A huge Soviet oil-skimming ship glided through fjordlike Resurrection Bay Wednesday to join the war against America's worst oil spill, whose tentacles have stretched 200 miles to stain the beach near Seward, Alaska.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration faced sharp criticism in Washington for not acting decisively enough, with some senators calling for new laws that would require the president to direct such cleanup efforts."There has never been a time when this situation was under control," declared Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate environmental protection subcommittee, which convened a hearing Wednesday on the recovery effort.
A tug guided the 11,400-ton Vaidogubsky to its dock in Seward, the first town outside Prince William Sound to have a beach coated in oil from the Exxon Valdez wreck.
"It's pretty impressive for a skimmer," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Ken Safford, who snapped photos as the more than 400-foot-long ship arrived in port after traveling 30 miles through the bay. Oil skimming ships usually run 40 to 50 feet in length.
American officials expect the Soviet ship to help scoop up remaining oil in the Gulf of Alaska, where seas recently have run as high as 12 feet.
"If they (the Soviets) can capture oil out there
and pick it up before it blows on shore, that's much to our advantage," Seward deputy city manager Darryl Schaefermeyer said Tuesday.
Coast Guard Adm. Paul Yost, who is coordinating the cleanup, left Valdez Tuesday to brief President Bush.
He said he was instructed to improve oil skimming operations and communications, which he said had been done. He also was ordered to get Exxon to come up with a shoreline cleanup plan, which the company produced Saturday.
"I think we have that plan . . . a start on the plan," Yost said. But he said he still had reservations about whether Exxon could work at the necessary pace to clear at least 300 miles of shoreline by winter.
Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said that Bush was "slow to comprehend the magnitude of this disaster" and valuable hours were lost on March 24 when the spill might still have been controlled.
Mitchell said federal environmental laws need to be changed to require the president to either take over oil spill cleanup efforts or specifically to declare that the cleanup is being conducted properly through private efforts.
Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, the president's point man on the cleanup effort and the first to testify before the Senate panel, has said that Bush rejected a federalization of the Alaska cleanup because of concern that such a move might affect Exxon's financial liabilities.
"From all accounts the cleanup crews initially acted more like the Keystone Cops," declared Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I. He said the recovery effort demonstrated fundamental shortcomings in state and federal agencies as well as Exxon.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, although not critical of Bush directly, has repeatedly called for greater federal involvement immediately after the accident occurred. "I'm disappointed the president didn't see it that way," said Stevens.