On the Trail of the Alaskan Oil Spill

Article excerpt

Al Duzenack looked down and grimaced. It was 5 O'clock in the morning on a dark, dreary day in Valdez, Alaska, last July. And it was a good 30 feet down a wet, slippery metal ladder from the weathered dock where a tired duzeenack stood to the pitching deck of the fish tender below. Duzenack had worked until midnight the previous day and would have liked to get more sleep, but the tender's load of freshly caught salmon was waiting his inspection.

So, wearing awkward rubber boots and a two-piece rubber rain suit as protection from the steady drizzle, down the ladder Duzenack went, onto the tender's slick deck, and, after a quick look around, down yet another wet metal ladder into the ship's hold. There, he looked over the walls and floor of the now-empty hold for signs of contamination. "Fine," Duzenack yelled, "there's no oil here."

Duzenack was one of more than two dozen investigators, scientists and advisers the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent to Alaska in 1989. Their job was to help state officials ensure that no fish or shellfish contaminated by the March 24 oil spill in Prince William Sound near Valdez got into food intended for human consumption.

"Our role was primarily that of assisting the Alaskans," says Roger Lowell, director of FDA's district office in Seattle, Wash. "We also wanted to assure consumers that there was nothing of concern about the quality of seafood from Alaska."

New Twist to Old Job

Inspecting seafood and cannery operations in Alaska is nothing new for FDA. The agency maintains a one-person office in Anchorage, which is under the Seattle office's jurisdiction. Both offices regularly send investigators to visit seafood processing plants in the nation's largest state during the commercial fishing season. Their job is to ensure compliance with FDA's wholesomeness, cleanliness and labeling requirements under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

But 1989 was different. The oil tanker Exxon Valdez altered the focus of FDA's routine seafood inspections when it ran aground on Bligh Reef off Alaska's southern coast a few minutes after midnight that early spring morning. Within hours, more than 10 million gallons of crude oil had washed into one of the state's richest fishing grounds. And it happened only weeks before the anticipated start of Alaska's commercial fishing season-April for herring, early May for halibut, and June through September for salmon.

Recognizing the need for a coordinated effort by federal and state agencies to make sure no oil-contaminated seafood reached consumers, Lowell and other FDA officials met with their counterparts from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and from the Alaska Departments of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) and Fish and Game. Separately, the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service, and other federal agencies helped Alaska oversee Exxon's cleanup efforts and monitor the oil spill's effects on the environment.

The federal and state officials quickly agreed that a completely open fishing season would soon overwhelm the ability of investigators to keep up with the catch, says Douglas Donegan, ADEC's director of environmental health. Instead, they decided to ban commercial fishing in obviously contaminated waters. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, along with NMFS, was charged with judging which waters to close or open for fishing.

Fishing Limited

In all, one-third of Prince William Sound was closed to commercial fishing by the state in 1989. Even greater restrictions were placed on fishing around Kodiak Island off Alaska's southwestern coast, where only one-eighth of the waters normally fished were opened.

In large part because of those restrictions, less than 50,000 pounds of oil-contaminated fish were found in 1989, Donegan says. That compares with 696 million pounds of salmon caught in 1989 alone, a state record according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data. …