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Exxon Spill Ends Up Tarnishing Image of Science : Ecosystem: As the litigation wore on, scientists watched in silence. Now they stand baffled over what steps are needed to protect Alaska's future.


SEATTLE — Alaska's 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill left a little-noticed but costly residue: tarnished scientific reputations and a mass of uncoordinated data that will be of scant use in measuring the spill's long-term effects on the ecosystems of Prince William Sound.

Scores of science projects were launched to prove or disprove damage claims. While lawyers battered each other with carefully selected facts, scientists watched in silence, forbidden to communicate their work to the public or even to each other.

The stakes--and the payoff--were astronomical. On Sept. 16, an Anchorage, Alaska, jury levied a $5-billion punitive judgment against the Exxon Corp. The company already had paid out $2.8 billion in cleanup costs, criminal penalties and civil damages to state and federal agencies, fishermen and Alaskan natives.

"Many well-known scientists who did outstanding work before the spill now find that their reputations have been tainted--that they were used as mouthpieces," said Gary Shigenaka, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) biological assessment team in Seattle.

The team is at the midpoint of a 10-year study of the sound. "We can never go back to the days when scientists exchanged information," Shigenaka said. "Exxon Valdez is the template for things to come. Now we will have science by press conference."


How selectively the facts were used was demonstrated in August, when a jury heard scientific testimony that disastrous pink salmon harvests in 1992 and 1993 were possibly due to the oil spill.

As jurors deliberated, they were not permitted to learn that a harvest of almost 37 million fish was in progress--the third largest in Prince William history.

"We have real misgivings about applying data on oil to salmon," Shigenaka said. "I don't think there's a salmon scientist out there who'd rest his case on an oil injury to salmon."

NOAA is charged with providing unbiased scientific information to assist spill-response organizations in handling emergencies. Frequently, the agency winds up in the middle.

"We performed a study of subsistence seafood utilized by native populations--a major effort--and found that salmon and halibut were free of hydrocarbons," Shigenaka said. "Most hydrocarbons were found in Kodiak Harbor, from diesel fuel. Nevertheless, a jury awarded $20 million to Alaska natives for damage to their food supply."

That was only slightly more than the $18.3 million Exxon spent to rehabilitate 222 oil-drenched sea otters--about $80,000 per animal.

A different set of facts applies to Prince William Sound herring, a commercial species whose population has plummeted for three straight years, from an estimated biomass of 300,000 tons to 17,000 tons. Biologists believe the fish will remain at low levels for at least two more seasons.

"Herring populations are being depressed by a marine virus or bacterium--one they normally carry with no ill effect," said Ted Cooney, a University of Alaska marine biologist. "But the organism is triggered by stress, such as temperature or lack of food--and the oil spill was certainly one of the biggest stress factors around."

This year, a trustee council established to administer Exxon's court-ordered $1-billion restitution fund began a five-year, $25-million ecosystem assessment of the sound, concentrating first on salmon and herring.

"Too bad it didn't start five years ago," said Cooney. "Alaskan science has come away with a bad name because we spent huge amounts of dollars, but no results were made public. And if there were another spill tomorrow, I doubt if it would be any different."

Can science find a better way to clean up its environmental act? Administrators at the U.S. Interior Department hope so. On Oct. 27, the department will reveal an elaborate computer model that will calculate damages from a given spill by analyzing a vast database drawn from hundreds of thousands of existing research studies.

"This is unique--trying to predict injury and damage. For the first time, we have tied biology and economics with the fate of chemicals in water," said Deborah French, a biological oceanographer who is part of a team at Applied Science Associates of Narragansett, R.I., which has labored for five years to compile the ambitious program.

In a few months, after a required review period that probably will produce some changes in the program, it will become an official government method of calculating damages from future spills. But spillers will have the option of asking for a real-time assessment--and paying government agencies for costly on-site research.

"Most spills we've test-run so far calculate damages in hundreds of thousands, not millions, of dollars," said French.

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