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AREA OF OIL SPILL NOW AS LARGE AS VERMONT, AND WILDLIFE TOLL CLIMBS

SHARE AREA OF OIL SPILL NOW AS LARGE AS VERMONT, AND WILDLIFE TOLL CLIMBS

The Exxon oil spill, now as big as the state of Vermont, has killed at least 23,000 birds and animals, and the efforts to clean it up have cost more than $155 million, officials said.

Experts tracking the nation's worst oil spill said Wednesday it had covered 9,600 square miles, an area larger than each of the eight smallest states.Workers have collected 22,868 dead, oily birds and 743 otters, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and experts say that is only a fraction of the wildlife killed by the oil.

"We're still counting its victims," said regional director Walter Stieglitz. Among those victims are at least 49 bald eagles.

Exxon and the state and federal governments have spent more than $155 million on cleanup since March 24 when the supertanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef, split apart and spewed 10.9 million gallons of Alaska crude into waters south of the Valdez terminal en route to Long Beach, Calif.

Gov. Steve Cowper appointed a blue ribbon task force Wednesday to investigate the spill and recommend ways to keep another from happening. The panel, composed of five prominent Alaskans, a former presidential science adviser and a California environmental scientist, will be financed by a new 5-cent tax on each barrel of oil.

Meanwhile, the cost of the cleanup is soaring.

Exxon had spent $115 million on cleanup by mid-May, spokeswoman Karen Steffaro said, and the effort was to reach its peak in the next few weeks. Exxon is still negotiating with fishermen on claims they have made for oil damage and was refusing to pay an estimated $60 million in local government costs demanded by 15 mayors.