One of the most surprising revelations from two decades of research and restoration efforts since the 1989 spill is the persistence of subsurface oil in a relatively un-weathered state. This oil, estimated to be around 97.2 metric tons (or 23,000 gallons), is contained in discontinuous patches across beaches that were initially impacted by the spill. The patches cannot be visually identified on the beach surface, but their presence may be a source for continued exposure to oil of sea otters and birds that seek food in sediments where the oil persists and remains a concern and a perception of contamination by subsistence users. The survey work completed to date indicates that the oil is decreasing at a rate of zero to four percent per year, with only a five percent chance that the rate is as high as four percent. As a result, it may persist for decades.
Passive and subsistence uses were significantly impacted by the spill and this has affected the overall health of the communities in Prince William Sound. The lingering oil has also impacted the public’s perception of the spill area as the pristine environment that was present before the spill occurred. This perception has continued to preclude full recovery for some passive and subsistence uses. It may require additional resources to evaluate, monitor, and redress the impact of lingering oil on these uses in the spill-area. An important function of this information gathering would be to pass this information back to the communities and the general public.
In an effort to address the issue of lingering oil, the governments developed a restoration plan under the terms of the Reopener provision in the Consent Decree with Exxon (click HERE for more information on the Reopener). Efforts to date include the development of a spatial probability model to identify beach segments with a high likelihood of persistent oil, and investigations of the reasons for the persistence of oil as a means to consider options that may accelerate the oil degradation. Under the lingering oil initiative, the Council envisions completion of the studies underway to reach a decision point on further efforts for active remediation. Upon receiving additional lingering oil information from these current lingering oil studies and the resolution of the Reopener, the Council will evaluate the need for restoration of related services and thus no prospective funding amount has been proposed.