cleanup is impossible

Exxon did so much wrong in 1989.

The truth is that when large amounts of oil go into the ocean, it’s a huge success to recover as much as 10 percent.

Plans were inadequate, and the equipment described in the inadequate plans wasn’t available. Command was disjointed and disorganized. At first Exxon executives worked from hotel rooms, without proper communications, knowing nothing about the area, embroiled in chaos. Nothing potentially effective was even attempted until oil had already spread many miles over beaches and through channels.

The extent of the failure became clear when I learned that cleanup workers were being sent out on boats so we could see them depart for work on the beaches, but then they never went anywhere. Without equipment or a plan, they drifted aimlessly in the harbor until they could be seen to return after a day’s work.

When reporters blew the cover on that ruse, the recovery crews began voyaging to oiled shores with rags. I spent a day with workers who sat on a beach rubbing pebbles one at a time. They made careful little piles of their cleaned rocks, perhaps so they would have some sense they were accomplishing something amid the 40 million liters of spilled crude that spread over more than 1,500 kilometers of shoreline.

We told these stories. We challenged officials and saw them removed and replaced with higher officials. More equipment and people arrived. Still ineffective, the process repeated. The Coast Guard replaced commanders with admirals, and then higher admirals. Exxon brought in more workers and fleets of vessels, it built floating hotels in the wilderness, and barges that could spray hot water on the shore with fire-hose force.

More than 10,000 workers worked for a summer to wash glue-like oil from cold rocks. After spending more than $2 billion and inflicting untold additional environmental damage through their efforts, the cleanup recovered, at most, 5 to 7 percent of the oil. Some oil still remains in the beaches.

Eventually I realized I had covered the wrong story. The important point wasn’t that Exxon couldn’t clean up its oil spill.

The point was, no one could clean it up.