VALDEZ, ALASKA -- While tons of oil spread a poisonous sheen over the Persian Gulf half a world away, survivors of the last catastrophic oil spill now look with relief at a snow-fringed Prince William Sound sparkling with sea life and renewed health.
Grumbling about handling of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill here has faded to a whisper. Fishermen caught full loads of salmon last year. Townspeople who flayed Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. for its slow spill response two years ago warmly compliment the company's new ship escorts.
The recovery process, after the spill of almost 11 million gallons of oil, has cost Exxon Corp. more than $2 billion in cleanup and compensation. More than 36,000 waterfowl, at least 1,016 sea otters and 144 bald eagles died along with many other animals.
Conversation has moved to topics such as the proposed road to Cordova, a vibrant fishing village on the sound, or Doris and Tom Lopez's new baby daughter from Romania.
"It just broke my heart" to see what happened to the Persian Gulf, said Michelle Hahn O'Leary, a Cordova fisherman, but "Prince William Sound is doing much better."
Business was so brisk at Sea Hawk Seafoods, a fish processing company directly across from the main oil tanker terminal here, that owner Ray Cesarini could have used many more than the 260 workers who showed up for the summer rush. Fishermen in the sound harvested more than 40 million pink salmon, a record. Cesarini said such abundance, rather than residual worry about oil pollution, was responsible for the low price, down to 35 cents a pound from 65 cents in 1988.
The state's "zero tolerance" policy -- vigorous inspections to prevent sale of oil-fouled fish -- "made a big difference," Cesarini said.
Relieved of worries about fishing restrictions and oil cleanup, two of the most outspoken fisherman critics of Exxon have turned their attention to a sudden family addition.
Doris Lopez, a visible presence at many post-spill news conferences two years ago, flew to Romania in November and returned with two-month-old Maritsa, a dark-eyed, dark-haired playmate for the family's two small sons. Her husband, Tom, had not been happy about her six-week absence, but when he saw the result he pronounced the trip, with a wry smile, "Doris's mission from God."
In Cordova, Michelle O'Leary joined her husband, Michael, on the local ski slope this winter. Last year, she ruined a knee carrying heavy baggage through airports on trips to lobby about spill recovery and had to stay off her feet.
The O'Learys also joined the renewed debate about whether to connect their little waterside town, accessible only by foot, boat or airplane, to a highway. New Gov. Walter J. Hickel (I) has proposed such a project, but the O'Learys cringe at the thought of Cordova overflowing with recreational vehicles each summer.
A road would not be as bad as another oil spill, but "it would affect the life style here tremendously," Michelle O'Leary said.
Cesarini, the O'Learys, and the Lopezes are Prince William Sound residents who have agreed to meet periodically with Washington Post reporters to discuss how the spill has affected them. All have been involved, as have most people on the sound, in private and government claims and lawsuits against Exxon and Alyeska, although many claims have been settled and the future of the suits is difficult to predict.
O'Leary said salmon fishing and herring roe harvest for her and her husband returned to normal last year. The only major annoyance was sharing the roe harvest waters with herring fishermen, which O'Leary said is not likely to happen this year.
Last summer, the Lopezes encountered no significant barriers to fishing, although waters near some oily beaches were off-limits. Tom Lopez said they grossed $250,000, before taxes and salaries to his four crew members. That was a drop from their $428,000 gross in 1989 when they hired out one boat for cleanup work, but crew expenses were lower this year and the Lopezes were delighted to be free of Exxon's dirty work.
"I did nothing but fish last year," Tom Lopez said. "It was great. I got a lot of fish, just not as much money for them."
Lopez and Cesarini both praised Alyeska's new $50-million-a-year Ship Escort Response Vessel System (SERVS), even if the dozens of new SERVS employees have put further pressure on the tight Valdez housing market.
Michael Williams, the Alyeska vice president of environment and contingencies, said one of the system's four 210-foot oil recovery ships and one of its four tugs escort every loaded oil tanker out of the sound, a hedge against spills and a check on dangerous maneuvers such as the sharp turn that resulted in the Exxon Valdez running aground and leaking.
Tom Lopez admired the SERVS system so much that he applied for work there this winter. Knowing that he would be gone fishing by summer "they wouldn't hire me," he said, "but I still like the operation."
Lopez, unlike Cesarini, thinks that depressed salmon prices may reflect lingering doubts about the purity of Prince William Sound fish. "People around the world still think Alaska salmon is second-class salmon because of the oil spill," he said.
But he acknowledged that his cherished life of casting nets into chilled gray waters and pulling forth fat, thrashing fish has resumed more quickly and easily than he expected.
The Persian Gulf spill is much bigger and in a very different area, Lopez said, so it is hard to predict the result. When the Exxon Valdez dumped its petroleum, he said, "perhaps we worried a little too much, but it's hard to have all that oil in your face and not be scared by it."