WASHINGTON – Keith Colburn,captain on the Discovery Channel's “Deadliest Catch,” brought a surprising piece of Alaska to Washington Tuesday,the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Colburn,who has been a fisherman in Alaska for two decades,brought a glass jar full of oily rocks and sand to Capitol Hill. The blackened artifacts taken from Alaska's Prince William Sound coast a month ago were a small sample of the oil that remains from what Rep. Don Young,R-Alaska, called a “tragedy.”
“I mean,literally,you can just start to dig like that,and boom it's right there,” Colburn said as he scooped away imaginary sand from the air.
Colburn appeared before two subcommittees of the Natural Resources Committee that deal with energy,minerals,oceans and wildlife that held a hearing on energy development on the outer continental shelf and the health of Earth's oceans.
The remaining spilled oil is decreasing at a rate of up to 4 percent per year,with only a 5 percent chance that the rate is as high as 4 percent. If the oil continues to decrease at that rate,it could take decades or centuries to disappear,according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
“The Prince William Sound fishery has not recovered at all,” Colburn said. “Fish have literally left the area.”
In March 1989,hundreds of thousands of animals died and millions of dollars were lost when a grounded oil tanker hit a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound,spilling 10.8 million barrels of crude oil.
The area was home to bald eagles,otters,orcas and seabirds,according to the World Wildlife Fund,and local fisherman lost at least $286.8 million.
Henry E. Brown Jr.,senior Republican member on one of the subcommittees,said oil and gas development on the outer continental shelf are the least of the problem,accounting for less than 2 percent of spilled oil in the U.S.
“The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that the major sources of oil in our oceans are natural seepage,municipal and industrial runoff,marine transportation,recreational marine vessels and offshore oil and gas development,” Brown said.
Natural seeps,the largest contributor to oil in the ocean,are less hazardous than industrial spills because they are slow and steady,said Jeffrey Short,Pacific science director for Oceana,an international ocean protection group.
Thomas Kitsos,a Joint Ocean Commission Initiative consultant,said the U.S. needs to establish an ocean policy and appoint a national oceans adviser to the president. The commission works on ocean policy with a variety of groups.
“In a nutshell,a voice for oceans needs to be institutionalized in the executive office of our president,” he said.
In 2003,researchers at Alaska's Auke Bay Laboratories,part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,estimated that 21,000 gallons of oil lingered in the intertidal areas of the Prince William Sound,said Rebecca Talbott,a spokeswoman for the Trustee Council.
“We can't continue to put our heads in the sand when we are a nation of fossil fuels,” Young said. “Whatever comes out of these hearings,whatever we do,we have to understand the necessity of fossil fuel.”
Some witnesses stressed the importance of developing alternative energies,such as wind energy.
“We're about 20 years behind Europe in the development of offshore wind energy,” said Ian A. Bowles,secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “If we don't focus on developing offshore wind … we will regret it for decades to come.”
Colburn said there is no safe way to drill for oil with today's technologies,and it's important to learn from lessons past.
“That's my biggest concern in the Bering Sea – they have no way of responding to a spill in 25 foot seas,” Colburn said. “Let's prove in advance,before you start drilling in incredibly turbulent waters,that unequivocally you can clean it up.”