As we crossed the beach at Tonsina Bay, my concentration turned from the forested shores along the wide blue Gulf of Alaska to the cobblestones at my feet. My rubber boots slid like bald tires on thin ice. I set my notebook down so I could scramble faster behind my guide, a young woman named Julie Noffke from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. She was nearly invisible in her huge orange jumpsuit, rubber boots, and blue baseball cap. She didn’t say much; she just bobbed on along the water’s edge, taking notes in her own little book.

Water beaded on the cobbles, and sunlight broke on rock walls at the tide line. This subtle, unreal sheen was one lingering effect from the worst oil spill of the decade, which had occurred more than four months before and 200 miles away near Valdez. “So this is what’s left,” I said.

Noffke stopped and said, “No, let me show you.” She reached for a plain gray rock and turned it over. Underneath was a thick layer of black mucous glop. “This is what’s left.”

Exxon cleanup crews had already worked on this beach, which is across the Kenai peninsula from the town of Homer, and had moved on to work on other beaches, chasing glop (politely called mousse), tar balls, and ominous patches of sheen on the water. Evidence of the spill is no longer dramatic, but it is pervasive. “No beach in the path of the spill is really clean yet,” said Noffke. “But we don’t even try to evaluate the cleanup in terms like that. With so much oil still out there, how could we talk in absolutes?”

With Exxon crews slated to pull out in mid-September, these were the last days of the cleanup, but not of the spill. There is an insidious quality to this spill: the way it defies any technological fix, the way it changes but never really goes away. You worry if you see it, and you worry if you don’t. There is a contagious frustration among the Alaskans who are relentlessly trying to fix it–or at least to understand it.

“It’s like cleaning an oven all summer.” A park ranger told me that. Imagine a greasy oven that covers 11,000 square miles and whose perimeter is 750 miles long. That’s about the same length as the shore of Lake Michigan from Door County, Wisconsin, down to Chicago and back around to Traverse City, Michigan. But the Valdez spill is worse, because the affected area is not only your playground but your livelihood. And it’s always been generous, and it’s never been polluted before.

At ten o’clock one night I was sitting in a bar in Homer, amused that the sun would not set. A woman walked up to me with a $100 bill in her hand. “My friend says he’d like to buy you a drink. He’s rich. He works for Exxon.”

Garrett Mahan wasn’t rich exactly. And he didn’t work for Exxon exactly. He was a commercial fisherman from near Kenai and had contracted his boat to the Exxon-sponsored cleanup. Like the other area boat owners “on the spill,” he was making $2,000 to $3,000 a day shuttling cleanup crews between Homer and work sites in the lower Cook Inlet or north around the peninsula toward Seward and Valdez. The crew made upward of $16 an hour for setting oil-absorbent booms, shoveling oil-soaked gravel into plastic bags, wiping rocks with thick synthetic hand towels, and doing other generally menial tasks. The pay is great, even by Alaska’s inflated standards.

Mahan wasn’t smiling. “I’m doing it, but it ain’t right,” he said. He had a tan, sturdy face and wore a cap that said “Alaska” in silver thread. He pushed the change from his hundred into a pile between the beer mugs and left it there like a dirty napkin. “I never had a better year, but it ain’t right. I stand to earn $80,000 just between now and September, for not fishing. Exxon treats us like they think all we need is the money. I don’t just want money. I want my life. But I’m taking the money.” He tipped his cap and looked away. “Man, I don’t know.”

Mahan said he had guessed by April that there would be no fishing this year and there would be no telling about the years to come. He started to get scared. He could have just filed a claim with Exxon, to compensate him for lost income, but he decided to work. And that meant working, through another contractor, for Exxon. Since the Bush administration decided early on not to federalize the spill cleanup, all responsibility for those operations remains with Exxon. The U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska conservation department, and a dozen other state and federal agencies have monitored the effort and continue to offer recommendations, but ultimately Exxon calls the shots.

“It’s like if somebody raped your sister, so you ask him to drive her home,” Mahan said. A lot of Alaskans don’t mince words, but some officials are more guarded. Senator Ted Stevens told the Anchorage Daily News, “I don’t think in this instance, with this company, federalization in the long run makes that much difference.” He said such a huge cleanup operation was bound to leave some people unhappy, no matter who was in charge.

Maybe so. Alaskans are used to battling the elements and avoiding high seas of red tape. But suddenly, instead of being his own boss on his own boat, Mahan is taking orders that he cannot understand. “We’ve gone to places where the oil is 9 or 12 inches thick, and they’ve had us cleaning it up with little garden trowels. Or say we’re on a beach where we’re filling up hundreds of bags of oily gravel. All of a sudden we get a call on the radio. They say stop, and send us to a beach where we can hardly pick up anything.”

The common wisdom around Homer says that Exxon wants to appear dedicated to the cleanup without necessarily accomplishing the task. Why? According to one theory, the price tag of even this inadequate cleanup effort should leave the American public so disgusted that they would not expect the oil industry to even try to clean up future spills. A second and more likely theory is that Exxon has simply met its match. It has spent $850 million on the spill already and is expected to pay out more than a billion dollars before this year’s claims are in. Corporate bosses cannot conceive of a problem that money cannot solve, but they’re getting exhausted. They want to go home.

These are just theories, however. Local fishermen under subcontract to Exxon might shed more light on the subject, but they were required to sign releases promising they would not talk to the press. Mahan talked, like a man on a spring. He’d say, “I know a guy who has pictures. . . . I could explain it to you–what’s really going on. . . . You should come on the boat.” But he’d pace, wipe his forehead, and stuff his hands in his jacket pockets. And then he’d say, “Can you wait? Just a few weeks? Damn. I say they can’t buy silence, but look at me.”

Exxon’s spill workers aren’t getting much sympathy in town. I told a state oil-spill monitor how guilt-ridden Mahan had seemed, and he just shrugged. “It must be tough collecting all that money, huh?” In fact, the cleanup has torn the local economy into at least five new factions: the highly paid Exxon spill workers; the unemployed seafood-industry workers, who are still hoping for restitution; the state and federal spill monitors and analysts; the service sector that is feeding, housing, and entertaining all of the above; and finally the holdouts, who include fishermen, environmentalists, and do-it-yourselfers–who doggedly keep doing what they’re doing for the love of Alaska, or just for the hell of it. There are few successful holdouts this year.

Since the oil spill reached Homer in late April, the town has seemed small and bursting with tension. Domestic violence is up 40 percent over last year. Assault and drunk-driving arrests are up too. There is too much loose money in some pockets, and too little in others. According to reports in the local paper, there’s an overall anxiety about the spill. The sworn secrecy and the sense of helplessness seem to be driving everybody nuts.

Richard Randall, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, was labeling glass jars of oily sediment that looked like burned jelly. “We have to be careful what we say, because it’s all going to be settled in the courts,” he explained. “A lot of what I do is to collect evidence.”

“You mean you collect dead animals and oil from the spill?”

“I couldn’t say that.” He smiled. “We can’t assume any oil that we collect is from the Valdez until we analyze it. We call it ‘fingerprinting.’ Eventually we’ll make a report on all the damage created by certified Valdez oil. Then reimbursements and any fines will be decided through litigation.” Meanwhile, all state employees have been instructed not to make any judgments–especially about Exxon’s performance in the cleanup.

From a legal perspective all this silence makes sense, but it means Exxon controls most of what appears in the press. Exxon’s late-May estimates of less than 100 dead otters and 300 dead birds were widely published. This could not quell public outrage over press photos of even a few freezing, oil-coated animals, but the anger might have been greater if information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was more widely circulated. According to them, as of August 1 nearly 29,000 dead oiled birds had been recovered, but that represented only “five to fifteen percent of total oiled-bird mortalities.” That means 190,000 to more than 500,000 dead birds. “Most of the wildlife doesn’t die right on the beach where we can find it,” Randall explained. Besides, some of the “evidence” isn’t worth collecting anymore. The restitution values for some wildlife already have been set. For example, Exxon will pay $2.50 per gallon of dead stream salmon. “Who could afford to bring that in?” said Randall.

Despite their official caution, most state-agency employees are far from complacent. The Homer Oil Response Center, a makeshift office that used to be a sporting-goods store, is busy seven days a week. Young men and women in rubber boots and T-shirts pore over notes and maps. Some crews fly by helicopter to spill sites around 7:30 in the morning and work until 7 at night. Randall worked the day after his wedding. Beach monitors, who report on Exxon efforts, fly out with their sleeping bags and don’t come back all week. Most of these workers aren’t satisfied to just take notes. According to one beach monitor, “It would drive you crazy to think that you’re out spying on the Exxon crews. All real Alaskans just want to get the job done. Most of us have bagged our share of oil.”

Julie Noffke and I were being flown over the Kenai to the outer coast. Her flight suit was covered with oil. Although she is officially a California native and a 1985 graduate of Colorado State University, Noffke could not forget her months spent in Homer during college vacations or her internship in resource management in the Brooks Range. In early May a friend of Noffke’s from Homer telephoned. “She was frantic. She told me, ‘The spill is here. You gotta come help.’ Two days later I was on the plane.”

Noffke wrestled a leave of absence from her job with an environmental-consulting firm in Novato. She volunteered to help with wildlife recovery, washing birds and otters. She also worked offshore on an Exxon supply boat, and counted dead birds for the Fish and Wildlife Service. When word got around that she had experience in hazardous-waste management, managers at the state Department of Environmental Conservation asked her to start doing mapping and analysis–and they asked her to stay.

Three months later she was faced with a new decision. “If I don’t go back to my job in California next week, they won’t take me back at all,” she explained. There might be only one more month of work on the spill before rough waters and high winds would force Exxon, and possibly even the boldest Alaskans, to retreat for the winter. But to leave before then?

As Cy Asta flew the helicopter over the beaches, he and Noffke saw improvements and new damage that were lost on me. The dampness and chill of the night causes the oil on rock faces to soak in and harden. As the morning sun warms these cliffs, the oil bleeds out again. The glistening cliffs almost look beautiful–but they’re wrong.

“Is that a slick?” Asta pointed to a passage between a small island and the shore.

“Circle lower,” Noffke said. “No, to the right. Yeah, it’s out there again.”

“See the bear tracks?”

I nodded. Yes, running from the beach to a stream in the pine woods.

“I saw whales in the gulf here last week,” Asta said. “It was just like this, real calm. They were breaching.”

Noffke snapped pictures of tidal pools and cliffs, and jotted notes about mousse sheen, asphalting, and whatever else. I noticed an orange king crab in a clear patch of water–so grand that I saw it from the helicopter. To my left, at eye level, a bald eagle glided past. On the beach I spotted a pile of oil-soaked absorbent pads and a paper bag. Out of place.

The last time I saw Noffke was a Sunday night. She was finishing a report at the Oil Response Center. She’d been sitting on her leg, and it had gone numb, so she was stomping as she typed. She said it was her eighth day of working more than ten hours, her third month without a break. Once, when she had a few days to spare, she’d hopped a plane to Valdez, to learn how the cleanup was going there. Noffke was young, blond, and fit. But her eyes were starting to look a little loose. Had she decided whether to return to her job in California?

“No. But tomorrow we’ve got this meeting on the volunteer project. I can’t think beyond that.”

The Homer Area Recovery Coalition Volunteers Independent Cleanup Effort–“Homer VICE,” for short–is attempting the first thorough volunteer beach cleanup anywhere in Alaska since the early days of the spill. When Exxon was running behind the southbound spill in April and early May, Homer locals placed their own log booms in the bay and started to shovel.

But Exxon has discouraged volunteer efforts. Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl told the press, “There is a great deal of risk involved in working in that environment. This is not exactly like going to the beach on Long Island.” Of course this attitude has only irritated the locals. And, although they are typically cautious, state-agency employees seem irritated too. A consortium of state and federal agencies agreed to help break through the red tape for the Homer volunteer effort. By late July the volunteers had claimed one beach at Mars Cove, which they planned to thoroughly clean.

“We got tired of hearing people say that it couldn’t be done,” explained Bill Day, cofounder of the group. “We want to set up a model cleanup effort that will be kinder to the environment and create 75 percent less waste than Exxon’s approach. It might help with this disaster–and certainly with spills in the future.”

The volunteers set up a low-impact campsite for 15 workers and then set booms around the cove, preparing to absorb the oil as they worked. They divided the beach into six-foot-square sections. Working one section at a time, they stacked the larger rocks in rows perpendicular to the tide line and began shoveling the most heavily oiled gravel into bags. This is not much different from the general procedure followed by the Exxon crews.

The next step, also generally followed by Exxon workers, is to wipe or wash the cobbles and rocks. It’s a tedious task, but Day said he believes his group’s dedication gets results that even $16 an hour from Exxon cannot.

Unfortunately, part of the beach at Mars Cove was so badly oiled that state analysts recommended that, in addition to their manual work, the volunteers use power rock washers–machines that wash rocks like tennis shoes in a Maytag and create clean rocks and oily water. To finish the cove, the volunteers would have to obtain rock washers from Exxon or come up with their own.

Day had built one washer with help from his brother, who is a welder, and a local mechanical engineer. It’s a small machine that rolls around on bicycle tires–an improvement over the similar but cumbersome equipment used by Exxon crews. He tested it and offered it to Exxon, but the company wasn’t interested.

When I met with Day, his new rock washer was still on paper. It had been designed with the help of Rich Corazza, a fisherman whose previous claim to fame was to occupy a chapter of John McPhee’s book Coming Into the Country. Corazza had designed a rock washer that gained an enthusiastic response from state officials, because it’s lightweight and separates the oil from the water efficiently. Exxon bought the washer–and then decided not to use it. Now the volunteers hoped to build an improved version of Corazza’s washer to complete their cleanup at Mars Cove.

When I left Day he told me he was waiting for a phone call “from my good friend the governor.” Then he broke into a smile. “Well, I can hope.”

At the Homer Zone Multi-Agency Committee meeting on July 28, Randy Raudabaugh, the local Exxon representative, looked tired. When the subject of the volunteers came up, he whispered to his assistant and sighed. The state and federal agency reps looked tired too. They spoke in turn and didn’t ask many questions. A local, Assiah Bates, stood up and blessed them all. Then Raudabaugh announced his verdict: Exxon would not supply any materials to the volunteers or dispose of any oil they might recover. “By doing so, we’d possibly be sanctioning the work and be liable,” he said.

If the volunteers wanted to finish the beach, they had to use rock washers. Exxon won’t fund a new washer, and so far the state is unwilling to fund mechanical equipment without Exxon’s approval. The volunteers were on their own. They are still using a small model, but Exxon won’t take any of the waste created by it–and only some of the waste they remove by hand.

Despite everyone’s best efforts, it will take years before the waters and beaches eventually–hopefully–will repair themselves. Exxon’s latest weapon in the cleanup is a native Alaskan microbe that slowly consumes carbon compounds, such as pine tars from local forests or oil from the Exxon Valdez. In early August workers began spraying 500 metric tons of microbe-laden fertilizer on selected beaches. Microbiologists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believe the fertilizer, if carefully used, will be safe and will speed up the natural recovery process. Still, they predict the process will take years.

No one is certain what the effects of the oil will be in the meantime, as it works its way through the food chain from microscopic algae, small beach worms, and crustaceans into fish and birds and their predators. State and federal workers are trying to understand how the spill may affect natural populations so they can mitigate this disaster and better deal with any similar disaster in the future. By late summer researchers from all over the world were poking and probing the spill and its victims.

Radical environmentalists, including members of Earth First, have suggested that enough is enough. They say it might be better to shut down the cleanup and most of the research now, rather than continue tramping around in the wilderness. According to Rick Randall, the state monitor from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, it is sometimes difficult to gauge whether the quirky behavior of many species this year has been caused by the spill or by other intruders, including more helicopters, boats, and campers in the region than ever before. Yet in general he defended the cleanup and research efforts. “Part of our job is to evaluate possible impacts. We recommend against certain types of cleanup if we think they might do more harm than good.”

What about the waste from the cleanup? Waste disposal may be the climax of Exxon’s cleanup nightmare. According to the Anchorage Daily News, one ton of spilled crude turns into ten tons of toxic garbage–bags of oily gravel, mountains of synthetic absorbent booms and pads, discarded coveralls, and the assorted refuse of 10,000 cleanup workers. (The volunteers contend that efficient rock washers would dramatically cut waste production.) Service barges are collecting about 250 tons of waste per day. Much of this will be burned; the rest will be sent to hazardous-waste landfills, probably in Oregon.

With almost any environmental cleanup–whether of medical waste on the New Jersey shore, dioxin at Times Beach, or the smog in LA–the problem just gets moved around. The Alaskan oil spill is a dramatic example of this; it has pummeled the local people, and caused many of them to wish people “outside”–in the lower 48–could share in their painful education.

Cy Asta, the helicopter pilot, wondered what the answer was to America’s endless thirst for oil, which is after all at the root of the problem. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a think tank of mostly government-sponsored researchers, claims America could double automobile fuel efficiency to 45 miles per gallon almost immediately, without developing any major new technologies. A wide variety of alternative fuels have already been researched and developed, and are waiting for a market. More innovative technologies, such as solar electricity and hydrogen fuels that would not contribute to thermal pollution problems, could also be developed. But Asta is skeptical. “I’d say we’re still in trouble,” he said, “so long as there are so many people, all wanting so much.”

The oil spill shocked many Alaskans who had thought their state was too big to have environmental problems. Now they’re beginning to say no state is too big to have environmental problems. And they don’t know where to turn.

Why do the fishermen, volunteers, and state employees work so hard to clean up the spill, when it’s like trying to empty the ocean with a paper cup? Park ranger Jeff Johnson said, “It’s just something we have to do. It’s like we broke a trust, and we have to do whatever we can to repair it.”

Johnson had spent the better part of his summer on the outer coast, including the weathered, remote Barren Islands. I had seen photos of him shin deep in oil, shoveling gravel and–when he could–saving oiled birds. Like so many Alaskans, Johnson seemed to feel a personal responsibility for the cleanup, though he was nowhere near Bligh Reef last March, when the Exxon Valdez dumped its hold. Admitting he could hardly find words to explain, Johnson said, “I think I’m like everybody else. I like driving my truck, I like my VCR, I like good gear and clothes. But there’s something in nature that will always be beyond us. When we spend all this money and all this effort on the spill, it’s very humbling. I hope it’s shown us our limits–and our responsibility.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Linda Smogor.