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Comparing Gulf spill to Exxon Valdez might not be sound

Craig Medred

WAVELAND, MISS. -- With the temperature a sticky 75 degrees at 7 a.m., no Alaskan on a road trip need be told America's next big oil spill is not happening in Prince William Sound -- let alone in the Arctic Ocean. Restaurant windows might appear steamy here, but the moisture is on the outside where hot, wet air condenses on the glass of comfortably air-conditioned buildings.

Right there, it ought to be obvious a lot is different between the environment in which the Exxon Valdez spilled 21 years ago and the environment in which a major new spill is still developing in the Gulf of Mexico. A whole lot is different.

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It is going on two weeks since the oil rig Deepwater Horizon blew up 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, killing 11. It subsequently sank, leaving a gushing oil blowout almost a mile beneath the surface of the ocean.

Since then, oil has poured into the sea at rates estimated from 40,000 to more than 200,000 gallons per day as engineers with rig-leasing oil giant BP, aided by government scientists and experts on deep-water drilling from around the globe, try to figure out how to cap a 5,000-foot-deep gusher.

Meanwhile, speculation has grown daily about the birth of an apocalyptic oil spill even bigger than the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez mess. So far, however, the impacts have been minimal. Birds and sea otters in Alaska were killed en masse by a wave of oil that swept over them. There are no sea otters here, and the birds seem to have largely avoided the Deepwater oil slick even as it has spread to cover an area the size of Jamaica.

The reason might be as simple as the tides. Prince William Sound has big ones -- up to 16 feet per day -- and the daily up-and-down movement of water creates tidal rivers that rocket in, around and between the islands of the Sound. When the rivers turned to oil, Alaska birds and wildlife couldn't get out of the way fast enough, and they died.

The tides here along the Gulf Coast are small. There are no tidal rivers to move oil toward coastal beaches. If anything, the flow of water works opposite that in Alaska. There was lightning and torrential rain from Mobile, Ala. all the way west to New Orleans last night. The rain flooded roads in places, and today there was a tide of freshwater flowing seaward, pushing any oil out, away from beaches even as the winds were shifting to join the offshore drive.

"Wash that oil out," said Gabe Stockfleth, a hazardous materials specialist for the nearby Bayside Fire Department hanging out at the Garfield Ladner Memorial Pier. "That's what we're hoping for."

The oil, he added, had appeared close last week: "Friday, Saturday, we could smell it," he said. "It smelled like somebody's boat bilge." The only smell left Monday was of the salt air and the still-fresh pine used to rebuild the fishing pier destroyed by Hurricane Katrina five years ago. A snowy egret pure as snow strutted the shoreline beach. Noisy waves lapped against the smooth, brown sand.

Oil never reached the beaches here. It came close and then moved miles off. Despite strong onshore winds the previous several days, no significant oil has hit shore yet anywhere. Those winds spent the weekend blowing into what one Coast Guard official described as this region's "catcher's mitt," the area to the east of where the tip of Louisiana sticks its thumb deeply south into the Gulf. From that point, the mitt's pocket curves around to the east into Mississippi and Alabama.

Everyone still expects some oil to make landfall somewhere in some corner of the mitt at some time, but so far all the oil has done is spread across the surface of the ocean offshore. And the more it spreads, the more it dilutes.

Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen. Among chemists, there is a simple, old saying: The solution to pollution is dilution. Any chemical sufficiently diluted becomes harmless, but while the saying itself is simple, the equations of interaction are not.

Exxon Valdez crude diluted only to the extent that it emulsified with water. The emulsification -- something called a mousse -- became more of a problem for the Alaska clean up than the oil itself.

Then again, cleanup crews in Alaska were trying to get mousse goo off steep, rocky beaches in remote areas. Here the beaches are long, shallow and sandy, and in large part easily accessed.

Volunteers with shovels and wheelbarrows could conceivably scoop up mousse and haul it away in a manner impossible during Exxon Valdez. Where there are beaches, of course. In many places along this stretch of coast, there are no beaches but instead miles and miles of brackish, lowland marshes and bayous.

Whether they will prove easy or hard to treat -- if the Deepwater Horizon's oily legacy eventually tarnishes them -- is still being debated.

This is yet another reminder the Deepwater spill is not the Valdez, and it can be a mistake to draw direct comparisons between radically different environments.

About the only thing the coast here and the coast in Alaska really share in common is a background illustrating that no matter how horrific a man-made disaster, nature still holds trump. The changes wrought by Alaska's 1964 Good Friday earthquake are now more obvious in Prince William Sound than any damage done by the Exxon Valdez spill 25 years afterward. And the havoc wrought by Hurricane Katrina will no doubt remain notable here long after the issues related to any possible oil spill are resolved. Five years on, the wreckage of the hurricane remains obvious. There are ruins everywhere, and the concrete foundations of some are likely to remain for ages.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com