For a few seconds, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. tottered this way and that on an oil-slickened rock. A worker laboring to rid the shore of gooey oil stepped in and saved him from an embarrassing fall.
While Lujan and two congressmen were touring a section of the Prince William Sound shoreline Thursday, a giant Soviet oil skimmer was testing its booms at Resurrection Bay some 80 miles west in the Gulf of Alaska.The Coast Guard plainly was delighted with the promise of progress brought by the 425-foot Vaidogubsky, and gains made by a 120-foot Mr. Clean III, a skimmer from Santa Barbara, Calif.
"This was a major step, having those two skimmers out there," said Coast Guard Lt. Gary Stock, who was monitoring the cleanup in Anchorage.
Exxon spokesman Henry Beathard in Valdez estimated that more than 2 million gallons of the 10.1 million-gallon spill was recoverable from the surface of the gulf and Prince William Sound. The spill occurred March 24 after the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef.
Lujan, Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Curt Weldon, R-Pa., and a sizable entourage flew from Valdez on Thursday by helicopter to Naked Island, a remote beach 45 miles to the southwest.
The group got a look at the only area in Prince William Sound where shoreline cleanup operations have started. Exxon estimates it has cleaned 2,100 feet of the more than 300 miles of oil-splotched shore.
As Lujan inspected the cleanup effort, oil glistened off rocks or stood in gleaming puddles in the bright sun. A black stain along the driftwood-strewn beach marked the high-tide line. The smell of crude was strong.
From a distance, the shore was a palette of oil-smeared workers clad in hard hats and bright orange, yellow and black rainwear. They used fire hoses to blast oil off a 75-yard stretch of rocky beach as the sun played through the mist, casting rainbows.
Landing craft laden with heavy equipment hugged the shore, and an oil skimmer dipped up the runoff from the beach facing McPherson Passage.
Lujan, wearing an orange float suit, picked his way to the end of the beach nearest his aircraft and in moments was posing with a fire hose for photographs.
Before it was over, several of the secretary's traveling companions had joined him. Laughing, they enthusiastically blasted the oily mess with such force that it carried over a boom and into the water workers were trying to protect. That sparked an obscenity laced tirade from people on a barge nearby.
Retreating, Lujan said, "It looks like this is going to be a big job to clean up."
But he said it was too early for him to know what he would tell President Bush come Monday.
Lujan and the congressmen were briefed early Thursday by the U.S. Coast Guard in Valdez, then by Exxon officials.
Weldon, a member of the House's Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, said he was unimpressed.
"There were a lot of people covering their rear ends," he said.
Weldon noted the two briefings covered essentially the same ground, "but they were completely, diametrically opposed."
He said the question that must be answered is why - if there were a contingency plan - it was not implemented almost immediately after the spill.
Young credited the beach workers with making some headway.
"They're making progress, that's the big thing," he said.
Vice President Dan Quayle will stop in Anchorage and Valdez on May 4-5 as he returns from a Pacific Rim excursion and will tour spill sites, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said.