into Prince William Sound early in May. Will these creatures be safe? Not unless the cleanup proceeds with much more precision than it has.
Of course currents, weather and time move the oil unpredictably. Yet, I watched from a helicopter while the oval trap of an oil skimmer uselessly collected apparently unsoiled water, even as oil slicks floated free on either side. Obviously, the skimmer's operator could not see the oil from water level.
I wondered why they didn't use planes and helicopters to spot for the skimmers. Later, the question was put to Dennis Kelso, Alaska's commission er of Environmental Conservation. "We've been asking that ourselves for two weeks," he said on April 7 at the airport, speaking of the cleanup effort mounted by Exxon and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Nothing as complicated as the Prince William cleanup can operate perfectly. But all on the scene, as well as President Bush, have agreed that the spill exposed a terrifying fact: Contingency plans for such an occurrence were almost totally inadequate for an accident of this size and type, where so much oil spilled in such an environmentally sensitive area so quickly.
Perhaps I was swept up in the emotion of seeing the oil spill's devastating effects, but it seems to me that ports handling oil in volume ought to immediately establish emergency response centers, as common to each as a city hall. Such centers must be more than words on paper. They would store adequate cleanup equipment, coordinate emergency housing and communications, and above all hold regular drills for resident cleanup personnel so that a meaningful response can be tested and refined - in good weather, bad weather, all weather.
Better cleanup capability will have to become a cost of doing business in oil, not only in the United States, but throughout the world, for this accident could have occurred with any ship, any captain, anywhere.
Perhaps the sound will be back to "normal" in 10 or 15 years. But for many who live and work on the sound, it might as well be for the rest of their lives.
As I left Knight Island, I noticed a single white feather on the ground. I thought it was the only unspoiled trace in this dark place. But David Grimes, too, had a find. He picked up a tiny shell, the size of his fingernail, apparently untouched by the spill. "Here's a clean one for the future," he said, smiling his first small smile of the day.
The only adequate response to the events of Prince William Sound is to try to ensure that they never happen again. Otherwise, all of this will just have been a very expensive and tragic practice run.