With 200,000 gallons of oil a day spewing from an exploded oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, forming a slick the size of West Virginia and threatening the coastline of Louisiana, radio pundit Rush Limbaugh said there's no need to panic, that "the ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and was left out there. It's natural."
And to prove his point, Limbaugh pointed to the restoration of Alaska's Prince William Sound, which was devastated by an oil spill from the Exxon Valdez 21 years ago.
"They were wiping off the rocks with Dawn dishwater detergent and paper towels and so forth," Limbaugh said on his April 29, 2010, radio show. "The place is pristine now."
Government officials involved in the cleanup say the conditions are long way from being pristine, which is defined as "completely free from dirt or contamination."
Despite the beautiful scenery and wildlife in full view in Prince William Sound, a report from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council released last year on the 20th anniversary of the spill stated, "one of the most stunning revelations of Trustee Council-funded monitoring over the last 10 years is that Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment and in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill."
The Trustee Council, formed by the Alaska government to oversee the restoration of the injured ecosystem, concluded the oil is decreasing at a rate of 0 to 4 percent a year, and "at this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely."
We asked Craig Tillery, deputy attorney general for the state of Alaska, about Limbaugh's comment. Tillery, a who has served as counsel to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, said it depends on how you define pristine.
"The vast majority of oil that landed in Alaska is gone," he said. But the government dug hundreds of test holes and found pockets of "still fresh-looking oil that is still toxic to the marine environment." In all, they estimated 23,000 gallons (of the 11 million gallons spilled by the Exxon Valdez) remains in isolated pockets of some beaches.
"It's buried, you wouldn't see it," said Tillery. "It looks pristine, but it's not pristine if your definition is that there's no oil left."
And that oil is still getting into the environment, he said. Sea ducks and sea otters are still exhibiting signs of exposure to oil, he said. And animals such as sea otters, which dig for clams, have released some of the oil trapped under the ground.
Most of the wildlife has recovered from the spill, Tillery said, but you also need to consider what you don't see.
"You don't see as many killer whales as you did before the spill," he said. "You don't see herrings in the numbers you did before the spill. On the surface, you'd probably say this looks pretty pristine. Underlying that, though, there is still evidence of the spill."
"There are beaches where you can turn a shovel and still find oil," said Stan Jones, director of external affairs for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council.
Prince William sound has "mostly recovered visually," Jones said, but to call it pristine is an "overstatement."
Dr. Jeffrey Short, who was the leading chemist for the governments of Alaska and the United States following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, led a series of studies on the unexpected persistence of the oil.
In a Q & A with the environmental group Oceana, with whom he is now employed, Short stated, "We found that it (oil) lasted a lot longer than we thought in some locations and it was much better preserved than we thought it would be. In some places the oil hadn't degraded much beyond the first couple months after it had spilled."
We asked Short about Limbaugh's comment and he said that while it's fair to say most of Prince William Sound has recovered from the impact of the Exxon Valdez, "there are some places where the oil continues to linger."
In fact, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council has a link on its website to its "Report on Recent Lingering Oil Studies."
"At the time of the spill, most scientists believed that, within a few years, the process of weathering would either break down and decompose the oil, or would cause it to turn into a form of asphalt that would have little potential to release toxic components into the environment," the report states. "Contrary to these expectations, oil persists at some sites in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska in a relatively unweathered and potentially toxic condition."
"Organisms that use the intertidal were severely affected by the spill and continued to show adverse effects from exposure to oil for many years after the spill. These effects manifested themselves in reduced survival rates and diminished populations. In recent years, however, there is evidence of improvement. The extent of oil exposure appears to be diminishing in most species, and there is evidence that the populations of some species are beginning to increase."
That sounds encouraging. But it doesn't change the fact that, despite outward appearance, 21 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, Prince William Sound is not pristine. You may not be able to see it, but scientists and anyone willing to turn over rocks with a shovel attest to the fact that thousands of gallons of oil remain buried in some beaches, and the oil continues to adversely affect the environment. We rule Limbaugh's statement False.