…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
20 years out, Alaska’s social and physical environment still reeling from Exxon Valdez disaster
Categories: National, News

by Meg White

This is the third in a series addressing the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

John Platt, a third-generation fisherman who lost almost everything in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, said that his pride in his hometown of Cordova persists.

“It is beautiful to this day,” he said.  But on especially hot days in the Prince William Sound, he can still see the effects of the disaster bubbling up, especially on the shoreline. “Some of the beaches will have a little oil sheen.”

That’s because most of the 11 million gallons of oil spilled in the Prince William Sound in March 1989 is still there. Cordova was one of the towns most affected  by the spill. Yesterday, I wrote about the financial impact of the spill on the area, still being felt today.

However, the social and environmental echoes are still reverberating as well. Platt said that still bubbling up to the surface are instances of suicide, bankruptcy and divorce. But while debt forgiveness, reinvestment and legal settlements can work to ameliorate economic pain, the answers are much more elusive when it comes to the physical and mental landscape of the area hit by the Exxon Valdez two decades ago.

In a recent interview with In These Times, local fisherwoman and marine biologist Riki Ott talked about the toll the disaster took on the community:

“The stress manifested itself in all manner of horrible things, including substance abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, depression, PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], isolation, divorce and suicide. These are the so-called ‘non-economic losses’ in a court of law.”

Professor Steven Picou of the University of South Alabama and Professor Duane Gill of Mississippi State University conducted a study from 1989 to 1997 on the psychological effects of the spill, funded mainly by The National Science Foundation and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. The study found that while high levels of avoidance behavior and intrusive stress marked the first 18 months of life in Cordova after the disaster, problems persisted for years. In groups studied as late as 1995, levels of severe depression and anxiety, as well as PTSD were found in double-digit percentages.

The environmental degradation and profound economic loss were compounded by what Picou called the “secondary disaster” of the prolonged and shady legal dealings.

Picou and Gill also worked on a study looking at the cultural losses associated with the spill. They concluded that the disaster “shook the core cultural foundation of Native life.” The researchers saw the restoration of mental health in the affected communities as inextricably linked with the physical clean up:

“This study indicates [a] true restoration must also include the reestablishment of a social equilibrium between the biophysical environment and the human community… Without mitigated human restoration, the persistent threat, uncertainty, and lack of economic and ecological resolution resulting from the [Exxon Valdez oil spill] will continue to produce patterns of chronic stress. In summary, the restoration of renewable resources must be accompanied by the restoration of the quality of life in communities negatively affected by the [Exxon Valdez oil spill].”

Just when the community needed support most, however, its institutions were failing. The economic plunge felt in each household after the spill meant low municipal revenues when tax time came. Furthermore, fish canning and exporting companies, long dependent on the output of the Sound, closed abruptly, leaving gaps as economic pillars of the community collapsed. Furthermore, shifts in power on the state level led to cuts in spending on social services, such as mental health care clinics that were so badly needed at that particular moment.

Hostility and feelings of abandonment ran rampant after the initial shock of the disaster passed. Some felt betrayed by the government and industry, others by fishermen who were paid by Exxon to clean up the spill.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council was created in the wake of a settlement between the state of Alaska and Exxon. The council was to determine the best way to distribute settlement funds and study the effects of the spill. Everything from the administration of funds to the overall mission statement of the group has raised ire among Alaskans.

“As far as the trustee council goes, I think it’s a joke,” said Platt. “They took their money and are spending it as they see fit.”

Platt was frustrated with the group’s self-imposed “mandate” to deal only with the environmental effects of the disaster. At one point, Platt and other fishermen proposed a herring permit buyback program. They told the council they were willing to cut their losses on herring fishing, and just let the species repopulate unmolested. This way fishermen could get some of their seed money back, as well as help to protect vulnerable marine populations. But Platt said that because of their self-imposed mandate to limit their interests to ecological matters, the council refused to hear them out.

Platt saw this as hypocritical, since the group used oil settlement money to buy timber rights from Native American populations in order to stop them from chopping down forests, which the council  was concerned would endanger the already-stressed alluvial environment. Platt saw that expenditure as social and economic in nature, and didn’t see why the council would refuse to work with the fishermen in a similar plan.

“They pissed most of [the money] away… meanwhile, you’ve got Cordova going broke,” Platt said.

Fishermen also felt they lost a support system when the Cordova District Fisheries Union (CDFU), which fought hard against the establishment of the pipeline and the unsafe transport practices of oil companies in the first place, teamed up with the oil companies that owned the pipeline terminus to spearhead an oil response team.

“Basically, they kind of put [CDFU] on the payroll,” Platt said. Platt was once on the CDFU board, along with Riki Ott. Both have since resigned, but neither has given up fishing or the dream of restoring the Sound and Cordova to its former glory.

That will be a tough order, however. The devastation was extensive and continues today. Recent media reports contend that as much as 16,000 gallons of oil remain in the Sound. One type of killer whale is expected to become extinct in the next 25 years, at least in part due to the contamination. The trustee council’s most recent recovery report lists the Pacific herring and the pigeon guillemot as two species that have shown little or no improvement in the past 20 years.

Other studies would put harbor seals, harlequin ducks, marbled murrelets, cormorants, sea otters and some whales on the list of species that have not recovered. A widespread disease affecting the herring population has led to the state canceling herring fishing for 15 of the past 17 seasons. Scientists are unsure whether or not the virus, which causes erratic behavior, lesions and internal bleeding, was directly caused by the spill or merely appeared due to the stress on herring from the spill. However, they do agree that the virus had not manifested itself before the 1989 spill.

In addition to what seem to be long-term effects among herring populations, scientists are finding permanent genetic damage among some species of the Sound.

While the ongoing fallout is worrisome, the initial toll on wildlife was more extensive than any environmental disaster this country has ever seen. Up to 5,500 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, a half million birds, 22 killer whales and innumerable fish were killed in the spill.

A major contributor to the record-breaking nature of the disaster was the shoddy job Exxon did in removing the oil in the first place. There were significant initial delays and confusion over what methods should be used in the clean up.

The problem was attitudinal as well. Exxon perceived that it had a huge public relations disaster on its hands, not an ecological one. Instead of listening to experts on oil pollution clean up methods, Exxon sent workers to beaches to blast the area with 140-degree water. The water merely pushed the oil out of sight, while effectively boiling the plant and animal life that is thought to aid clean up.

The now-defunct U.S. Office of Technology Assessment estimated that initial clean up efforts had only removed three to four percent of the oil spilled. The huge deposits of oil remaining underground have been described by one government scientist as “land mines that will cause chronic harm to successive generations” of fauna in Alaska.

Exxon has produced several studies claiming there are no environmental effects from the spill, which have been denounced by scientists of virtually every stripe. I’ll have more on Exxon’s information battle in an upcoming story in this series.

With the decades-long court battle between Cordovans and Exxon finally winding to a close, Platt said the tensions of the town seems to be dissipating. He said most residents spent the past 20 years avoiding the depressing subject and said that the town is looking to the future, perhaps out of necessity.

“If we dwell on the past, everybody’s going to kill themselves,” he said.

However, there is at least one good reason for the rest of us to dwell upon this 20-year-old story: It could easily happen all over again. The same flimsy, single-hulled vessels as the Exxon Valdez tanker are still shipping in and out of the Prince William Sound. The Alaska pipeline was recently found to have significant structural problems such as wall thinning due to rust. British Petroleum’s “Northstar” project will pump oil beneath the Alaskan waters, in an area difficult to monitor. The Army Corps of Engineers has said the project has an up to one in four chance of precipitating another major spill.


Oil companies are constantly lobbying for self reporting of leaks and other problems, as well as for more drilling contracts than they are even able to use. The next installment in this series will look at the political impact of the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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