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Alaska Update

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To the editors:

I enjoyed reading Harold Henderson's article last week on our local environmentalist volunteers ["Swamp Squad," November 3]. It reminded me of my own experiences earlier this year, getting to know the Alaskan volunteers who were trying to do whatever they could to remedy the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The motive seems to be the same--simple and direct: "Well, somebody's got to do it."

I thought other Reader readers might be interested to know that that feisty little group of volunteers, working the oil spill clean-up near Homer, is still at it, too ["On the Spill," September 8]. Their Alaska Recovery Coalition (ARC) just shut down clean-up activities on the demonstration beach at Mars Cove on November 1, hanging in for at least six weeks longer than the Exxon crews. A total of about 50 volunteers employed a variety of environmentally cautious, low-cost clean-up methods that Exxon never tried.

Not that these methods were very exotic. By the time bad weather forced them off the beach, they had it about half cleaned, including washing at least eight tons of rock, one rock at a time. They did eventually receive state funding to build a simple but innovative rock washing machine which helped them to remove all (yes, all) the oil from their work area. The volunteers also experimented with effective, reusable absorbent materials, to make Exxon's booms and towels look like Pampers of the Sea by comparison. Waste disposal is still a problem, though. Exxon has refused to pick up any of the 300 gallons of oil collected by the volunteers. ARC has been working with the State of Alaska to come up with an alternative waste disposal plan.

Alaskan state agencies seem pretty happy with the volunteers' clean-up effort. A few of the volunteers' new methods will be recommended as standard practice in any future spills. (Considering their persistent waste disposal problem it may seem ironic, but the volunteers' greatest accomplishment probably was in creating much less waste than the Exxon crews.) Also, a stretch of coastline at Mars Cove may be the only beach in the path of the spill that will be officially declared "clean."

As an outside observer, I'm afraid I still maintain a slightly cynical view. It's obvious that even though Exxon should have done better, volunteers alone could not clean up the entire spill. Several of the volunteers I've talked to lately told me the most important aspect of their efforts "on Mars" has been symbolic--that it was "spiritually healing" to pick up stone after stone, washing and wiping in a wet 30 mile per hour wind. I couldn't have done it, but I still feel compelled to let other people know about what they have done. Think about it, next time you are about to do something careless toward the environment. Or better yet, consider, like those Sierra Clubbers in Harold's article, what good we might do, even in our own back yard.

(The ARC volunteers plan to pursue research and educational projects through the winter, and to work on saving damaged salmon spawning grounds in the spring. For more information, contact ARC, 3776 Lake Street, Homer, AK 99603.)

Jill Kunka

Oak Park

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