IT’S 4:30 a.m. when my ride to Bligh Reef, the supertanker Arco Prudhoe Bay, slips serenely from the port of Valdez, Alaska, her belly freshly gorged with 50,000 tons of hot crude oil from the North Slope. There has been a slight addition to normal sailing orders, says Captain Justin C. Raymond, a former lobsterman from Nahant, Massachusetts: “Keep her off the rocks, Dad,” his fifteen-year-old son has urged him. Raymond’s son has been taking flak from schoolmates since another tanker captain, Joseph Hazelwood, crunched the Exxon Valdez head onto the reef during a similar transit through Prince William Sound in March, nearly a month ago now. “I’ve tried every way I can since then to imagine how they did it,” says Raymond. “It was just insane.”
The captain, wearing jeans, Nikes and a parka, sips coffee at the big glass windows of the bridge. Dawn is slopping over the snowy peaks of the Chugach Range, which walls our passage on both sides. From the airy, spacious bridge, done in light browns and cool creams, the scenery, not the tanker, seems to be moving. Only the merest shudder betrays the workings several decks below us of 20,000-horsepower engines, chuffing along at a lazy eighty revolutions per minute, turning a propeller roughly the height of a two-story house. Commanding all this is the most disappointing steering wheel, a black metal disk about eighteen inches in diameter (hydraulics have replaced the big, polished wood and brass affairs, which would, for a supertanker, have to be about thirty feet high to afford sufficient mechanical leverage on the mammoth rudder). All in all, the ambience is more insurance-company office than salty fo’c’sle; Metropolitan Life, not Tugboat Annie. There is no sense, here in the calm of Prince William Sound, that we are riding a potent reservoir of toxic cargo that, for all its impressive propulsion and guidance systems, is only marginally maneuverable.
Anticipation is all, in driving one of these babies. For example, our bow, sticking out there farther from us than Bo Jackson’s longest homer, is pointed dead on for a granite slab of Chugach mountain. Not to worry; Jim Wright, one of the local pilots every tanker must carry out of Valdez, called out a course change to the able-bodied seaman at the helm nearly a minute ago. It will be another half a minute or so before we can see the bow of the Prudhoe Bay, 662 feet distant, clearly responding and yet another minute before the AB calls out that she has steadied on the new heading.
A plaque on the port side of the bridge details the results of the Prudhoe Bay‘s latest deceleration trials, which demonstrate what happens when she loses power while underway. Running at full sea speed, about fifteen knots, her engines were thrown into idle. Forty-five minutes later, having traveled 7.4 nautical miles, she was still plowing along smartly at more than four knots. Full speed astern to slow her, says Raymond, is a good command in the movies, but of scant utility in real life. It only causes the huge prop to “walk” a supertanker’s stern around, sending her careering uncontrollably. “Strictly a desperation move,” he says. “The only way to bleed off speed is a series of hard turns.”
It’s 7:00 a.m., and we have cleared the Valdez Narrows, a pinched passage through the mountains where tankers are restricted to six knots. Captain Raymond is kidding Pilot Wright that it has just taken the latter fifty-two seconds to visit the head. “Some expert” from the California Maritime Academy, says Raymond, has been timing people recently, just a small example of the almost frenzied theorizing that is going on to explain why Captain Hazelwood disappeared from the bridge of the Valdez not long before she foundered on the rocks. “You should have been able to do it in forty-four seconds,” says Raymond. “Well, I wash my hands after,” says the pilot. “Better with the old ships . . . you just pissed on the deck,” says the captain.
How did the Exxon Valdez wander from a shipping lane so wide that a United States Coast Guard admiral would later say, with only mild hyperbole, that “your children could drive a tanker through it”? As we near the rocky underwater promontory that was the Exxon Valdez‘s downfall, the mystery seems only to deepen. These ships have so many navigation systems: Besides twin radars, there is Loran C, a sophisticated triangulation system that uses shore-based signal towers to direct a boat to within several meters of any spot it has been, even in open water. A separate system, SATNAV, which relies on satellite signals, does much the same as Loran C. Then there is the Collision Avoidance System, CAS II, basically a minicomputer with a screen that gives clear and detailed visual information of the ship’s speed, course in tenths of degrees, closest point of approach to other objects and time of arrival at any point on the screen.
There is more technology to see, but an old navigation phrase, the lowest of low tech, has been running through my mind ever since we left Valdez: RED RIGHT TURNING. My father drilled it into my head when I was twelve, running a fifteen-foot skiff with ten-horsepower outboard around the shallows of my native Chesapeake Bay. RED RIGHT RETURNING: Always keep the red channel markers and red buoys on your right when returning to a port or harbor, and conversely, keep them on your left when you are leaving. RED RIGHT RETURNING. It’s information good for getting in and out of any established navigational channel in America, and much of the world. The way in and out of Valdez is no exception. Virtually all but the most casual pleasure boaters know the RRR dictum. It certainly must have been known to the crew on the bridge of the Exxon Valdez that fateful morning, a few minutes after midnight, March 24th, 1989, when they apparently ignored it, to the everlasting regret of us all.
It was a fine night for sailing, calm and clear, when the Exxon Valdez, the 987-foot flagship of the giant oil company’s navy, sailed at nine. Fishermen around Valdez would recall afterward that the northern lights that week had been unusually active, flaring a rarely seen reddish orange, and maybe it was an omen. Thursday night, even as the ship left port, the people of Valdez were meeting to form a committee to deal with the impact of oil transport on the area, and Riki Ott, representing one of the fishing organizations on Prince William Sound, testified that a major spill was “a question of when, not if,” but she was known for being outspoken.
Joe Hazelwood may or may not have been drunk at the wheel. He has been fired by Exxon and is charged with three misdemeanor and three felony violations, carrying a maximum sentence of five years and $50,000. He is not talking to investigators. We know secondhand his step-by-step movements ashore during most of the preceding day — shopping for Easter flowers to be sent to his family in New York State, ordering pizza, drinking what appeared to be vodka, playing darts at the Pipeline Club, a popular tanker men’s spot. After returning to the ship, he had two nonalcoholic Moussy beers, he told a Coast Guard officer who arrived on board soon after the grounding. Not until nine hours after the accident was the captain tested for blood alcohol. He was found to be legally drunk — but by then, who in his place wouldn’t have been?
Hazelwood’s actions that night, according to witnesses at government hearings and interviews with crew members, were strange at the least and violated accepted tanker practices. He left the bridge during the critical passage through the Valdez Narrows; left it again after ordering a course change to avoid small icebergs that set the ship on a line straight for Bligh Reef. He also turned the bridge over to Gregory Cousins, his third mate, who was not licensed by the Coast Guard to pilot the ship in these confined waters. For all that, it appears likely Hazelwood would have gotten away with it had Cousins followed the captain’s orders — or just kept on the proper side of a clearly visible red light.
It was shortly after 11:39 p.m. that the Exxon Valdez began its death dance across the dark, smooth waters of Prince William Sound, based on testimony by the crew before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). At that time a navigational fix taken by Cousins showed the vessel squarely in the middle of the established shipping lanes. Hazelwood ordered a course due south, 180 degrees, which would take the Exxon Valdez across the shipping lanes and straight toward the reef. Before leaving the bridge, he and Cousins jointly agreed upon a point in the vessel’s new course where the mate would hang a right, turning back to the west when he was three miles north of Bligh Reef, well in advance of any danger of grounding on it. Inexplicably, the captain placed the ship on autopilot, something mariners say is never done in such confined waters. It would be a bit like putting your automobile on cruise control while entering a parking garage. The mate or the able-bodied seaman at the wheel, Robert Kagan, soon returned the ship to manual, however. It does not appear, as was once thought, to have been a factor in the crash that followed.
RED RIGHT RETURNING. Maureen Jones, the lookout on the wing platform extending outside the bridge, was perhaps the first to know something was badly amiss. At about 11:54 p.m., according to the NTSB testimony, she noticed a red flashing light well to starboard. Red lights when leaving harbors are supposed to be on your port, or left, not your starboard. She strode quickly inside and reported it to Cousins. He made a calm, routine acknowledgment and returned to his chart work.
Jones went back to her position, checked the red flashing light, now moving even farther off the ship’s starboard. She identified it positively as the Bligh Reef light by its flashing sequence of once every four seconds. Again she entered the bridge and reported to Cousins that he had a red on his right. Again he made a routine acknowledgment as the giant ship plowed due south. The lookout again took her position on the bridge wing, noting that the bow seemed to be coming slowly around to the right. Cousins would later testify to the NTSB that he ordered the ship turned to the west at about 11:56 p.m., in what should have been time to avoid the reef. Automatic recording instruments aboard the Exxon Valdez showed, however, that the turn was not begun until 12:01 a.m., three minutes before grounding. Robert LeResche, a state of Alaska investigator participating in the NTSB hearings, likened this five-minute gap to the mysterious eighteen-minute gap in Richard Nixon’s White House tape recordings during Watergate.
LeResche asked Cousins about the discrepancy. “I really don’t have an adequate answer,” said the mate.
A few seconds after Maureen Jones noted the bow responding, the Exxon Valdez bulldozed the reef, which until then was best known to Alaskans for its good halibut fishing. The vessel’s mass of hundreds of millions of pounds was so great that the impact was surprisingly gentle. Jones saw a glowing aura around the bow for about fifteen seconds. Some on board were not aware they were no longer moving. Second Mate Lloyd LeCain, asleep after a long shift, was awakened and saw an assistant engineer opening sounding tubes in the deck to check if water had entered dead air spaces built into the ship’s hull. LeCain saw a geyser of crude oil shoot an estimated seventy feet from the tube into the air. Chief Mate James Kunkel knocked on LeCain’s door and told him, in the inimitable wording of the NTSB report, “Vessel aground, we’re [expletive].” At 12:27 a.m. the Coast Guard radio in Valdez crackled with Joe Hazelwood’s voice, reporting the grounding and, in the understatement of the day, adding, “Evidently, we’re leaking some oil.”
And off to starboard, the right side but the oh-so-wrong side, the red flashing light of Bligh Reef continued to blink its impotent warning every four seconds, and 11 million gallons of brownish black crude oil, North America’s biggest spill, began spreading across North America’s greatest wilderness. In the dim glow of the nighttime bridge, Alaska State and Coast Guard investigators would find Hazelwood, when they boarded the vessel a couple of hours later, “looking pensive.” Almost gently, one of them asked the captain if he didn’t think he should snuff his cigarette — since the fumes might be explosive. “Oh, yeah, you’re right,” Hazelwood reportedly said.
Back on the Prudhoe Bay it’s full daylight, Bligh Reef is slipping comfortably astern, and it’s time for Jim Wright and me to get off or else travel another five days with the tanker to Long Beach, California. The ship is moving at fifteen knots, in moderate ocean swells, as we clamber down a rope ladder hung from the Arco supertanker’s side onto a tiny pilot craft that keeps pace alongside and far below the ship’s deck. Twenty minutes later the long morning spent in the modern commerce of oil seems a distant memory. I am surrounded by eagles and on the lookout for bears. The pilot boat has put into a rock-girt cove about fifteen miles out of Valdez, where an old yacht is moored as living quarters for the men who embark and disembark the pilots. Fresh drinking water arrives via a garden hose run ashore and stuck into a waterfall that ripples down the hemlock slopes. Bear and deer routinely travel the shoreline within sixty feet of where we are moored; also mink and coyote. The men here fish in their spare time, catching red snapper, grayling, cod, sea bass, halibut and Dolly Varden.
Do I see many eagles on the Chesapeake Bay? asks Matt Ortega, one of the pilot-boat operators. A few a year if I’m lucky, I tell him. They’re coming back from the DDT that destroyed their eggs when it got into the food chain. He walks on deck and whistles sharply. On the second blast six adult bald eagles come winging across the tree tops. Ortega throws a piece of bologna into the crystalline water of the cove. No takers. “Ah, can’t fool them,” he says, ducking inside and reemerging with a pound of bacon. “They like that bacon.” For the next fifteen minutes the great predators circle in formation as he throws strip after strip into the water no more than ten feet from the boat: circling, swooping, gliding, gliding, gliding, powerful legs swinging slowly forward, talons extending. You are almost hypnotized, a crouched rabbit awaiting death, then — choonk! — the bacon is ripped from the water with savage precision, scarcely rippling the surface.
You could do that trick in the lower 48, I tell Ortega, but instead of bald eagles, mostly you would draw hordes of shrieking, squabbling herring gulls, so common we call them bay buzzards or ocean rats. Here is simply nature on a higher plane than exists anywhere else. You could spend a lifetime appreciating and enjoying that cove, and it is but one small indentation, a pinprick among thousands of miles of coves and inlets and embayments that are the shoreline of Prince William Sound.
The sound was first known to white men through the voyage here of Captain James Cook in 1778. A reef charted by his expedition was named after one of Cook’s officers, William Bligh, who would later become identified mainly with more southerly seas and a mutiny on his ship the Bounty. Cook, seeking a northwest passage, was bound to be disappointed, but in 1899 the Harriman Expedition, an extraordinary voyage to Alaska that included America’s leading scientists, naturalists and wildlife painters, brought the region’s stunning beauty to public attention.
John Burroughs, the naturalist and author, wrote on entering the sound of “the vast shifting panorama of sea and islands and wooded shores and towering peaks spread before us on every hand . . . a feast of beauty and sublimity . . . . We were afloat in an enchanted circle.” And his colleague, John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and was no stranger to alpine beauty, called it “one of the richest, most glorious mountain landscapes I ever beheld — peak over peak dipping deep in the sky, a thousand of them, icy and shining . . . and great breadths of sun-spangled, ice-dotted waters in front . . . grandeur and beauty in a thousand forms awaiting us at every turn in this bright and spacious wonderland.”
For weeks afterward, whenever I read the daily Exxon press releases on the spread of the spill, on how many miles of beach had been tarred by crude, I would think of my visit to the eagles’ little cove. Its total shoreline, had it been oiled, would have seemed unimpressive in the context of the sound’s total, a tragedy expressed in hundreds of yards, no more; yet in reality so much more. Similarly, reports that no more than ten or fifteen percent of the sound’s shoreline had been harmed by oil were accurate as far as statistics went, but it seemed like telling someone only a portion in the center of a rare and treasured painting had been ripped — cheer up, the rest of it was untouched.
The spill has painfully underscored a dichotomy that underlies much of the modern Alaskan experience. Prince William Sound until this March was exemplary of the Alaskan slogan, America’s Last Frontier. If Americans were granted a new start, a chance to reinvent their continent’s pristine landscape and its wildlife, its air and water, and to treat them right this time around, this would be the result. If it’s not God’s country, a resident told me, then God should homestead a piece of it while he still can. Clearly, Alaskans feel wilderness symbolizes their state. The beasts and fowls and fishes are on display in airports, motels and restaurants everywhere you travel — stuffed, mounted, painted, carved, silk-screened on T-shirts, lynxes, wolves, eagles, bears ten feet tall, leaping salmon, halibut the size of your front door, beavers, otters, moose, caribous, musk oxen, fifty species of waterfowls and wading birds — and here they are symbols, not of the past but of the present and, it still seems reasonable to think, of the future.
But it is not fur trapping or deer hunting or bird-watching or even its substantial fishing industry that runs Alaska. It is oil. Perhaps that could be said for much of the developed world, but here the focus is sharper, defined by a single pipeline, four feet in diameter, 800 miles long. From the pipe’s mouth in Valdez, where the supertankers say fill’ er up, issue some 2 million barrels a day of crude. It comes out still steaming, only slightly cooler than it issued from the earth, an effect from the friction of being pumped from the frozen tundra of the North Slope across three mountain ranges, the mighty Yukon River and the great migration routes of caribous. The pipe took 70,000 people four years and $8 billion to build — America’s largest private construction project (though only Japanese mills could deliver the quantity and quality of steel needed for the pipe’s half-inch-thick walls). From the air the pipe’s odd zigzag configuration, scientifically designed to permit thermal expansion and absorb even the shocks of earthquakes, appears as man’s lone, bold essay on a natural landscape as fierce and remote as any on earth.
Two million barrels, 84 million gallons a day, flowing as sure as a river since 1977 — the pipe carries nearly a quarter of all the oil produced in America, an eighth of the nation’s total oil consumption. It is not stretching things much to say that one day of every week, the entire United States, from its automobiles to Du Pont’s polyester production, is dependent on this one pipe.
The pipe, politicians tell people here, is worth the revenue of thirty gold mines; better than sixty molybdenum mines — worth such sums it almost seems that Exxon, one of the pipe’s major owners, could as well use dollar bills to sop up the spill instead of the company’s often ineffective booms and skimmer vessels. Profits conservatively estimated at $42.6 billion, after taxes, have come to the oil industry in Alaska as of 1987, almost all of it from producing and transporting oil from the North Slope through the pipe. The figures, which put the industry’s after-tax return on investment at nearly forty-four percent, come from a study by Edward B. Deakin, a well-regarded professor of petroleum accounting at the University of North Texas. His study was commissioned by the Alaska Department of Revenue. The average profit on each barrel that has passed through the pipe since 1977, Deakin puts at better than $6. At recent flows through the line, that works out to around $12 million a day, or close to half a million dollars an hour, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.
Neither have the taxpayers come off shabbily. During the same period, oil extraction from the state paid $25.8 billion in federal taxes and $29.3 billion in taxes and royalties to the state of Alaska. Oil generates a whopping eighty-five percent of all state revenues. A portion, invested mostly in bonds, has created the so-called Permanent Fund for Alaska, whose principal is projected to top $10 billion by 1991 — rainy-day money of about $20,000 for every man, woman and child now living in the state. Alaskans, courtesy of oil revenues, enjoy generous college loans, a highly touted school system in which teachers start at $30,000 a year, a level of government services about sixty percent above the national average, subsidized public transportation . . . the list goes on and on.
The oil industry has been attentive to its public image. Boy Scouts get support from British Petroleum America; Exxon and Arco executives are active in well-publicized civic and charitable activities in Anchorage; Alyeska, the consortium of companies that operates the pipeline, has set records with its United Way contributions (the highest in the United States per employee in 1986 and 1987). And lest Alaskans not appreciate all of this, the industry runs television ads that come on with upbeat music while pictures of Alaskans in varying occupations flash across the screen. Each sequence of workers is followed by ALASKAN JOB; then another sequence and ALASKAN JOBS; then the punch line — DEPEND ON OIL. “It’s really obnoxious and really true,” a Sierra Club lawyer in Juneau said of the ad.
There is more. Alaskans pay no state income tax, and once a year, courtesy of the Permanent Fund, or Big Oil, if you will, the state pays each of its half a million or so full-time residents money just for being here — a dividend that this year will total $862 dollars per capita.
And yet. . . is this gratitude?
“We did not expect sympathy, but I think our people were unprepared for the fury and extent of the public reaction . . . the hate calls we got after the spill,” said Joan McCoy, who works in public affairs in Anchorage for Arco, one of the pipeline’s major owners.
But consider what a powerful and attractive illusion was shattered by the oil spill. This place has been having its cake and eating it too on a grand scale — Alaska the beautiful, Alaska the wild and pristine, coexisting, pretty companionably it seemed, all these years with Alaska the oil state, Alaska the flush. The postspill images seem less flattering: “If Alaska is not our young whore, what is she?” wrote Harry Crews in his Playboy essay “Going Down in Valdeez,” written during the pipeline-construction boom more than a decade ago. “She is full of all that will pleasure us [but] if we scar her . . . who can blame us? Didn’t we buy her for a trifling sum to start with?”
I thought Alaskans a bit hypocritical but mostly just naive in their libertarian disregard for lower-48 environmentalism, in their feeling that because they care so deeply about their outdoors, they are therefore good stewards of it. Indeed, they have, to an unparalleled degree, enjoyed their cake and good eating too, but that seems more a matter of a very big, unspoiled place with as yet only about half a million people nibbling at it. The unfocused, ugly sprawl around Anchorage, for example, exemplifies every unfortunate trend in land use that has trashed so much of the lower 48; but as yet the mountains are vast, the population is tiny, and wild moose still stroll into town.
So, yes, there is rage directed against the oil companies but also, perhaps, against themselves among Alaskans. “It’s aggravating to me and others who should have realized all along the oil industry is here for profit — and nothing wrong with that,” said Gregg Erickson, an economist in the office of Alaska’s governor, “but we let ourselves be seduced, we forgot they weren’t here primarily to support arts and Little League and United Way.”
At first, I was surprised that Alaskans hadn’t seized more ferociously on the man most directly responsible for all that happened here and made Joseph Hazelwood a whipping boy. But as the details have emerged of how the spill happened and subsequently spread out of anyone’s control, it has become clear that the tragedy in Prince William Sound amounted to an indictment of the whole system. Joe Hazelwood gets no one’s sympathy, but he was merely the trigger for a disaster that had been waiting to happen for years.
By 3:00 a.m. of the good Friday spill, its terrible dimensions were becoming apparent: “. . . 138,000 . . . and that was barrels, correct?” a glum-sounding Coast Guard officer said as he talked with the bridge of the grounded ship (the estimate would later be upped to 240,000 barrels, about 11 million gallons). The first line of defense in containing and cleaning up the oil was the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, whose name, Alyeska, is an Aleut word meaning “great land.” It had been more than a decade since Alyeska, building the pipeline across the wilderness, had been called upon to perform heroic feats.
As Alyeska’s crews labored in the predawn hours of March 24th to load pollution-fighting gear on tugs and barges, one wonders whether any of them looked for inspiration at the heroic Malcolm Alexander statue nearby commemorating the rough and ready spirit that built the pipe that transformed Alaska. A rugged, thirteen-foot-high bronze, mounted on a base of boulders, it features a woman teamster, a native workman and three other men clad in oilskins, boots and parkas, carrying the tools of the welder, surveyor and engineer. Their eyes fixed on a far horizon, they personify what was a favored company slogan of the construction era: We Didn’t Know It Couldn’t Be Done.
These days the pipeline and Alyeska’s huge oil-loading terminal are mostly operated by a different sort — trained technicians who work in an orderly, predictable environment, supervising softly glowing computer screens, tending to the valves and flow meters and assorted plumbing of this larger-than-life filling station. They dress neatly, go home to families and immaculately kept houses and generally enjoy the good, settled middle-class life of Valdez. During a tour of the terminal, it struck me that one could work here for a lifetime and seldom, if ever, see, hear or smell the crude oil that flows in such immense quantities to the lower 48.
A few weeks after the spill, Tom Brennan, Alyeska’s public-affairs officer, is explaining why he feels the company has taken an unfair beating for its failure to begin promptly cleaning up the oil slick before it headed for the pristine coasts of the sound. “I know people didn’t see what they expected to see,” he says. “I myself flew over at 8:30 a.m. [about eight hours after the grounding], and yeah, my first reaction too was . . . I expected to see booms surrounding the ship, but that just wasn’t what was called for. No one envisioned anything like that happening. . . . It was obvious we weren’t going to be able to contain it. . . . We knew that from the first.” In other words, I thought later, they knew it couldn’t be done.
Okay, that’s unfair, comparing the pipeline construction to an epic catastrophe that happened in the middle of the night; in fact, weeks later it is pretty much the consensus of both government and industry experts who have worked other big oil spills that no existing technology could have quickly corralled and recovered substantial amounts of the oil. Finally, almost lost in the hoo-ha over the oil industry’s incapacity to clean up the oil that leaked is the pressing need that existed to unload the oil — four times what spilled — still aboard the Exxon Valdez. It was possible that the ship might break up and sink, and there is wide agreement here that lightering, or offloading that oil onto other tankers, was at least as high a priority as cleaning up the spill. This task was accomplished without major delays by the Coast Guard and by Exxon, which quickly took over spill cleanup from Alyeska after the accident.
But for all that, you must grant a tankerful of skepticism about Alyeska’s rationalizations to anyone who has read the company’s contingency plan, the official document that details how the company would deal with any accidents in transporting oil. It was what the company had pointed to over the years — with a confidence that could border on the patronizing — whenever critics wondered what would happen if a supertanker ever cracked up in Prince William Sound. The “CP” is a formidable document, written with enough techno-babble about “boom deployment angles” and calculations of “oil encounter rates” to numb the layman, but page I is straightforward enough.
“The resources of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company are organized in a preplanned manner to ensure rapid and effective response to any oil spill emergency,” it reads. No ifs, ands or buts. No “we never envisioned anything like this.” In fact, a similar accident came near to happening when the supertanker Prince William Sound lost power and steering in high winds in 1979. The tanker was within half an hour of being blown on the rocks when a wind shift brought it back into deeper water and it regained power. The only apparent response was to include better arrangements on board tankers for tugs to hook lines.
In 1982 the state ordered Alyeska to revise its cleanup plans to reflect a catastrophic spill of 200,000 barrels (the old plan envisioned a maximum spill of 74,000 barrels). Alyeska appealed the decision, and it was not until May 1986 that the company agreed to add the new scenario. The plan, after emphasizing that a 200,000-barrel spill was “highly unlikely,” stated that the company would respond to spills in the area including Bligh Reef within two to five hours and that fifty percent of the oil would be recovered (some of it, the plan admitted, after it had hit shore).
In fact, nearly fifteen hours went by after the spill before Alyeska reached the scene with even token amounts of cleanup equipment. Several times during this period the company responded to state and Coast Guard inquiries as to when its crews would arrive by saying, “We’re on the way.” A truer picture of what was unfolding at the terminal that night was one of confusion and woeful unpreparedness, according to interviews with Alyeska employees, published news reports and testimony at congressional hearings about the spill. Equipment was buried under tons of boom deep in warehouses; some was hidden under several feet of snow. A barge that was supposed to be loaded with spill equipment wasn’t. It had been damaged and, still seaworthy, was unloaded while awaiting repairs. Alyeska pointed out at one hearing that, technically, the barge wasn’t required to be loaded. “But didn’t common sense require it to be?” asked an exasperated congressman. For several hours the company had only one man on the scene to operate both a forklift bringing equipment to its barge and a crane lifting it onto the barge. The employee would have to jump back and forth between running the forklift and the crane. There was also serious confusion between Alyeska and the Coast Guard, the agency with overall authority to direct the cleanup. At one point, this resulted in the company’s beginning to offload spill-response equipment from its vessels so it could load lightering equipment, something the Coast Guard says it never asked the company to do. Then there was the fear on Alyeska’s part that booming so much crude oil in the vicinity of the crippled tanker carried the risk of massive explosion from the concentration of fumes coming off the slick. It is still not clear whether such concerns were groundless or not, but nothing was ever said about such a possibility during the months of detailed discussions and review that went into developing the contingency plan. An Alyeska employee who was at the center of the response effort that day, and who did not want to be identified, said of the contingency plan, “Whoever wrote it . . . well, all I can say is that they never had to respond to a 200,000-barrel oil spill.”
For the next two days the weather was sunny and dead calm — unusual in March, when gale-force winds and snow are not uncommon. During that time it became painfully apparent how inadequate was the cleanup equipment Alyeska had on hand in Valdez. Commercial fishermen, who stood ready to throw dozens of boats into any oil-recovery effort, met total frustration. “They never returned one of our calls,” said Jack Lamb of the Cordova District Fishermen United (CDFU), which represents Cordova, the major fishing port on Prince William Sound and the seventh biggest in the United States in value of catch. The oil, in the words of a Coast Guard officer, “just lay there,” several square miles of it, seeming to mock the testimony an Alyeska executive, Ivan L. Henman, would later give to Congress: The contingency plan was carried out in a “timely manner . . . equipment operated as expected . . . crews performed admirably.”
Beyond the traditional cleanup techniques of encircling the oil with booms and collecting it with skimmer craft, there may have been another way to prevent the Exxon Valdez‘s cargo from fouling hundreds of miles of coastline. Spraying dispersants from airplanes could have helped dissolve the oil slick before it hit land. Because dispersants are virtually the only tools for dealing quickly with huge spills, because Prince William Sound had one of the nation’s best plans for using them and because the plan failed so miserably, it is worth examining the bitter political battle that has arisen. It will likely be fought again wherever a massive spill occurs in an environmentally sensitive area.
The first time dispersants were ever used on a major oil spill was after the sinking of the tanker Torrey Canyon off the Isles of Scilly in 1967. “They didn’t know what they were doing then and used stuff so toxic it never should have been put in the marine environment,” said a retired Exxon chemist who did not wish to be named. But dispersants have evolved considerably since then, he argued. That view was substantially supported by the National Academy of Sciences in a 1989 report on the current generation of dispersants. The academy said they were no more toxic than the oil itself.
Dispersants are not without their disadvantages, but they suffer from a reputation that inspires undue fear and misunderstanding, according to experienced oil-spill experts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Dispersants shatter oil’s natural cohesiveness, breaking it up into tiny droplets that no longer float as a slick on the surface but disperse throughout the water. This allows rapid degradation of the oil, through weathering and natural bacterial breakdown. A slick hit early enough with enough dispersants is a slick that will not foul sensitive shorelines and marshes. The trade-off is this: The rapid injection of oil droplets into the water delivers a severe toxic shock to the top several meters of water for a period of perhaps six hours. In some areas, for example, an active spawning site or a productive marsh, the trade-off would be unacceptable, but in many areas, including substantial portions of the open sound, many scientists feel dispersants were worth the risk.
Lawrence Rawl, Exxon’s chairman, has strongly accused the state of Alaska and the Coast Guard of preventing the timely and effective use of dispersants. He stated in the May 8th issue of Fortune magazine that “we could have kept up to 50 percent [5.5 million gallons] of the oil from ending up on the beach.” That was, he later added, “if it worked perfectly.” Steve Cowper, governor of Alaska, has in turn accused Rawl and Exxon of “a systematic and deliberate coverup” because of such statements and has said Exxon was free to do all it could in dispersing the spill.
Both sides probably overreach. Rawl’s arithmetic is at best wishful. It would have taken about 5000 drums of dispersant to disperse half of the slick effectively. At the time of the spill, Alyeska had about 70 drums on hand in Valdez and no plane to spray it with. Exxon’s own numbers show that by Saturday the company had shipped in about 400 drums. By Sunday, when high winds began to make aerial activities hazardous and to spread the oil slick out of control, about 900 drums of dispersant were in Alaska. A week after the spill, according to the state, Exxon still had only a couple of thousand drums on hand.
It was sometime Saturday before two C-130 spray planes arrived, rigged with the proper nozzles and ready for action. Such planes and their pilots must be FAA-certified for the hazardous, low-level flying required, and very few of either exist on short notice anywhere in the world. Neither could the planes fly out of Valdez, because of the frequent low cloud ceilings that disrupt air traffic there. They had to be based in Anchorage, more than 100 air miles away. Had the two planes each been able to spray full loads of dispersants twice a day, they would have needed nearly half a month to treat half the spill — if things worked perfectly.
Spraying decisions in the first few days came down to one man, Coast Guard Commander Steve McCall, captain of the port of Valdez. Under a state-of-the-art plan agreed to earlier in the year by the federal government, the state of Alaska and the oil industry, McCall had the power to okay spraying immediately in large sections of Prince William Sound. McCall, however, was immediately thrust into what John Robinson, an NOAA scientist on the scene, describes as “an incredible situation, dealing with complex science — pro and con dispersants — with a governor, congressmen, corporate officials, panicked fishermen.”
McCall, who called for test spraying of the dispersants Friday and Saturday before finally giving Exxon the go-ahead on Sunday, said he was strongly influenced by the concerns of the sound’s large fishing community about dispersants’ being more toxic than the oil spill itself. It is also widely accepted, he said, that on calm water such as existed that weekend, dispersants will not work-they need wave energy to mix them into the slick. He also described his thoughts when he went up in a chopper during the first test spraying on Saturday: “I looked at the size of the [slick], and I watched the plane drop its load [about 5000 gallons], and it was like this.” He dropped a pencil on the floor of his office, a room of about 250 square feet. “That load of dispersant on the size of that slick [was] about like a pencil on this floor.
“Did we hold Exxon up?” asked McCall. “Things were very disorganized. One day their plane sprayed dispersant on the Exxon Valdez, sliming a group of coast guardsmen. They never had the pieces of the puzzle together to do that much in the early days.” Subsequently, state officials, citing Exxon’s sloppy aim, also denied permission to spray more sensitive areas of the sound where McCall did not have sole authority.
Nonetheless, scientists like Robinson and David Kennedy, the principal NOAA oil-spill experts here, hold that what dispersants were available should have been used without hesitation nearly from the start. Both have been responding to the world’s biggest spills for more than a decade. “I think once that ship hit the rocks, that was it, and will be the same again, given the current containment and recovery technology,” said Robinson. Neither he nor Kennedy said he was convinced the dispersants would have helped that much, given the calm sea state, “but we were simply out of options, and [spraying] could not have hurt.”
“You can always order more [dispersant] testing before giving permission to spray, and the tests are nearly always inconclusive — you usually can’t tell for certain from the air how well they are working,” said Robinson. And James R. Payne, who wrote the book on the subject, Petroleum Spills in the Marine Environment: The Chemistry and Formation of Water-in-Oil Emulsions and Tarballs, said, “Conditions from what I can tell were perfect for [dispersants], even with the calm sea state. They would have begun working to disperse the oil, and when a sea came up, they would have still been effective.”
Behind all the heated political squabbling over dispersants, there may be some cold legal calculations. Both Exxon and the state of Alaska, which are inevitably headed for court on damages from the spill, are aware of a 1988 federal-court ruling that significantly reduced claims from the 1978 Amoco Cadiz spill of 1.62 million barrels off the coast of France. The judge penalized the French government for restricting the use of dispersants. The French decision, said the judge, “seriously interfered with the success of [cleanup and] seems to have been solely the result of pressure from ecology and nature groups.” Exxon has already charged in Anchorage Superior Court that Alaska hindered its use of dispersants and has asked for unspecified damages. The Exxon suit counters negligence charges filed by the state against the company.
The more one delves into the cleanup of a spill like this, the better prevention looks. But prevention had been eroding for years, the victim of both government’s and industry’s casual attitudes toward Alaska’s environment, which have been exposed by the disaster. The examples that follow are not comprehensive, just a sampler.
In 1972: Alyeska and the U.S. Department of the Interior are struggling to overcome environmental objections to pipeline construction, and a lot of the concern is about the marine leg of the journey the oil will make. They promise state-of-the-art spill prevention, to include double bottoms on the tankers that will call at Valdez, but by 1977, when the pipeline opens, the Coast Guard has caved in to oil-industry resistance to the double-bottom requirement. Ironically, the yard that constructed the Exxon Valdez, National Steel and Shipbuilding, in San Diego, specializes in such construction.
In 1977: The state of Alaska asks Alyeska to have at least twelve miles of boom on hand to fight spills. The company insists that a quarter of this is plenty (approximately ninety miles of boom were brought in to Prince William Sound to try to contain the oil spill).
In 1978: The Coast Guard reduces the distance local pilots must stay with tankers after departing Valdez. No longer will they accompany ships as far as Bligh Reef.
In 1979-80: The state loses a suit with the oil industry over requiring industry to fund three positions to monitor Alyeska’s operations. In the suit the state said it needed five full-time employees to carry out its legally mandated responsibilities. The legislature never funded the additional positions, and since 1980 less than one person’s full time has been assigned to Alyeska.
In 1982: Alyeska gets rid of its only barge approved by the Coast Guard to hold oil from a major spill (5000-barrel capacity). The barge must be taken every two years to Seattle for inspection to retain its approved status. It is replaced by a smaller, 3000-barrel barge that is not Coast Guard-approved for oil-spill recovery. That same year, Alyeska, to save money, disbands its full-time emergency-response team, dedicated to fighting oil spills and keeping equipment ready to respond. The company argues that by cross-training many other workers in oil-spill response, it will actually improve its capability.
In 1984: The Coast Guard’s budget is cut, and its radar staff in Valdez, which monitors tanker traffic in the sound, is reduced from sixty to thirty-six. Its radar is also replaced with a less expensive model. At the time of the Exxon Valdez accident, the operators on duty were occupied with other duties and were not watching the screen, nor were they required to watch it.
In 1986: Exxon persuades the Coast Guard to let it reduce manpower by three persons on the Exxon Valdez. Two years later the Coast Guard admits in a letter to the company that it made a mistake in allowing the reductions, but since the ship has not encountered trouble, permission stands. Since the spill, evidence of mental and physical fatigue among the ship’s crew has emerged as a theme in the NTSB hearings on the crash. Gregory Cousins, the third mate who was in command of the bridge when the ship struck Bligh Reef, had about seven hours of sleep (in snatches of four hours and three hours, several hours apart) in the twenty-four hours before the ship left port. The second mate, also exhausted, should have been on watch when the ship hit the reef, but Cousins had stayed on the bridge to let him get some more rest. “I am quite confident I would not be sitting here talking to you today if that second mate had been on the bridge,” said Joseph LeBeau, an investigator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
In 1988: Alyeska has been trying to get a new barge to hold oil from a spill, but the oil companies that own the pipeline have spent more than a year pondering the costs and seeking the best price. Finally obtained, the barge arrives in Seattle but cannot reach Valdez because of the difficulty of towing it through the Gulf of Alaska in winter.
In 1989: After a major spill in January (1700 barrels in port, because of structural defects in the tanker Thompson Pass), Alyeska tries to expedite delivery of the barge but again must seek financial authorization from its owner companies. The barge does not make it to Valdez until a few days after the Exxon Valdez spill. Meanwhile, the barge that Alyeska is relying on to carry pollution-control equipment to the spill is in dry dock because the company cannot find a marine welder to fix it. Alyeska asks to use its equipment barge to hold oil recovered from the spreading slick but is denied permission because the Coast Guard fears it might be too unstable when loaded. The company has known for more than a year that the barge might not be approved in an emergency, according to Coast Guard officers. Tom Brennan, the Alyeska spokesman, declined to comment on the barge situation.
In 1989: Following the Thompson Pass spill in January, the Anchorage Daily News reports that twenty percent of the fleet engaged in the Alaskan-pipeline service is rated undependable. Another thirty percent of the fleet is rated very high. The Thompson Pass entered port with a suspected crack in her hull, but the Coast Guard and Alyeska decided to load her anyway. The company took the then unusual measure of “prebooming” the ship during loading, which was fortunate, since she proceeded to leak crude oil. Of the eighty tankers that regularly call at Valdez, sixteen earned the lowest rating of the New York-based Tanker Advisory Center, the Daily News reported. Alaskan-pipeline tankers make up only thirteen percent of the American-flag ships of more than 10,000 tons but accounted for fifty-two percent of structural failures between 1984 and 1986. The problem, most maritime experts feel, is simply that the aging pipeline fleet sails some of the roughest waters in the world in the Gulf of Alaska.
In 1989: The New York Times reports that in 1988 the Department of the Interior suppressed warnings by the NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Fish and Wildlife Service that said “current technology cannot effectively clean up a [major] spill.”
Now, one might ask, of many of these events, covering nearly two decades, where was the state of Alaska? The state, after all, had to sign off on Alyeska’s contingency plan. And Dennis Kelso, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, has been talking tough in the national media recently about Big Oil’s shortcomings. The DEC is the state agency responsible for monitoring the oil industry. Early on, Kelso became a minor folk hero around these parts by saying things that went right to the heart of what many Alaskans feel about the spill: “This is not a technical issue, not biological, not financial; this is fundamentally a moral issue. I don’t think Exxon understood that what has changed, regardless of [environmental recovery], is Alaskans’ sense of security, that promises be kept.”
Kelso, a forty-two-year-old lawyer who moved here from Iowa and was a public defender in Inupiaq communities on the North Slope, seems sincere in what he says, as is the man who appointed him almost three years ago, Governor Steve Cowper. But both are lame ducks since the governor decided recently not to run again, and Kelso has been the exception, not the rule, in the history of the DEC.
In contrast to the high and ecologically correct profile he has presented the nation, Kelso’s department is Alaska’s smallest, next to Military and Veterans Affairs. In 1986 his predecessor agreed to Alyeska’s demands that the DEC notify the company of routine inspections and that its inspectors be accompanied at all times by an Alyeska supervisor. This was not actually done, says the DEC now, but it is indicative of the regulatory agency’s traditional toothlessness. “We’re pleased to see [the DEC] standing up and fighting, but it’s not been typical,” said Dave Cline, regional vice-president of the National Audubon Society in Alaska and a longtime resident of the state.
Cline, in testimony April 13th before Congress on the spill, described Alyeska’s owner companies as having “actively lobbied” in the Alaska legislature to cut the budget of the DEC. That view is seconded by Gregg Erickson, Cowper’s economist, and denied by Alyeska. For whatever reason, the DEC remains severely undermanned and underfunded by a legislature that only since the spill has begun to ask hard questions about oil-industry environmental practices.
Dan Lawn knows all about this, having been a DEC representative and Alyeska’s sparring partner in Valdez for a decade (in the last few months he has been moved into another job at the DEC, reviewing oil-spill contingency plans). Lawn grew up in a pretty, forested part of Northern California where there were no jobs except logging, “and then they made most of the place a park. I was for the park, but I needed a job, so I came here as a contractor on the pipeline.” He and a staff of three were responsible for regulating drinking water, air quality, trash, hazardous waste and food-service establishments in a district that stretched through more than 200 miles of coastal Alaska — also responsible for monitoring Alyeska’s terminal, one of the world’s largest such operations. Lawn spent a long time trying unsuccessfully to get two or three additional people just for the terminal.
Around 1983, Alyeska was allegedly told to cut costs by the oil companies that own it — principally BP America (50.01 percent ownership) and Exxon and Arco (twenty percent each). After 1983, Alyeska’s operating and administrative expenses declined sharply. In May 1984, Lawn wrote a memo to his superiors that began: “Over the past several months, there has taken place a general disembowelling of the Alyeska Valdez Marine Terminal operational plan . . . severe personnel cuts . . . plans and routine maintenance have been reduced drastically. “He went on to describe dozens of specific cutbacks, even in items like management’s subscriptions to trade and technical publications. He also alleged that oil-spill-recovery equipment was becoming outdated and concluded: “We can no longer ignore the routine monitoring of Alyeska unless we do not care if a major catastrophic event occurs.”
Through the years, Lawn wrote other memos, criticizing Alyeska’s responses to minor spills, noting cutbacks in operations, asking for help in monitoring tankers calling at the port (it would take a dozen full-time employees to inspect all the tankers, he said). Where did the memos go? “They went into the system,” he said.
“It’s gotten no better since 1984,” said Lawn. “They [Alyeska] wear you down, they always have a reason, always a story why they didn’t fix it yet.” Lawn is not universally popular at Alyeska. Tom Brennan once called him “a kind of a jerk” in a news article (the Alyeska spokesman later apologized for the statement to Lawn). Some employees at the terminal, not particularly company loyalists, say they feel that Dan Lawn has sometimes let his frustrations get the better of him, that he has at times harassed people at the terminal needlessly.
“There are a lot of good, really good people working over there, but we can’t even say hi at the post office without risking them getting in trouble,” said Lawn. “I’ll tell you how it is dealing with [management] there. Once I asked them why they didn’t have more people on a spill. I was told, ‘That’s a negative statement — be positive.’ ‘How?’ I said. ‘Well,’ they said, ‘ask us why did we choose to use the manpower distribution as we did,’ or . . . I don’t know, some shit like that. So I got written off as a jerk, a negative guy, because that’s the way they think over there.
“Now, what I’ve feared for ten years has happened. You talk about negative attitude. If [Alyeska] had a positive attitude, maybe you’d have seen some response to the spill.”
Disasters like this draw reporters from all over, but my eye was struck by the name of Jonathan Wills, which was entered on the sign-in sheet at a press center in Valdez as “Editor, the Shetland Times, Lerwick, Scotland.” As it turned out, the spill was a natural story for him. Near Lerwick, some thirty miles south and 6000 miles east of Valdez, in the Shetland Islands, is Sullom Voe, the giant marine terminal that ships a million barrels a day of North Sea crude.
Wills said I should compare the oil-pollution response and prevention on his side of the world with that in Valdez. He contended that Sullom Voe’s operation, though certainly not perfect, was indeed close to what Alyeska’s at Valdez had always been in word — state-of-the-art, world-class. This is all the more fascinating because the oil company that operates Sullom Voe is BP, whose American division is the majority owner of the pipeline and terminal at Valdez. BP America never responded to questions about Sullom Voe and about how much Alyeska’s decisions are essentially BP’s, but Alyeska’s president at the time of the spill, George M. Nelson, was on loan from BP, as was Ivan Henman, also a key Alyeska executive. Another BP executive, James Hermiller, was appointed last summer to run day-to-day pipeline operations for Alyeska, and since October 1st he has been president. A fourth BP executive, Fred Garibaldi, is currently chairman of the owners’ committee that sets Alyeska’s annual budgets. Another oil company at both terminals is Exxon. It was a huge spill of crude oil eleven years ago by the Esso Bernicia at Sullom Voe that resulted in a revolutionary antipollution package there.
In a telephone interview not long after the March 24th spill, Captain Jim Anderson, deputy director of the Sullom Voe terminal, ran down a checklist, comparing how his terminal stacked up with the one at Valdez: •
- Sullom Voe had random surveillance of tanker traffic by helicopter; Valdez had none. •
- Sullom Voe had a round-the-clock pollution-response team of fifteen members, not including supervisors; Valdez no longer had a dedicated response team. •
- Sullom Voe had booms on reels permanently deployed, ready to unroll to isolate sensitive environmental areas in the region; Valdez did not. •
- Sullom Voe recently sprang a surprise oil-spill exercise on terminal workers, simulating a 35,000-barrel spill. It included bringing in additional skimmers, aircraft and dispersants. Valdez had never attempted a drill remotely that ambitious — or with no prior notification of top supervisors. •
- Pilots at Sullom Voe ride with the ship past the last reef before open sea. At Valdez they do not go that far, even with new, emergency precautions being taken since the spill. •
- Sullom Voe had full radar coverage of all tanker traffic from the first reef encountered on the way to the terminal; Valdez did not come close to that. •
- Four tugs assisted in berthing tankers at Sullom Voe. At Valdez it was usually two, sometimes three.
- All tankers at Sullom Voe were boarded and inspected by qualified marine officers. At Valdez it was less than twenty-five percent.
- Backup assistance for big spills (more than 17,000 barrels) is available to Sullom Voe within twenty-four hours. At Valdez that’s unlikely, based on the recent spill. There has been no major spill since the changes at Sullom Voe. About 2500 barrels total have been spilled there in the last decade in several smaller incidents.
The costs of upgrading pollution controls at Sullom Voe were paid by the oil industry, Anderson said. Another, perhaps less definable difference between his terminal and Valdez, he said, is that the local government controls all marine operations at the terminal, including berthing of ships. Industry controls only the land-based operations.
Ultimately, the difference between oil terminals may come down to something less tangible, call it a positive attitude if you will: “I was a tanker captain for eight years, and I’ve visited lots of ports [though not Valdez], and I’d say the major thing that sets Sullom Voe apart from many oil terminals in the world is not any special regulations but simply unswerving, strict adherence to them,” Anderson said.
Slowly, spring is coming here. In a month they will be saying the place is as lovely as a Swiss Alps poster; a month ago they would have noted it is not that far from Siberia. These are the best of times and the worst of times for Valdez (pronounced Val-DEEZ), the little town that recovered from the devastation of the 1964 Alaska earthquake to win an All-American City award twice. Exxon is hiring literally thousands of employees for what promises to be a summer-long attack on the oil that by now has gummed more than 350 miles of shoreline out in the sound. Every restaurant, motel, bed and breakfast, and tourist shop is jampacked. Money hasn’t flowed here like this since pipeline-construction days, but the influx of reporters and photographers and oil workers has also bloated the population to several times its normal level. Squatter camps of people hoping to be hired have sprung up on gravel parking lots.
The sounds of float planes and helicopters ricochet constantly off the mountains that surround the town. Rent-a-car offices warn sternly against tracking oil in their cars. Banks, restaurants and filling stations sport help-wanted notices as employees quit to vie for the $16.69 an hour Exxon is paying for cleanup workers (and that’s twelve-hour shifts, seven-day weeks, with time and a half overtime). Volunteer bird-and otter-rescue workers are organizing the First Bligh Reef 5K Run in an effort to avoid burnout. It may not get much local coverage because the editor of the Valdez Vanguard has quit to join the cleanup effort. A local fish dealer says he won’t be able to make it this year even if the salmon run this May is not closed by the spill, because he can’t compete with Exxon for workers. Local fishermen, their herring season closed due to oil, are hiring out their boats to Exxon for $5000 a day for a fifty-footer, $3000 for a thirty-footer, $800 for a skiff — “hush money,” say some, “blood money,” say those very few who refuse to take it. Damn good money, say most.
Valdezians have painfully mixed feelings about the oil industry these days. Their little town has an astronomical property tax base of $1.314 billion, of which Alyeska’s marine terminal and pipeline account for ninety-four percent. It affords broad, well-maintained streets; a modem teen center, civic center and senior center; a fine library and museum; a town swimming pool; a paid fire department — in all there are eighty-nine full-time public employees for the town’s 3000 residents.
“We have a thousand more people than Cordova [the fishing port that is the other major town on Prince William Sound] and a budget that is ten times theirs,” said Tom Gilson, the city treasurer. “In Valdez there isn’t voluntarism, isn’t much working with your neighbors. You work a week [of twelve-hour shifts] at Alyeska, you want your next week off. People in Valdez demand a lot of services and can afford to pay for them, and you won’t find the cooperation you find in other small Alaskan communities until the last drop of oil flows through the pipeline.
“Who’s to say we won’t be better off then,” said Gilson, whose grandfather came to Valdez in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake. “Largely, the pipeline has been a blessing. I’m ambivalent about it, but I grew up in this town, and after I left school, I wanted to come back very badly, and I don’t know, without all the pipeline development, whether I’d be living here right now.”
Gilson talked about the town’s anger and shock at the spill, then said, “In a way, it almost seems like we’re not hurting enough. This is an economic boom like we haven’t seen for a long time.”
A month after its vessel cracked up on the rocks, Exxon is still taking a lambasting daily in the press — from the Coast Guard, from the state, from congressmen passing through — for what seems a botched and stalled cleanup effort. Debates rage over whether to flush the beaches with cold water or hot water — or whether to steam-clean them. Meanwhile, every day the Glacier Queen II, a tourist boat, sails from Valdez at 6:00 a.m., loaded with beach cleaners. It takes them four hours to reach the nearest devastated beach and four hours to get back. The four hours in between they spend, slipping and sliding over the gravel and cobble, wiping individual rocks with paper towels and stuffing the soiled tissues into big trash bags.
Exxon’s public-affairs people often seem whipped and don’t even bother to respond to the many allegations of Exxon incompetence that routinely circulate. If you believed them all, you would wonder how the company could run a filling station, let alone a giant multinational business. If you talk to the oil-spill experts, both those hired by Exxon and the state and those from the NOAA, you get a different picture. The situation here, they will tell you, is chaotic, frustrating, controversial — and just about what you get in every big oil spill they have seen. These veterans all agree that, months from now, when all the shouting is done, Exxon will likely have recovered something like ten or fifteen percent of the 11 million gallons it spilled. That is the depressing but standard recovery seen in most big spills of this nature. Twenty-five percent would be tops, the experts say. The contingency plan Alyeska is so proud of promised fifty percent. Alyeska’s president, in a memo to his employees, has offered this advice for trying times, which he said he got from a well-wisher: “Take two aspirin and try to get some sleep.” A locally popular T-shirt, picturing an otter with a tear trickling down its furry cheek, has some better advice: ONE OUNCE OF PREVENTION IS WORTH 11 MILLION GALLONS OF OIL.
Exxon does get high marks for something. It got here fast with virtually unlimited financial resources, and it did not quibble about writing checks in an effort to get the cleanup going. Ironically, the huge corporation’s almost unimaginable wealth has created something of a backlash. People here who have read how even a $1 billion cleanup bill will scarcely dent Exxon’s balance sheet feel that somehow it should be harder for the company. Exxon should hurt more, realize more deeply that money can’t solve all the problems the spill has created. Several fishermen told me of the elderly native woman who gave a bouquet of flowers to Frank Iarossi, Exxon’s shipping-division president, at a hearing on the spill held in the native village of Tatitlek near here. He later remarked, so the story goes, how deeply he appreciated that show of support at a difficult time, never realizing that the woman’s gesture meant she hoped to see him at his funeral. “Exxon can only conceive of saying to people, ‘Show us what you’ve lost and we’ll pay you,'” said Mike Lewis, media director for the Prince William Sound Community College and a member of the environmental group Earth First! “The people in Tatitlek are being forced from the subsistence into the money economy with Exxon largess, and some may never go back.”
Time and again, when I have gotten numb trying to sort claim from counterclaim about responsibility for the spill and its cleanup, I go visit the animals, the birds and otters, oiled by the spill, brought from all over the sound to rehab centers hastily erected here. They are the only true innocents in this whole, sad business. They are not consumers of petrochemical products, nor sellers of salmon. They are neither regulators nor environmentalists, are not in any way responsible for what happened. They just are, and now many of them aren’t anymore.
Over at the bird center, auburn ponytail flipping as she moves swiftly about business, Jessica Porter is tubing a murre. Each of the several dozen birds recovering in the converted classrooms of the Prince William Sound Community College gets tube-fed three times a day. Murres, pretty, little waterfowl that appear to fly underwater when diving for food, took a heavy hit from the oil. Hundreds will be recovered, thousands likely died and were not recovered, says Porter, one of the veterinarians here. (The total estimate of birds killed by oil will eventually go over 100,000.) Another murre, which arrived several hours ago looking like a sullen tar ball, has been resuscitated and cleaned with a one-percent solution of Dawn in warm water. Dawn, says Porter, after years of experimentation, is still the only product that cuts the grease and is still gentle. “We get lots of ambulance-chasers at these spills, trying to sell us all sorts of products, but nothing beats Dawn,” she says.
Soaping the murre has taken two volunteers working with toothbrushes and Water Piks nearly an hour and fifteen tubs of soapy water. Next comes another session of forty minutes, rinsing the murre with high-pressure hoses until, improbably, its feathers become dry. “It sounds crazy,” explains Porter, “but what the oil does is disrupt the integrity of the feathers, which form a protective basket around the bird, trapping air. As the oil is removed, the feathers actually become so dry you can blow in them as you rinse.” The murre, pinioned by beak and wing and one webbed foot, is pissed but fluffing nicely now under the water jets. “Hang on, murre, hang on!” says Jim Noland, one of the washers, but no, “back off, he’s had it for the day . . . See his eyelids coming over his eyes, his heartbeat’s up, too.” They will try again tomorrow with the murre. The birds coming in now, says Porter, are goopier but healthier than in the early days of the spill, as the more toxic elements of the crude, the light ends, like toluene and xylene, evaporate, leaving the heavier asphaltenes, waxes and paraffins.
Porter, raised at Tenth Avenue and Fifty-second Street in New York City, worked her first spill in 1964, in the marshes of East Anglia, at age fifteen. “It was horrible — we were using acetone, a solvent, for God’s sake,” she says. “It cut the oil, but the inhalation was toxic to both the birds and the rescuers.” Nowadays she rehabs hummingbirds, otters, foxes, raccoons, muskrats, deer, elephant seals and other wildlife at her Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. “It doesn’t pay like doctoring poodles in Honolulu, but it’s a living,” she says.
Bird rescue, says Porter, has always been the orphan of oil-spill cleanup, “getting the most PR and the least money. Originally, it was unscientific, and it got this image of little old ladies whose kids left them with an overabundance of maternal instinct and lots of spare time. But the people running it these days are professional zoologists, biologists, vets. Wildlife rehabilitating is becoming a science.” Her employer here, the International Bird Rescue and Research Center (IBRRC), was contacted by Alyeska, for which Alice Berkner, the founder of the IBRRC, did training sessions two years ago. “What Alice has done is standardize techniques for cleaning birds and making sure they are ready for release that can be applied anywhere in the world,” says Porter.
I asked Porter how she justified the cost, estimated at more than a quarter million dollars to date, of paying boats to range the huge sound, chasing down a few hundred birds, many of whom will die, all of whom together, whether they live or die, will not affect the ecological balance of the region. Her answer was good enough to serve for all future spills: “Because they are citizens of this planet, too, and we are responsible for them . . . their right to do what they do in a healthy, clean, free environment. I think more people are recognizing these spills as a crime against creatures with no redress in Congress or the courts. This is just taking responsibility for what we did, all of us who drive cars and use plastic cups.”
In the background as we talked, a volunteer was busy converting shot glasses to cc’s. She figured it would help fishermen who were picking up the birds under contract to Exxon calculate how much fluid was needed to hydrate the victims on the way into the center. Another volunteer supervised a day-care center for the children of rescue workers. The bird rescue center, for all its makeshift surroundings, smacked of organization, training and single-minded devotion to its purpose rarely seen in other sectors of the spill response.
“IBRRC was called two or three hours after the spill,” said Porter. “I was contacted at 6:30 a.m. Friday [March 24th] and given half an hour to catch a plane. Four of us were in Valdez setting up operations on Saturday morning. I think we need the same kind of SWAT-team type of response to the spills themselves.”
Perhaps it would work. But why is it I can just see Alyeska and Exxon, if they ran the bird operation, rejecting volunteers just as they rejected help from fishermen on the spill; citing the danger of bird bites, risks of infection, corporate liability, inadequacy of housing? . . . What I think is really the secret of the bird people’s getting up here and bending to work so wholeheartedly is not just organization, or experience — it is because they care so damn much.
From the bird rescue center, it’s a short walk between dirty, bulldozed banks of old snow to the old Growden-Harrison Elementary School, which more resembles a keening, squalling MASH unit these days. It is home to some seventy or eighty otters just now, in all stages of recovery and disintegration from the dark kiss of the Exxon Valdez. Early on, things were a lot worse, says Terrie Williams, a marine-mammal expert up here from the Sea World Research Institute, in San Diego. One large otter came in, bleeding and duct-taped from head to toe because the fishermen who found it had nothing to restrain it with. It died soon after. The rescuers knew that oil would disrupt the otters’ insulating fur, and the mammals, which have no insulating layer of subcutaneous fat, as do seals, would die in the icy water that is otherwise their natural home.
But that didn’t prepare them, say workers, for what they got — otters rattling and gasping, contorting, foaming at the mouth, excreting blood. Autopsies revealed that the real damage often was internal — livers that crumbled to the touch, lungs blown like broccoli, immune systems defused, all from those light ends, the toxics coming off the crude in the initial days of the spill. The otters inhaled the fumes, absorbed them through their skin. The pain they suffered, says a vet, “must have been indescribable.”
“We know a lot more now than we did about the logistics of trying to save animals in a big spill,” says Terrie Williams. “We know now it’s a nightmare.”
Things at this point are more settled. There have been no deaths for days among the inmates, which are housed in pens under the score clock and backboards of the gym. A sign on the wall reads: ALL SIX OTTERS THAT WENT TOCOMA ARE DOING FINE. . . . THEY HAD A GOOD TRIP AND ARE ALL EATING. YEA! Many of the otters have been named — Fat Albert, Ollie, Otteri, Garfield, Odie, Kimmer; one, fur slicked heavily with crude, has been dubbed John Tower. Exxon has given the recovery center here “a blank check,” say the vets.
“The critical thing,” says Williams, “is to get them grooming their fur again to get the air layer back into it, get their natural oils flowing. If they don’t groom, they die of exposure.” As of late April the center has handled about 140 otters, of which about half have died or been euthanized. Long-term survival is still questionable for many of the living. Estimates of otter deaths in the sound are running as high as 6400 — perhaps half of the local population. Some commercial fishermen in Cordova, when they first heard of the otters’ plight in a meeting with Exxon, stood and applauded. They are convinced that the expanding otter population (otters are federally protected from hunting or trapping) is adversely affecting their catch. Others recognize that nothing, including their own endangered livelihoods, has so mobilized public sentiment about the tragic nature of the spill as the travail of oiled otters on the world’s television screens. The crush of media at the recovery center in the early days of the spill probably killed some otters or hastened their demise, workers here acknowledge.
The last otter I saw in Valdez was a pregnant female that had come in days earlier with corneas scarred shut from the fumes. She had been moved to an outdoor cage, a good sign, but now she has just aborted her pup. The female lies listlessly on the floor of the plywood and wire cage, as another otter licks and grooms about her sightless eyes and — there is no other word for it — cuddles her. I know the journalistic pitfalls of the Bambi syndrome, of attributing human emotions to dumb animals, but I also know that the great ethologist Konrad Lorenz, after a lifetime of scientific study of animal behavior, felt strongly that “in terms of emotions, animals are much more akin to us than is generally assumed.” I haven’t the least trouble believing that.
I think it would be fitting to invite some of the executives of Alyeska and its owner companies, and maybe a few tanker captains who haven’t yet got as careless as Joe Hazelwood — invite them to spend some time as volunteer otter handlers. The men who can ram one of the world’s biggest pipelines across untrammeled Alaska and navigate superships through the planet’s stormiest ocean then could try something really challenging, like putting the natural oil back in a wild creature’s fur, or figuring out what to do with a blinded otter.
Exxon just keeps asking for punishment, pumping out press releases daily that start like this: “Exxon is ahead of schedule on the shoreline cleanup” (April 24th); or “Deployment of shoreline crews to clean Prince William Sound is proceeding more rapidly than planned” (April 26th); or “Exxon’s shoreline clean up operations are accelerating” (April 23rd). Some days, it seems, it might be better not to write anything.
Take the day that one Thomas Copeland, a fishing captain out of Cordova, rolled into Valdez Harbor aboard his seiner, the Janice N., with 1500 gallons of crude oil aboard. Copeland is eating Italian carryout, standing over a fish tote containing about fifty gallons of oil, entertaining the local press with his opinions on things like Exxon’s beach-cleanup crews, which he describes as a “buncha piss-tested rock wipers” (Exxon contracts carry a no-drug-use clause).
Say this about Copeland, he does not discriminate. Of some of his fishing colleagues in Cordova that I am headed down to interview, he says, “Hell, only the pissers and moaners and welfare cheats are left down there. If you got any balls, or self-respect, you’re out there on the spill.” No one, least of all Exxon, he says, “really wants to attack that oil, to get it back up.”
Copeland seems to speak with some authority. The next day the Anchorage papers will report that Exxon, with forty-seven skimmer vessels spread around the sound, captured only about thirty percent more oil that day than the Janice N. And how did Copeland do it? He did it with Denny and Christine, two crew members who sat on the stern and dipped the oil up with scoops and five-gallon buckets as the captain backed into tide rips and coves where currents had piled up the crude into thick ridges — “like digging into calves’ liver,” says Christine.
Copeland paints a picture, generally corroborated by people who have been out to the spill, of skimmers that don’t skim, of those that do waiting all day for a barge to unload their recovered oil, of pumps that burn up trying to pump up the thick crude and of high-tech cleanup vessels that simply cannot work if there are waves on the sound. Even a mammoth 425-foot skimmer sent by the Soviet Union finally went home in defeat after the oil became so thickened and mixed with seaweed it choked the big Russian’s pumps. The oil Copeland scooped up he sold for five dollars a gallon to Exxon, he says. He recalled that early on in the spill, Exxon rejected suggestions from fishermen that the company simply put a bounty on the spilled oil and let everyone with a boat and a will have at it.
Copeland has come in from the spill only to try and upgrade his operation by mounting a huge septic-tank truck on another vessel to suck the oil he corrals into a 112,000-gallon agricultural silage bag. When that deal falls through, the Janice N. sets off into the sound in a hard, cold rain, with dark coming on, buckets piled high on her afterdeck.
Ever since that encounter, the thought of Tom Copeland has made me think of the Alyeska executive who explained why the company’s initial response to the spill took so many hours in coming. I remember his saying, yes, in the middle of North America’s biggest oil spill they did send the night-shift workers home when their time was up, “because it’s not our policy to burn people out.” Probably, when you are running a big company, that makes sense; possibly, it didn’t make much difference when Alyeska was responding to a spill that massive. But you have got to wonder how it would have gone that night if you had had Tom Copeland in charge.
The Battle of Sawmill Bay
From a De Havilland otter floatplane, high over the sparkling waters of Prince William Sound, the beaches are gray-black as far as the eye can see. They always have been. It is the natural color of the glacial rock, and from a distance it is sometimes difficult to tell the hundreds of miles of oiled shoreline from the thousands of miles that are still pristine. The sound today is majestic, a royal canvas for the morning light that daubs the snow peaks, silvers the dozens of waterfalls that slice down rock and evergreen slopes to feed the translucent blue-green waters of the fiords. The scale here is one of geologic immensity, a land where the biggest living things are glaciers, growling and booming in retreat from an ice age that ended for the rest of the earth millennia ago. As we pass Bligh Reef, the water is freaked with small icebergs, calved from the Columbia Glacier to our right. One is an odd little zebra, its bluish white ice striped with crude.
South of the Exxon Valdez, which has been towed to Naked Island and moored for hull repairs, we begin to pick up sheens of oil. Not a boom or a skimmer is in sight. Just beneath the surface, I spot what looks like a sizable pool of dark crude oil or perhaps a reef; but no, says the pilot, that is a mammoth shoal of “ghostfish,” herring just now entering the sound to spawn. The herring season has already been closed because of fears oil would contaminate the catch. We bank low over a shoreline where the herring are spawning in the sunny, gravelbottomed shallows, discharging roe and milt, turning the water milky for hundreds of yards with the procreative fury of spring. The same scene is repeated on the next island south, but here a rainbow sheen of crude oil swirls with the creamy herring spawn in the lemony-green waters of the near shore. It is an unholy brew, as lovely a picture of life meeting death as ever I hope to see.
We are hitting serious oil now, still moving through the sound, tarring shorelines after all these weeks. It is these edges you worry about, more than the open water. So many of the fish, especially in the earlier, more vulnerable stages of life, prefer to hug the shore’s edge for its calm water and protection; similarly, a great deal of the bird life is concentrated on the land-water intersection, nesting and feeding there. Even the wide-ranging open-water species, like seals and sea lions, must come to the edge of land soon to have their pups. Land dwellers like the edge, too. Exxon back in Valdez has large charts of the sound detailing “areas of intensive Black and Brown bear use of the shoreline,” one of the many factors in this wilderness that makes cleanup difficult. There is no thought, with hungry bruins waking after a long winter, of encamping workers on the beaches overnight.
The shoreline cleanup operations I can see after two hours aloft appear so insignificant against the wide compass of the sound, like sticking straws into a lake to try and suck it up. David Kennedy of the NOAA has cautioned me that for all the beating Exxon is taking on its slow-paced cleanup, there are worse things than not immediately trying to clean every mile of shoreline.
“The problem is, you really need to wait until all the oil has moved through an area before you try to clean the beaches,” said David Kennedy. “It’s going to be an eyesore — it can gunk up birds or marine animals — but you will do much more damage if you send crews out there six or seven times to clean it every time more oil hits. For example, Exxon had one cleanup demonstration with thirty to forty cleanup workers and about fifty press, and they all tracked through the oil and worked it way down in those sediments to where no one will ever get it out now. In the Amoco Cadiz spill they did more damage to the marshes they cleaned than to the ones they left. There are exceptions, such as where you’ve got rookeries, herring spawning and marine mammals pupping, or where the oil is pooled so deeply it keeps reentering the water on every high tide. But for the most part, once you’ve nailed a beach, it’s nailed, and rushing out there isn’t going to do much.”
This is doubtless sound advice, just as it’s true that for every mile of beach that is oil-stained, there are many, many miles that aren’t. It’s not that the statistics lie. They just don’t correspond to what you feel. Seeing an oil slick floating among these grand canyons of balsam-smelling forests and clear waters is a bit like a guest’s coming up and telling you he has just crapped in your swimming pool, but don’t worry, because the fecal matter floating out there only covers one-tenth of one percent of the water surface.
More than an hour by air out of Valdez, eight hours from anywhere by boat, we set down in one of the loveliest alpine scenes on earth — the Rocky Mountains with Lake Geneva dropped into the heart of them. It is Sawmill Bay, the sole province of about sixty people, mostly Aleuts, who live in the village of New Chenega, and about a hundred million salmon. If there is a single pocket of Prince William Sound where the oil could destroy things that are nearly irreplaceable, it is here.
The Chenegans say their people have endured for thousands of years in these parts, hunting, fishing, living off the land then as now. But perhaps never have they been tested so sorely as in the last quarter century. The Good Friday oil spill that now threatens their subsistence lifestyle came twenty-five years to the day after the massive earthquake of 1964, which rearranged thousands of square miles of Alaska as easily as one might rumple a bedsheet, destroying their old village fifteen miles north of here. Twenty-three of the sixty-eight closely related inhabitants of old Chenega were swept away by the tidal wave from the quake.
“It’s so sad to see this, because the trauma of ’64 has never really left the people — you grieve a long time for loved ones whose bodies never were found,” says Gail Evanoff, whose husband’s parents were among the missing. She remembers living afterward in Cordova, one of the places to which the surviving Chenegans scattered: “Larry and I would listen to the elders talk, hear the sadness at the loss of community, of the culture disintegrating . . . the longing to go home.”
Other communities around the sound, like Valdez, she recalls, got quick and generous assistance to rebuild, while Chenega got nothing. The long process of founding New Chenega would probably not have begun without the pipeline. Frantic to begin construction of the pipeline in the early Seventies, Alaska finally acceded to federal demands that it first settle native land claims throughout the state. More than 40 million acres were turned over to Aleuts and other native peoples. After years more of lobbying dozens of government agencies, a site on Evans Island was chosen for New Chenega, on land owned by the native Chugach Alaska Corporation. Houses, diesel generators for electric power, gravel streets and even street lights were erected in the wilderness. The resettled community was just entering its third phase, developing a fisheries industry, when the spill threatened.
Now it is the uncertainty that is so hard to bear, say Frank Gurske and his wife, Sue, as we talk in their home. From the window of their modest modular house is a view of blue water and snow peaks that would bring millions at Vail or Aspen. “We pretty much rely on halibut, deer, sea mammals, black bear and salmon for our food supply . . . now the state Division of Subsistence has advised us not to hunt, not to fish,” says Frank “That puts the pressure on, you know? Can’t hunt, can’t trap, can’t fish . . . I feel like we’re done for. Hey, you know what one of the worst things is . . . kids, they run so free here, and now they can’t even play down by the beaches [lest oil wash ashore]. Mine are getting real bored, fast.”
Exxon’s financial response — the part it has seemed best at throughout the spill — has reached even New Chenega. Here and in Tatitlek, the other native settlement on the sound, every adult has been put on beach-cleanup wages — $16.69 an hour, even though few of the natives have actually been called by the company to do any work. Every week or two an Exxon supply ship arrives bearing yogurt, Granny Smith apples, several varieties of bread, an assortment of meat and poultry, canned goods. “Those Granny Smiths are good eating, but you’ve got to feel like Exxon’s buttering us up,” says a neighbor of Frank Gurske’s.
Exxon will even pay for mental-health counseling, says John Totemoff, the fifty-nine-year-old president of the village council, “but people here thought they’d rather have a priest come instead.” Alaska’s Aleuts, who often intermarried with their Russian colonizers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are predominantly members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This morning much of the village is on its way down to the little wooden church, set near a rushing brook. “Lord, deliver these thy servants from calamities and destruction . . . .” Father Simeon Oskoloff, a Russian Orthodox archpriest flown down from Anchorage, swings his brass censer vigorously, spreading the sweet odor of incense through the building, chanting, singsong, now in Russian, now in English. Sun slides off the hemlocks, glints from the higher slopes, filters through the windows of the airy, whitewashed structure. Outside the door a child pees off the back steps. On the bay salmon boats pull oil-containment booms back and forth as the priest inveighs against the spill, sprinkling the congregation with “a special holy oil that was brought from a monastery in Russia.” Holy oil thrown against Exxon oil. It seems at least worth a try. “They are pretty adamant about staying here,” says Oskoloff after the service. “They have just come home after a long time away.”
From the air, this is Boom Town, U.S.A. The spill response has produced its own art, a kind of calligraphy of oil cleanup, “boom art,” if you will. We have sorbent boom, harbor boom and sea boom; ocean boom and Goodyear boom and Norwegian boom; solid boom and inflatable boom and homemade boom — the last made of spruce logs chained together. There is orange and gold boom, ivory boom, black and red and gray boom. Boom encircles little islands, like a work by Christo; boom necklaces the mouths of coves and inlets and collects like plates of Technicolor spaghetti where eddies have formed.
The reason for all the boom, which acts as a floating fence, with “skirts” that extend below the surface to trap oil, is found at the head of the bay, across from New Chenega. There, in a series of green-roofed buildings reminiscent of a Bavarian chalet, is one of the largest salmon hatcheries in the world, the Alaska fishermen’s equivalent of Alyeska’s pipeline. Since last fall, 126 million baby pink salmon have been incubating in endless corridors of stacked stainless-steel trays, designed to simulate the gravel-bottomed streams of their natural habitat. Now, just as oil is poking tentative fingers into the mouth of the bay here, the inchlong salmon fry are at the stage that they must be released into outdoor holding pens; within days, when the plankton they feed on begin to bloom in Prince William Sound, the salmon must be set on their two-year journey through the Pacific Ocean. How the survivors (about 7 million fat, three-and-a-half-pound fish) find their way thousands of miles out and back to this precise spot is a secret held in the little stream, no wider than a roadside drainage ditch, that splashes into the bay almost unnoticed beside the impressive structure of the hatchery.
A classic experiment done years ago captured spawning salmon as they returned to their home stream and hooked them to an electroencephalograph. Their brains were almost shut down, all bodily functions bent on procreating, except for the brain centers that controlled the sense of smell. When water from the home stream was passed through the captive salmon’s tank, their olfactory bulbs began firing madly, sending spikes leaping across the recording paper of the brain-wave machine. The natal water was diluted by half with distilled water, and again the same response. It did not disappear until the diluted water had again been diluted by half, and so on, for the tenth time.
All our science cannot explain this. “We think each home stream acquires from the soils and plant communities of its drainage basin and in its bed a unique organic quality which young salmon learn in the first few weeks of life,” writes Arthur D. Hasler in Underwater Guideposts, an examination of how salmon home. Marcel Proust, who was not writing about salmon, nonetheless captured the phenomenon exquisitely in Remembrance of Things Past: “The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment . . . and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
Or as Armin Koernig put it: “The salmon is an animal destined to be ranched.” Koernig — an emigrant from Germany who “believed all those get-rich fishing stories” and moved to Prince William Sound in 1963 — pioneered the concept of culturing salmon here, letting them range the oceans and grow fat, then harvesting them when they unerringly returned to their birthplace years later. Natural salmon reproduction in the sound was historically world-class, but after the 1964 earthquake rearranged the topography, effectively lowering water levels in many spawning streams, there were more bad years and fewer good years for the wild salmon returns, say fishermen. Combined with overfishing and poor fisheries management, this resulted in closed fishing seasons in 1972 and 1974. About this time the fishermen had just lost their battle to stop the oil pipeline from coming to Valdez, along with the marine terminal and the tanker traffic through their fishing grounds. “Either we did something about our future or we went to work for the oil companies,” said Koernig.
As it has inevitably turned out with so many aspects of Alaska’s development in the pipeline era, “the key to starting up the hatcheries was the oil revenues that began flowing to the state,” said Koernig. With the newly anticipated oil money, the state formed a division of fish production and floated loans of about $9 million for development and start up of the hatchery. Later a second, even larger hatchery was added at Esther, on another part of the sound. In the last few years revenues from the five percent or so of released salmon that make it back from the ocean have totaled more than $40 million for the two hatcheries, which each have annual operating costs of around a million dollars a year. Salmon fishing in the sound now depends at least as much on hatchery fish as on the natural returns to thousands of streams and other spawning areas. No one is sure how much expansion is possible from the current releases of more than half a billion fry; it depends on the ultimate carrying capacity of the “ranch” — a sizable portion of the North Pacific. Some scientists think releases of a billion are easily possible, and 2 billion fry are not inconceivable.
“And this is a renewable resource, a system that is designed to go on and on, long after the oil has dried up and the pipeline pumped its last — if we just keep the system healthy,” said Koernig. And while nothing produces instant revenue like oil, he and others note that frequently the price of the most desirable varieties of salmon, like sockeyes, or “reds,” has substantially exceeded the value of a barrel of crude by several dollars apiece ($21 to $12 in 1988). And if Alyeska is producing an eighth of our nation’s oil, “well, Prince William Sound this year probably will produce a pound of top-quality seafood for every American,” said Koernig. There are pitfalls in salmon aquaculture — disease and genetic problems associated with inbreeding — but the Alaskan system so far has avoided these. To the extent Alaska can recoup its sullied dreams of a wild environment coexisting with a booming economy, of having its cake and eating it too, perhaps it is with the salmon that that hope leaps highest.
On Sawmill Bay, Eric Prestegard has had scant time for such philosophizing in recent weeks. He manages the big hatchery for “Pizwak,” the nonprofit Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation that operates the hatcheries for the benefit of the sound’s fishermen. Only on this day, more than a month after the spill, is he directing the booming of the bay with several thousand feet of mammoth Norwegian sea boom that just arrived on special order, along with its own Norwegian to advise on its deplovment. The boom is superior to virtually anything obtainable in the United States for protecting the bay in rough weamer. In one of the thousands of little glitches that plagued the spill effort, Exxon spent several days trying to call the Norwegian supplier but didn’t know it had moved half a block and changed its telephone and fax numbers. Incidents like that have been the norm, rather than the exception, said Prestegard, in what came to be termed the Battle of Sawmill Bay. Had it not been for rapid action by the fishing community, he and many other observers of the spill feel, the big hatchery would have been disastrously oiled before Alyeska or Exxon reacted. Perhaps, had they survived, the young salmon would have been imprinted with the smell of Alaskan crude oil and spent their lives following a supertanker around, went one local joke.
“We already had a half million fry in the water [in holding pens] when we got the call the oil was coming our way,” said Prestegard. “Five days later we still were in a state of chaos here, getting some boom dropped from helicopters, but often not the right kinds, or not enough to do any good. The [oil industry] kept going on the media saying, ‘Boom is deployed.’ . . . Well, there’s a big difference between dropping boom all over the sound and actually getting the right boom, getting it anchored so it won’t break loose, getting the type that will withstand waves . . . it was just chaos.”
In Cordova the morning of the spill, recalled Paula Lamb, she thought “someone had died,” from her husband’s tone of voice on the telephone at seven o’clock. “Then I heard him converting barrels to gallons,” she said. “That was the most helpless time of all, those first few days, for all the fishermen. They are men who make decisions — not always the right ones, but they don’t sit around. They were saying, ‘Give us something to do,’ and we could have had fifty boats out there that morning, and Alyeska never even returned our telephone calls or said, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ and this went on for nearly three days.”
On Monday, Paula’s husband, Jack Lamb, a vice-president of the Cordova District Fishermen United, made some calculations about how the tides and currents would distribute the slick. “And a guy with the state DEC said, ‘Hey, you are the first people we’ve talked to that know anything about Prince William Sound,’ ” said David Grimes, a herring fisherman out of Cordova. Monday night, Grimes continued, the state managed to get him, Lamb and a few other Cordova fishermen into a top-level planning meeting with the Coast Guard and Exxon. “I felt immediately there was an incredible amount of energy going into trying to look good — a power struggle between the state, which wanted any action, and Exxon and the Coast Guard, both very worried about the propaganda ramifications of whatever they did,” said Grimes.
The fishermen showed the assembled officials where the oil would be carried by the currents and pressed the critical need to boom the hatcheries. “We really felt [Frank] Iarossi [Exxon’s top man on the scene then] perked up, like he was getting some information he could use for the first time,” said Grimes. Iarossi, according to state officials, immediately gave the fishermen a virtual blank check to procure boom and other supplies, reportedly writing on his business card that Exxon was good for a million dollars and more if needed. “Iarossi could make decisions, and I really think he was trying to do his best, but he seemed under the handicap of a terrible bureaucracy,” recalled Grimes.
On Monday night the fishermen and state officials, racking their brains about how to save Sawmill Bay from oil, hit on the scheme of importing the “supersuckers,” the giant vacuum cleaners made specially for the quick recovery of oil spills on the North Slope drilling grounds. Exxon agreed and brought them down the 800-mile service road built for the pipeline.
“Exxon said they did everything the fishermen asked them to do,” said Jack Lamb. “The real problem is that’s all they did. . . . We are fishermen, not oil-spill-recovery experts. Exxon never took the initiative, and as for Alyeska, they simply faded from sight — I hold them totally responsible.” Unwittingly echoing the old Alyeska motto of pipeline-construction days, David Grimes said, “One of our advantages. I think, was that we didn’t have anyone telling us we couldn’t do something. . . . Exxon always wanted to know ‘who authorized that . . . .'”
To Paula Lamb, there was another tragedy that was part of the mess Exxon had made of her sound: “People in Cordova are pretty patriotic, and I shudder to think what the world media is going to do to the U.S. We criticize the Russians on the quake they had in Armenia, and now look at us, the richest capitalist country in the world, and we didn’t reinvest enough profits to protect an environment like this. It breaks my heart. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but we’re all out of control in this country. We have to give up some of the largess from oil to bring the Exxons and Alyeskas into control.”
Back at the hatchery, Eric Prestegard was unwinding a bit after nearly a month of solid eighteen-to-nineteen-hour days and reflecting on the future of his hatchery. Within days he would release the millions of fry, for good or ill, on their two-year journey. “My fear is, with the oil on the beaches, that the fry always hug the edges of the sound for several weeks until they head to sea,” he said. Once he releases them, like a shepherd still tending to his flock, he always canoes along the beautiful indented fringes of nearby Knight Island, watching the little silver and black salmon fin along its shallows, feeding and resting. “It’s so beautiful, my favorite place in the world — at sunrise and sunset there’s a thousand little bays and inlets catching the light,” he said. “But that slick came down both sides of Knight Island, and it’s gone.”
Cordova: “Our Way of Life Is Threatened and Nobody Seems to Give a Damn”
Somewhere in the forty miles of Alaskan coast that separates Valdez from Cordova there is an undefined but palpable break point, where the thirty feet of snow a year in the former turns into the 200 inches of rain a year in the latter; where the stark grandeur of the landscape untenses a bit, the mountains are gentled in their plunge to the sea by alpine meadows and bogs that, come summer, will blaze forth wildflowers. In the waters, loons glide, orcas lunge and roll, and blithe otters float on their backs, peering curiously at our passage down a coastline cloaked in hyperborean rain forests. Through the mists, it seems like we are rediscovering America, but it is only the regular ferry run from Valdez to Cordova.
Valdez, with its postquake grids of neatly planned, treeless streets and modular housing, hints of artificiality, of all-plopped-down-at-once: stores over here, houses there, public buildings in this sector. Cordova, rambling up the ledgy slopes of Mount Eyak, is organic; Laura’s Liquors is next to the Faith Lutheran Church, which is next to a restaurant, and so on. From every alley and back yard and garage peek fishing boats, and piled around are enough seine and gill nets to enmesh the earth. The town, with many buildings left over from the copper-mining days of the 1920s, has a ramshackle appearance, but its boat harbor is strictly top-of-the-line, from the well-maintained breakwaters and floating docks to the modern Fiberglas and aluminum boats with jet drives, big Caterpillar diesels and state-of-the-art electronics for navigation and fish finding. In the summers, when fishing and the canneries are at full blast, the population swells from 2000 to 6000.
Cordova and Cordovans run on energies that are more natural, pulsier, peakier than the piped oil that is Valdez’s lifeblood. Life here is tied to the caprice of herring and salmon and halibut, of dungeness, tanner and Alaskan king crabs. Fishing season for a given species may open on a few hours’ notice, then may be over within a few hours more at the whim of the state biologists who determine how many fish can be harvested and still maintain a healthy, long-term population. One hang of the net on a bottom obstruction at a critical time, or an engine that falters untimely, may be the difference between fortune and failure. For two weeks in Valdez, I heard few people speak of “adventure” and “excitement.” In Cordova, I almost never heard anyone not mention those as a reason for being there.
There is fierce competition on the water here but camaraderie on the land, lots of neighborly potluck suppers, an island sense of community — the town’s fishermen have so far resisted business and tourism interests’ attempts to connect Cordova with the rest of Alaska by road. “Plenty of places you can live if roads are what you want,” said Laurie Honkola, a slender, blond woman who runs a fifty-foot salmon seiner. The population is an eclectic mix of old-time fishing families and relative newcomers, many with a high degree of education and intellectual interests. The Orca Bookstore is stocked with volumes that range from botany and chaos theories of physics to poetry and Barry Lopez’s cerebral Arctic Dreams.
“It takes effort to come live here,” said Sheelagh Mullins, a mother of four, part-time vet and former gill netter. Indeed, if you would join the Cordova fishing fleet, you would find it an exclusive club. A permit to gill-net for salmon in the sound, which may only be obtained by buying it from an existing permit holder, currently costs about $160,000; a seining permit goes for upward of $300,000 (or did before the spill); and a new fishing boat may easily cost from $100,000 to $400,000, depending on the kind of fishing. For laying out between a quarter to three-quarters of a million dollars, one buys the privilege of working days and weeks nearly round the clock in dangerous weather, with some prospect of real wealth but usually simply a solid middle-to-upper-middle-class income, with winters off. Given the recent prices of permits, even with substantial state aid in loans, many fishermen are fishing on a highly leveraged basis and, before the spill, were counting heavily on a record-setting year in 1989.
A striking aspect of fishing here, given the independent nature of those attracted to working the waters of the sound, is the Procrustean degree to which their enterprise is regulated. Technology is deliberately and precisely limited, from the breadth and depth and mesh size of nets to the length of boats and when and where their captains may try their luck. State officials in helicopters count salmon entering the clear-water spawning streams to estimate the optimal harvest.
“We limit efficiency to preserve a lifestyle as well as an industry,” said Jim Brady, a biologist with the Alaska Fish and Game Department. “It’s a compromise between benefiting more to a lesser degree versus a few to a large degree.” In other words, for all their freespiritedness and macho image, the fishermen have had to embrace regulation and limitation and socialism — the community over the individual — to a far greater extent than the buttoned-down, executive-suited oil industry.
For many of the veteran fishermen who eighteen years ago waged a lonely and frustrating fight against the pipeline coming to Prince William Sound, these are the days of the big I Told You So, but there is no smugness. “We worked to guarantee Coast Guard radar control all the way to the Gulf of Alaska, for double bottoms on all tankers, for strict enforcement of vessel traffic lanes, for pilots on board all the way out [of the sound],” said Ross Mullins, captain of the seiner Sheelagh M. “We were too weak, too small, too poor . . . but we were right.”
The whole fight is recounted in a fascinating oral history compiled by James T. Payne in 1985, entitled “Our Way of Life Is Threatened and Nobody Seems to Give a Damn”: The Cordova District Fisheries Union and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Ross Mullins came to Cordova in the Sixties with a degree in photography. He recalled discussing the oil industry’s plans for Alaska in 1971 with his wife, Sheelagh, and “she told me she’d seen what an oil spill was like back in San Francisco . . . [and] I’d better get off my ass and do something about it.” He ended up going over to Knute Johnson’s basement with an article he had found on the perils of oil in the marine environment. Johnson was mending net and scarcely knew Mullins but said, “Come on in.” Johnson’s wife, Babe, recalled in a taped interview that it was all very quiet, then there was a sudden explosion of Knute’s voice. Knute Johnson and Ross Mullins stomped upstairs and out the door, and “from then on, all hell broke loose.”
The fishermen sued to stop the pipeline from coming to Valdez. To pay lawyers, they agreed to assess themselves a penny for each fish landed. They were opposed by virtually every newspaper in the state, including the Cordova Times. At one point in February 1971, according to accounts given Payne, the governor of Alaska, Bill Egan, threatened to embargo all fuel intended for the Cordova fishing fleet: “You guys don’t want oil, well, I’ll build a goddamned wall around Cordova. You guys don’t want oil, I’ll make sure you don’t get any oil [the governor declined to be interviewed for the history].”
A high-powered oil-industry ad campaign put the village in me position of seeming to oppose national security, as well as a steady and reliable energy supply for Americans everywhere. Even as they pursued this tack, the companies were preparing to sell substantial amounts of the pipeline oil to Japan. Congress later prohibited this, but many newspaper articles during the early 1970s speculated that this was a powerful reason for the companies’ picking a marine exit for the pipe instead of an overland route through Canada to the Midwest. The overland route, never seriously considered by the Department of the Interior, was favored in studies by Resources for the Future and the Arthur D. Little Company on both economic and environmental grounds.
Mullins remembered: “We were so discouraged. One night we were sitting in a hotel room listening on radio to a congressional hearing on the pipeline, and this professor from Alaska Methodist University spoke so eloquently against it . . . we didn’t even put coats on — it was snowing — and we ran like hell down the street to the hearing room to shake his hand and thank him.” That year, 1971, was designated by President Nixon as Fisheries Centennial Year, and all citizens were urged “to support and encourage . . . [the] protection and enhancement of the nation’s fisheries.”
Reluctantly, Mullins and a few others from Cordova borrowed a car in his native New England and made a whirlwind tour of the East Coast to lobby the media, scientists and Congress to gain support for their case. Generally, they were received politely, but no more. The oral history recalls a New York Times editor who sat through a long session, complete with charts of the sound and its fisheries and dismissed them: “When we have a big oil spill in Prince William Sound,” he said, “we’ll have a handle on the story.” And, indeed, in 1989 the Times acquitted itself well with its analysis of how the spill happened.
Then there was the interview the fishermen had with Ted Stevens, then and now an Alaskan senator in Washington, D.C., then and now an unswerving supporter of the oil industry (although he has swerved a tad in recent months, backing a moratorium on offshore drilling in icy Bristol Bay, in southwestern Alaska). “Before we have a chance to say a word,” said Knute Johnson in Payne’s history, “he says, ‘Wernher Von Braun,’ you know, the space man, ‘assured me that all the technology of the space program will be put into the doggone tankers, and there will not be one drop of oil in Prince William Sound.’. . . And it was so ridiculous that Ross, as much as he loved to talk, it just shut him up . . . and we just got up and left because there was nothing left to say.”
In February 1973 the fishermen won. A federal appeals court ruled that the pipeline could not proceed because of a technicality involving the right of way across Alaska. The court did not even rule on the much broader environmental-impact challenge to the project, since the technical decision rendered that moot. Quickly, the industry and the Nixon administration shifted the battle to Congress, whose members were panicky about oil supplies, even before the Arab oil embargo that year and its resultant gas-station lines. The crucial vote in the Senate resulted in a 49-49 tie, broken in favor of the pipeline to Valdez by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. President Nixon signed the project’s authorization a week before Thanksgiving. By the time of the Senate vote, the issue had become less a debate over environmental protection than a regional-development issue, with West Coast senators pitted against Midwestern and Northeastern senators over which part of the country would get the pipeline. Ross Mullins recalled there was little to the debate that was profound: “It was not about quality of life, or faith in modern technology, or national security . . . the state and the politicians just saw the money.”
The final summary of the Interior Department’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline stated that the pipe to Valdez would, “in accordance with Department of the Interior stipulations . . . reduce foreseeable environmental costs to acceptable levels.” But most of the stipulations that related to tanker safety and cleanup capability were never implemented fully, and some not at all. “The oil companies just whittled them down and whittled them down, and the state and the Coast Guard let them do it,” said a Cordova fisherman.
Oil Is a Natural Substance
Let me make a modest confession here. I don’t believe that this oil spill, and oil spills in general, damage the environment as badly as most people think they do. Granted, the Exxon spokesman who announced early on that “oil is a natural substance” was colossally insensitive, as though telling a rape victim that sex is a natural act; but the fact is, more than a decade of close scientific attention to oil spills has shown the marine environment is more capable of degrading and assimilating crude oil than was generally assumed. Studies by a wide range of interests, from the oil industry to the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that biological impacts from large spills are seldom as extensive or as long-term as the public perceives. Marked exceptions are the tragic impact on birds and otters that encounter oil.
Perhaps the worst-case spill in history, from the standpoint of damage to the ecosystem, was from the Amoco Cadiz in 1978, when six times as much crude oil as from the Exxon Valdez went directly ashore on the coast of Brittany. The extensive salt marshes there are generally a more fragile habitat than the rocky shores and gravel beaches hit in Prince William Sound and less easily cleansed by either nature or man. (The NOAA ranks the nation’s coastlines by sensitivity to oil spills, with 10 — protected coastal marshes — being the most sensitive. A sheer, rocky headland subjected to high wave energy would be an example of a 1 ranking. None of the shores hit here ranked higher than 8, and at least seventy percent of them ranked lower.) At the Amoco Cadiz spill site, which was much harder hit, fishing was normal again in less than three years, mollusks and clams on the bottom recovered in six years. The longest-term impacts were associated with the marsh areas that had been immediately cleaned of oil, sometimes with heavy machinery. Marshes left alone recovered virtually 100 percent within five years, while cleansed marshes took years longer.
The waters of Prince William Sound are mostly hundreds of feet deep, often nearly to the shore, and relatively devoid of suspended sediment, the latter due to the lack of soil washing off its forested, rocky watershed. “That’s excellent news for the environment there and bodes well for the fisheries,” said James R. Payne, who has done extensive studies for the NOAA on the fate of North Slope crude oil in cold-water environments like the sound. He explained that it seemed almost certain the area would escape one of the biggest long-term problems of oil spills — the burial of toxic portions of the oil in bottom sediments. These can subsequently leach out over time or possibly work their way up the food chain as they are consumed by lower life forms on the bottom, which are eaten by higher predators, and so on. “The two major ways you get that is with sandy beaches, which we didn’t have here, and with high loads of suspended sediment in the water [that can take the hydrocarbons to the bottom],” said Payne. He said sediment loads need to be at least 100 parts sediment suspended in every 1 million parts of water for that to happen. Prince William Sound had levels last spring of about .4 to 4 parts per million.
As far as toxicity in the water itself, a good deal of the nastiest portions, the so-called light ends of the spill, evaporated in a matter of hours or a couple of days — so much so that the spill probably lost fifteen to twenty percent of its total mass in that period, according to NOAA scientists. The highest level of toxicity scientists at the spill were able to measure in the water was .24 parts hydrocarbons to 1 million parts of sound water — that in readings taken in heavily oiled shoreline areas about two weeks after the spill. Readings from a week later found these toxicities reduced to about .04 parts per million. “The lowest levels at which we get any effects on sensitive organisms like larval fish and shellfish are from .1 ppm to 1 ppm, so I would not expect to see any widespread impacts [in the water],” said John Robinson of the NOAA.
“I think effects from [oil in the water] are going to be very, very difficult to measure. They will be so low, and given the naturally occurring variations in any species, it’ll be extremely difficult statistically to ever show the long-term effect on fisheries,” said Payne. No one, of course, argues that the spill was benign or says that Exxon should leave off its beach-cleaning efforts — although the smart money is mostly on nature to finish the bulk of the job. And it seems likely that there are areas where oil has become trapped so deeply within the gravels and boulders of beaches that occasional sheens will be oozing out for years, maybe a decade or more; but the problem will be a lot closer to a nuisance than the catastrophic. “With a few exceptions, I’d be surprised two or three years from now if you can see much impact either analytically or visually,” said David Kennedy, Robinson’s colleague at the NOAA.
On a national scale, look at what Congress did not say about oil and the environment in its December 1988 oversight report Coastal Waters in Jeopardy, the first time that body had focused attention on the “pervasive . . . damage and loss” of environmental quality in the bays and inlets and harbors of America’s shores from Maine to Alaska. The report devoted one word to oil and none to oil spills or, for that matter, other disasters. Rather, it detailed the degradation of our waters from the constant, everyday flows of sewage, farm fertilizers, sediment from development and deforestation and plowing; toxics deposited by automobiles into the air and onto streets; power-plant emissions, acid rain, herbicides, pesticides from urban lawns, marsh filling for marinas and seaside condos.
Ultimately, it is not by disasters, terrible and mediagenic though they may be, that we lose our natural heritage but by humdrum incrementalism. The Three Mile Island nuclear fiasco, on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, just upstream from my native Chesapeake Bay, galvanized national attention for weeks in 1979 with the specter of radioactive water spreading downstream, poisoning the rich aquatic life of one of the world’s most productive estuaries. Years later the Chesapeake is indeed increasingly polluted from upstream in Pennsylvania, but it is no nuclear meltdown that did it. It is decades of inattention to controlling the millions of pounds of cow manure and other fertilizers flowing quietly, incessantly off poorly managed farms, clotting the waters with algal growth, overwhelming the natural balance of life in the great bay.
So what does it all mean? Have we overreacted? If the studies, which assuredly will be done, find no measurable diminution of algal productivity, no untoward elevation of sediment hydrocarbons, nor any bankrupt crabbers, salmon netters and tour-boat operators a year or two hence, then how do we regard the spill of the Exxon Valdez? How far is society justified in going to assure it never occurs again?
John Fowles, in his 1983 essay “The Green Man,” proposed that while we worry with some justification about our potential for harming the environment, we exaggerate the degree to which nature has already been overwhelmed: “It is far less nature itself that is yet in true danger than our attitude to it.” His point, well taken, was that we are resigned to a continuing indifference, even hostility, toward nature unless we comprehend it must be, in part, forever unquantifiable, beyond lucid and rational discussion, unconnectable with any human purpose. “There is something in the nature of nature, in its presentness, its seeming transcience, its creative ferment and hidden potential, that corresponds very closely with the wild, or green man in our psyches; and disappears as soon as it is relegated to a . . . merely classifiable thing,” concluded Fowles. I would add a corollary — that if we do not treat as a serious crime the disruption of that green man within us, indefinable, unquantifiable though it be, then we will never assign full and proper weight to the damage from events such as occurred on Good Friday in the state of Alaska.
I had been thinking for several days how to express adequately what a lot of the fishing community seemed to feel over the soiling of their sound; how it went so much deeper than even their worst (and probably overestimated) fears of damage to the fisheries.
“There’s a deep emotional attachment to our land and water here that’s been broken, been violated,” said Rick Steiner, a university fisheries adviser resident in Cordova. Indeed, though they are here because of the great numbers of fish, there is far more than the catch statistics operating on the psyches of fishermen these days. Listen to David Grimes and others talk about the beauty in their spring harvest of herring row, which is deposited like nacreous pearls on the leaves of underwater kelp; about how you can’t separate the catching from the spring sights of diving eagles, lengthening daylight, receding snow on the mountain peaks and the phosphorescence of nighttimes: “The herring moving through the plankton blooms like the northern lights, with sea lions and orcas feeding on them, moving like green rockets,” said Grimes.
“You gotta crab to know, but it’s exciting being out there,” said Skip Mallory, a top captain out of Cordova who wrestles giant traps in the stormiest winter weather on the sound for dungeness, tanner and king crab. “You don’t just set a pot for crab, you gotta chase ’em, psyche out where they’re at, and when you get right on ’em . . . well, it’s a challenge, and you’re doing it in some of the most beautiful waters in the world.”
“Yeah, every fisherman has a little area of the sound that’s their special place . . . where they’ve learned the tides, and the holes, the ‘lay’ of the place,” said Laurie Honkola. “You can’t homestead the land around here much anymore, but fishermen kind of homestead favorite spots on the water. Over on the Copper River flats there’s certain people you associate with certain spots — the Kikerhenik boys, the Softuk boys, the Grass Island boys.”
“I feel the social-psychological impacts will far outweigh the ecological ones,” said Jim Brady. “There’s such an anticipation to fishing each spring, and this [spill] came when hopes were at a peak. These people are businessmen, but they’ve also gone a long way out of their way to make this something they can deeply enjoy. . . . They identify so strongly with certain beaches, bays and inlets.”
“For this to happen here, where there were beaches you’d walk on and who knew if another human being had ever been there before you — just look out there,” said Sheelagh Mullins, pointing out her living-room window. “There’s a whole range of mountains and no one’s in them. They’ve never been defiled . . . that’s why people are here. When it [pollution] can happen here, it makes you feel the whole damn planet must be out of control.”
Mullins and many other men and women in Valdez and Cordova would tell me days would go by and they would feel all right, then they would be in the middle of shopping, or doing the dishes, or eating, and they would just cry, they weren’t even sure why. I kept coming back to rape as an analogy for what had happened. The physical damage would heal, maybe quickly, but the emotional and psychological trauma, I was convinced, might never go away entirely. I could see a lot of “blaming the victim” occurring: “Well, we all use too much oil, so we shouldn’t complain”; “We’re all guilty for being part of a consumer society”; and so on. And, thinking about Exxon’s controversial efforts so far to clean up the spill — would you assign the rapist to nurse the victim back to health?
One April Sunday, a month to the day after the big spill, a gale was building out over Orca Inlet as townspeople walked, bent against the rain, into the “Home of the Wolverines,” at Cordova High, for the first Prince William Sound Day. The signs I had originally seen in Valdez advertised that today was to be Prince William Sound Memorial Day, and I had heard some talk about turning it into some good old-fashioned Exxon bashing — “sign of the double cross” and all that. But inside the school the townspeople had turned it into something really beautiful, no memorial, or bitterness. The theme was “Sound Love,” and the stage was open “to anyone and everyone who wants to share from their heart to create a vision of and for the sound.”
Letters and drawings from kids festooned the walls of the gym — from Auke Bay and Wasilla, from Willow, Juneau, Nome and even San Diego — lots of pictures of whales and otters with big red hearts drawn around them: “Did all the animos diey?”; “Wee love our water to bee clean.” I’ve read so many books about the complexities of man-nature relationships. These kids just cut through all the bullshit — Sound Love. Later we’ll teach ’em how much more complicated it all is. Brownie Troop 255 handed out bright bouquets of paper flowers. We had poets, recitations, singing, good and bad; a woman read the Declaration of Independence, no one was sure just why, but it seemed fine.
John McCutcheon, a fine folk singer and songwriter who came all the way from Virginia to help out his friends in Cordova, sang a special composition about the salmon called “Silver Run”: “One hundred miles, maybe more, along that living, leaping shore/Oh, we’ll cast our nets and dream of better times/All along Prince William Sound, where the silvers run and bound/And our lives meet in the tangle of the lines.”
At 2:00 p.m. there was five minutes of silence, which was to be observed by people all over Alaska. Then a pretty woman with the richest long black hair talked to us about the years she and her husband, Ray, spent aboard his old gill netter the Little Queen.
“Those were lean years, monetarily,” she said, “and the only vacations we had were when we loosed our lines from the dock and left all cares and worries in town and went out for weeks at a time for salmon seining and herring seining. In the summer we would go ashore on the closures [of the fishery] to pick arm-load bouquets of wild-flowers to fill the cabin all week long . . . exploring old copper and gold mines and herring canneries . . . hiking up to go trout fishing in beautiful, silent lakes . . . beachcombing and clam-digging for that quick, short burst of pure flavor. And in winters, deer hunts I can never forget . . . winter skies etched in my mind as the most delicate turquoises and palest peaches . . . the pinks and powder blues . . . the flaming oranges and deepening nights . . . the storms . . . when only sure boatmanship forged from a lifetime’s experience on the sound, coupled with divine protection, saw us through back home safely.”
And she read this poem she wrote to Prince William Sound:
There is a shadow,
dark as death,
lying over this land and sea.
A place where gods are born
and men to privilege see.
I long to enclose you in my arms,
protect you from the large society,
which grunts with hunger for the oil,
and counts the risk of you
too late spent
and then it is too late
and I sorrow to see
your great and final purity.
This is your last hour,
how I would change it if I could,
perhaps instead your waters should.
But nothing can remake your essence
once they begin to take
their greed and poison:
Your death will be their fate.
Stripped of your trees,
your beaches black and lifeless,
I will remember the day
it was not so.
And I will love you
all the more.
It was fifteen years ago she wrote that, Christine Honkola said the next morning as seven children, some hers, played around her cheery mountainside log home. It was the pipeline that brought her here, she says, “because when it began, I didn’t feel like Anchorage was a place any longer for a woman alone . . . . It seemed like a rape a day there.” Her husband, out on the spill cleanup, has heard fourth hand that an Exxon skimmer filled up, had no place to unload and was told to dump it back and skim it up again — apocryphal perhaps, but it will go into the lore that’s building. The poem she read yesterday seemed remarkably prescient, I said. “Well, we all felt it was inevitable, but it hasn’t made what happened easier to take” she said, adding, “If any message goes out to the world, it’s that people have to have more say for their concerns about environmental protection, because they are the ones who have the most to lose, not the corporations.”
What was lost? Much that can never be adequately articulated, if Fowles is right Ultimately, it is the poets and singers, and not the scientists, who will come closest to telling us. The true verdict will be rendered in art, in the gut, not in the lab, and I suspect it will be less exonerating than the ten-year follow-up study that is reported at the 1999 Oil Spill Conference in Houston or New Orleans. And to the extent we do not sense that, heed it, we will be vulnerable to future oil spills. We need trie numbers, the biological and financial and legal accountings of what happened here and who was responsible, but those alone will not save us from another Joe Hazelwood. A bigger voice in the future of Alaska for those with Sound Love might, though, along with a fuller understanding of what the spill meant to them.
Exxon by summer’s start has 9000 cleanup workers, many camped in troop ships anchored around the sound. All the beach cleaning is finished. By mutual agreement the state and the oil company now refer to beaches as having only been “treated,” which is a tip-off to how the cleaning, whoops, treatment is going. Oil is lodged so deeply in the rocks and gravel that sometimes hours after the surface is, ah, treated, a high tide refloats the deep-down brown goop and reoils the area. Exxon claims, by late June, to have treated forty miles of beach within the sound, about a tenth of what was hit, but some in the state say those figures are suspect New cleanup methods continue to be tested — chemical dispersants, oil-eating microbes — and the phones continue to ring with helpful hints, such as using the cheese packets from Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners, also duck feathers and peat moss. One wag suggests using sea gulls, which, he notes, are plentiful, highly absorbent and can be wrung out and reused two or three times. It promises to be a long summer.
Now the debate is shifting, both in Alaska and around the country, as to what the impact of the spill will be on environmental-protection and energy policies.
On an Alaskan airliner, I come across an ad in the flight magazine rhat no doubt was printed before March 24th. The ad is for Unicech, a supplier of oil-spill-cleanup equipment and supplies, and it features a fetching model in an attractive dress seated amid a small cluster of dispersants, sorbents, protective gloves and boots: UNITECH . . . BECAUSE ACCIDENTS DO OCCASIONALLY HAPPEN. In cleanup capability, the stuff in the picture is about one step up from Bounty towels. Still, on March 23rd it would not have seemed remarkable; now it is absurd, laughable — outrageous and insulting.
Clearly, the frame of reference has shifted for us all regarding how bad an oil spill can be. And though what happened here is often described as worse than anything ever imagined, it was nowhere near the worst case. For example, Hazelwood tried for more than an hour and a half to power his dangerously unstable and badly rent ship off the reef Had he succeeded, and had it broken apart or sunk, fresh oil might have streamed to the surface for months. The weather was extraordinarily cooperative in aiding cleanup. In December the days last only five hours, and storms and snow often cut visibility almost to zero for days at a time. Or what if it had happened a month later, just as the $50 million salmon run was homing in on the sound? Or what if the winds that normally prevail had been blowing from another direction, toward the marshes of the Copper River, used by an estimated 10 million birds annually as resting and feeding areas?
Additionally, the spill has dispelled any doubts that our capacity to transport oil in large volumes has far exceeded our rapacity to clean it up, both technologically and managerially. It is instructive one day to tour the high-tech factories of oil extraction on the rich fields of the North Slope; the next day marvel at the sophisticated instrumentation on the bridge of a supertanker; then a day later slip and slide across a beach as grimy, discouraged men and women with paper towels try to wipe oil off rocks while back in Valdez bureaucrats and corporate officials and their lawyers argue over what to da Even at Sullom Voe, the oil terminal in the Shetland Islands considered to have the world’s best spill-response capability, a recent practice spill simulating a loss about an eighth the size of the Valdez spill resulted in some (theoretical) oiling of beaches.
Could a catastrophic spill happen as easily elsewhere along the nation’s coasts? Arguably, it was less likely to happen at Valdez than most places, many oil-spill observers say. “Because of the immense pressure to take whatever safeguards necessary to get on with the pipeline, more was done to anticipate the problem in Prince William Sound than is likely to ever be done anywhere else,” said Saunders Hillyer, a lawyer who fought the pipeline and now works for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a group based in Maryland that watchdogs oil pollution and a wide range of other water-quality issues.
That sentiment was seconded by a congressional staff member who works closely with oil legislation. The spill-response plan at Valdez, for all its failings, is still much more than most places have, said the staff member, adding, “Most other places, if they have any contingency plan, do not include response planning for tankers after they depart [the dock or harbor]. Technically, every place else on tanker and barge routes is covered by the National Response Plan, but that involves basically a list of what agencies respond. . . . As far as detailed regional planning and prestaging of cleanup equipment, there is not much.”
And a retired Exxon employee who now reviews contingency plans around the country as a consultant said that “most are not worth the paper they’re written on. . . . They are lists of phone numbers, not action plans.” Similarly, he and others said, Valdez was relatively progressive in having a plan that divided the sound into areas of greater and lesser sensitivity to aerial spraying of dispersants. But even that plan dissolved in controversy when it came to the real spill.
“The real issue is that the contingency plan left the state in a reactive position,” said Dennis Kelso, the Alaska environmental-conservation commissioner. “We have to reevaluate . . . . Is it realistic to have a party like Alyeska, which has consistently been opposed to additional environmental-protective measures, propose and implement such a plan?”
For most coastal waters around the nation, the Coast Guard is the first line of defense in preventing and responding to oil spills, with authority Co require and review contingency plans, set and enforce vessel safety standards, coordinate cleanup efforts and send national strike-force teams to spills. That agency got a schizophrenic combination of low marks in preparedness and sympathy from most experts. “Valdez probably started out being a model terminal, but the Coast Guard never took control,” said Pete Johnson of the Oceans and Environment Program of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). “They left too many decisions about running the place up to industry — oversight was the missing link.”
The Coast Guard’s history in recent years has been one of level budgets and new responsibilities, such as drug interdiction. “They have not done a good job anywhere with oil transport,” said Johnson. “But I think it’s a question of having to set priorities. They feel they are primarily charged with saving life at sea. If you check, you’ll find they do a better job with safety on human-life-threatening cargoes like LNG [liquid natural gas] tankers.” The Coast Guard has closed eleven of its marine-safety offices and merged its only East Coast oil-spill-response team, in Norm Carolina, with one in Mobile, Alabama. It never followed through on plans earlier in the decade to pre-position response equipment at eight sites around the coasts.
During this period a number of special funds, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, have been created through taxes on offshore drilling and pipelines to handle various impacts of oil development — but none of this has ever been earmarked for spill response. Legislation to remedy this is pending in Congress, and there are hopes the Alaska spill will lend it impetus. Budgets for research devoted to oil-spill-cleanup technology in the Coast Guard, the EPA and the NOAA, which averaged less than a million dollars per year until recently, have been cut even further, according to the OTA, and a government spill-technology test center in New Jersey has been closed.
“In genera, there is no adequate response capability to a spill of [the Exxon Valdez‘s] size,” said Johnson.
Just that point has been driven home in recent weeks by Governor Cowper and the Alaska state legislature, which are urging Congress to put a moratorium on proposed oil-development leasing in Bristol Bay. It and other potential drilling areas here, like the Chuckchi Sea, are even more remote and more hostile environments than Prince William Sound, opponents of the drilling have noted. The fishery in Bristol Bay is much larger than that in the sound, worth an estimated $1 billion a year.
Alaska’s congressman, Don Young, and the state’s two senators have backed off in their support of continued leasing of offshore areas for oil exploration. Even oil-industry officials have said privately that they think further offshore exploration in Alaska’s icy northern waters may be shut down, with a possible federal buy-back of existing leases.
The state legislature recently repealed a handsome tax break the industry had enjoyed for years on certain oil fields, and the state has also reacted to the spill with an emergency order implementing tough, new safety measures at Valdez on both transportation and spill response At Valdez, ships are now accompanied on their passage through Prince William Sound by new emergency-response vessels, each one carrying 4600 feet of boom and with the capacity to hold 4000 barrels of oil Skimming vessels and barges are on continuous standby in the sound, midway on the tankers’ route. Pilots now guide vessels past Bligh Reef, although not to open water, as they once did. Captains and crews undergo alcohol testing before departure. The state disputes whether Alyeska has enough cleanup and prevention equipment in place.
But the big test looming for the industry is the decision over the fate of something known as “Anwar.” This is a 100-mile stretch of Arctic coastal plain, 1.5 million acres, within the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The industry thinks it may contain another oil field as rich as Prudhoe Bay, with its billions of barrels, or at least a find in the hundreds of millions of barrels. And it is close enough to current North Slope oil fields to be conveniently hooked to the existing pipeline down Co Valdez. According to environmentalists, the portion of ANWR where Congress has said it would consider oil leases is the heart of a magnificent wildlife area. To make it into another North Slope oil field would be to violate in fact and spirit the entire concept of setting aside such a vast area as unspoiled wilderness, they have said.
Until the spill, ANWR was on the fast track in Congress for leasing and exploration, even the bitterest foes of exploration concede. Now even its most ardent supporters in the industry and the Bush administration admit that it will be delayed for at least another year, and environmentalists think now that there is a real chance to keep the refuge sacrosanct.
Perhaps the most far-reaching ripple from the Exxon Valdez spill, however, will be a redirection of America’s energy policy, always a lively topic in a nation where six percent of the earth’s population consumes twenty-five percent of its energy. Is it “energy independence” we pursue or the continuation of history’s most luxurious and consumptive lifestyle?
The largest untapped reservoir of oil in the United States is not beneath the Alaskan wilderness but in the nation’s fleet of gas-hungry trucks and automobiles, says Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Fund. The trick, say conservationists, is getting the public to think of fuel-efficient cars as oil wells you don’t have to drill, of high-efficiency air conditioners as power plants you don’t have to build. “You don’t get Exxon’s attention by boycotting Exxon — you get it by boycotting gasoline [through conservation],” said Peter Dykstra, a spokesman for Greenpeace, which declined to join the wave of organizations boycotting the oil giant after the spill Such perceptions were all but impossible for environmental groups to foster during the eight years of the Reagan administration’s reliance on decontrol, free markets and scepped-up oil leasing on public lands and in coastal waters.
George Bush, a former Texas oil man, scarcely seems ready to hop on the conservation bandwagon — “I have to harvest the resource — chat is, sell oil, coal . . . those kinds of things,” his Interior Secretary, Manuel Lujan, told Alaskans recently — but nonetheless the prospects have never seemed brighter in this decade. “A year ago, I said chat with $1-a-gallon gasoline, we were never going to redirect energy policy,” said George Miller, Democrat of California, whose congressional subcommittee has been holding hearings on the spill. “[But] we may now be in a situation where people are willing for the government to get ahead of the market . . I just believe the politics are changing.”
Automobiles are by far the largest users of oil, burning nearly forty percent of all the oil consumed in the United States. They now average a mile per gallon less (26.5 mpg) than they were supposed to under a federal conservation law adopted in 1975. The Reagan administration relaxed trie standard and called for the law’s repeal. How much difference does a mile per gallon make? Increasing the fleet’s average mileage by 1.7 mpg would save 3 billion barrels of oil over the next thirty years — the equivalent of pumping a major field beneath ANWR, according to Jan Beyea, a senior energy scientist with the National Audubon Society. And that is only a start The Office of Technology Assessment calculates a 33-mpg average is possible by 1995, “without performance loss or the need to move to smaller vehicles.” Higher consumer costs for the redesigned engines, transmissions and bodies that would permit this higher mileage would be recovered by gasoline savings, according to the OTA.
America’s auto makers are marshaling arguments to resist the rails for more efficient cars, which they say restrict consumer choice and add to highway deaths by forcing people into smaller cars. They also feel Japanese car makers would have a competitive advantage.
Perhaps more important than the energy costs of burning petroleum are the health and environmental impacts. On the front page of the April 3rd New York Times was an ironic juxtaposition of articles. One detailed the damages of spilled oil in Alaska. The other announced that EPA scientists were beginning to wonder whether the nation’s growing air-pollution problem was not simply intractable and too expensive to pursue by the traditional method of adding more “widgets on smokestacks.”
Vehicles on the road are the largest source of the emissions that result in smog. Even though car makers have controlled tailpipe emissions sharply since 1970, the number of vehicles on the road has increased by seventy percent — and people are driving them farther. Accordingly, much of the nation still fails to meet the standards set by the landmark dean Air Act of twenty years ago. President Bush’s new clean-air proposal, announced in June, does not go nearly far enough to correct this, many environmentalists feel.
In addition to the serious health effects of smog, burning more petroleum and other fossil fuels (coal and natural gas) contributes to the greenhouse effect. Combustion of fuels is gradually increasing the amount of carbon dioxide to levels never before present in the earth’s atmosphere, and this in turn is accelerating a global warming trend. The results, during the next several decades, will range from unprecedented rises in sea levels, threatening coastal cities, to major adverse shifts in grain-growing areas.
“We talk a lot about the impact of the spill on Prince William Sound, on fishing, on Exxon’s finances . . . but I think the biggest impact’s been psychological,” said Dave Cline of the Audubon Society as we talked in his Anchorage office. “I can’t explain it, but I don’t know of any other environmental tragedy that’s had this impact on people . . . such feelings of rage, sobbing. Maybe it’s just this spill on top of syringes’ washing up on beaches the earth’s ozone layer unraveling, animals in the oil . . . just a feeling that things have gotten out of control. Maybe ANWR is where we are going to make a basic choice about which direction this country goes.”
Globally and nationally, there are compelling economic and environmental arguments for curtailing our use of oil. But what of Alaska, which derives close to nine-tenths of its public revenue from the pipeline and the industrial elixir flowing from it? Attempts to diversify Alaska’s economy have largely been overwhelmed by the prospects of drilling in ANWR, squeezing extra years out of the existing Prudhoe Bay field and pumping to Valdez the huge quantities of natural gas that also exist on the North Slope (but are currendy uneconomical to recover because of the low level of world prices). “Long-range economic planning up here,” said Gregg Erickson of the governor’s office, “usually means figuring how to get through the winter.”
The hard truth is, economists like Erickson and environmentalists like Cline agree, that there is not now, nor ever will be again, another revenue machine like the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. “Alaska is lean country, a vast amount of it is not that productive, not that habitable,” said Cline. “Our bias is that one of the greatest things in Alaska’s future is its wild scenic value. Oil has created unrealistic expectations of the future. In other words, the future of Alaska may be less, not more — which does not mean there aren’t tremendous opportunities in tourism, fisheries and other areas, but nothing will equate to oil money.”
The giant Prudhoe Bay field is already entering its inevitable decline, it was clear on a visit to the North Slope. The industry has recently invested nearly a billion dollars in new recovery facilities to squeeze more crude out of the underground caverns by injecting saltwater; also on reinjecting the natural gas that comes to the surface with the oil. Despite all this, within a decade it seems likely that the flows through the pipe will have declined to as little as half a million barrels a day, versus the current 2 million. Even if the go-ahead to explore and drill ANWR came today, and even if oil were found there in commercial quantities, it would probably be twelve to thirteen years before it was flowing to Valdez. Thus Alaska is virtually guaranteed to have a sharp decline in revenues in the foreseeable future. “The question then,” said Gregg Erickson, “is, will people accept not being the richest state, or will they leave?”
One answer to that is Loretta Lewis. She is one of that hard and substantial corps of Alaskans who were here before oil and will likely be here after it. In a state almost totally dependent on oil, they are less dependent on it than most lower 48-ers. I met Lewis waitressing at the Pipeline Club, which serves as mailbox, friendly refuge and watering hole to merchant seamen. Until recently, Joe Hazelwood was just another good customer here. Lewis had come down from Delta Junction, “home of the wind, honey, ’cause it blows like hell and blows silt off the delta all year long.”
“I support a dog team, and I needed income,” says Lewis, pointing to her T-shirt: YUKONQUEST 1000 MILE SLED DOG RACE. Lewis says she has been sticking with the same bloodline for six years now, and it brought Jeff King, who bought her dog Molar for his team leader, a first place in the ’88 Yukonquest. She is hoping to latch on to some of that good Exxon money, living, meantime, in her battered Dodge pickup with handicapped plates (“bum knee, quack doctor,” she says). Her boyfriend lives there, too. “He’s a lot younger than me — I’m fifty, and he’s a miner,” she says. “He gets discouraged, but I tell him, ‘Look, you came here to mine, then MINE — win, lose or draw, you’re doing something you like to do.'”
There’s no water and no electricity in Lewis’s sixteen-by-sixteen Quonset in Delta Junction, “and I will say the last year’s been hard on everybody, with the economy down, but I don’t require much.” Of the oil pipeline, she says, “we have to have something for our young people. . . . I’ve seen friends bust their tails, practically eat out of garbage dumps, trying to make it logging and trapping, and they couldn’t. I’m no environmentalist, and I don’t want to pave the earth, either — I just think there must be some way we can live on this earth and not hurt the animals anymore. My family, we go out in the woods, we leave it like we found it, simple as that.”
Lewis came here from California, where she was a letter carrier for the post office, putting her kids through school before heading north. For a while she ran her half brother’s hotel in San Pedro, where seamen laid over. “And Exxon says they didn’t know they drank?” she says. “I coulda told them that. I used to think, ‘My God, do they do this on the ships?'”
What Lewis likes about Alaska, she says, “is the pureness of the place. . . . I had been changing my mind about ANWR even before this spill, because I just don’t think the companies’Il take care of things.” She’s trying to diversify her own economic circumstances, she says, learning to paint on birch fungus and doing woodcrafts out of diamond willow and spruce burls. She’s got an old Indian chief teaching her how to make model birch-bark canoes. “It’s tough up here, but where else can you go that the grizzly bears come down to the stream and buffalo roam through your yard?” she says. “I’m a quarter Navajo, and those buffalo just give me a thrill. I tell ya, it’s like that show, remember, The Naked City . . . 8 million stories — someday I’m gonna write about it when I get to where I can’t do things — oh, now don’t take that last bit personal.” She taps my notebook.
Alaska’s a good state, says Lewis, limping a bit as she heads for new customers — “it’s a crap shoot, hot or not, boom or bust. I wouldn’t go back to the lower 48 for nothing.”
Winter comes early in Alaska. by late September the Exxon army that swelled to 12,000 troops has left the wind-swept sound to the bears and eagles and a modest, state-funded effort by local fishermen to pick up oil-soaked seaweed, which still litters the intertidal zones of the coast. Of 1090 miles of sullied shore, 1087 miles have been “treated” or “stabilized [new gravel dumped over the old],” according to Exxon. The state of Alaska says 1000 miles of this needs more cleaning. Costs to Exxon so far have exceeded a billion dollars, with about a third of that being covered by the company’s insurers. Lawsuits filed against Exxon at last count came to 145.
Scientists will also be prowling the sound’s beaches this winter, documenting the oil’s fate as it degrades and hardens, by spring, to the consistency of a highway. Already they are raising a troubling question: To what extent was the mammoth cleanup effort misguided? It seemed at the time that we had to do something, didn’t it? There was also a satisfaction — a need for it perhaps — in witnessing Exxon do public penance, and the months-long effort did provide a vehicle for disbursing hundreds of millions of dollars through the Alaskan economy, work-fare being more acceptable than welfare or hush money.
But there are a few small studies back from the beaches that indicate recovery times for the environment in some spots will be longer than initially predicted — not because of the oil but because of the physical impact of being scrubbed and hosed and trampled. “I’m really striving very hard to improve people’s understanding of [the benefits of] doing little or nothing in such situations,” says David Kennedy, the NOAA spill veteran. “There is often a strong case, environmentally and economically, for leaving it alone.” Even with the animals? I ask, knowing the respect he has for Jessica Porter, the deeply caring vet at the bird-recovery center and a neighbor of his back home in Washington State. “Well, in Canada, it is federal policy not to assist in any way with bird recovery in spills, given the low survival rates and the high costs,” he says. Kennedy expects the wrangling over cleanup to begin anew with the spring. There’s been talk about making Exxon clean the sound to prespill levels, “but we just don’t have the technology to do that,” says Kennedy.
Since Valdez, a number of states and localities have conducted spill drills of their own, all theoretical, of course, and generally with lots of advance preparation. I haven’t heard of anywhere the parties involved came out and said the next day, “If the big one happens here, it’s goodbye to the [insert your favorite marsh or river here].” One wonders; would it push us to improve upon prevention, or to rethink the limits of where we drill for oil, if authorities had to admit that we are, in big spills, most likely to be working without a safety net?
There are, to be sure, significant changes coming in oil-spill protection as a result of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe. “It has put oil-spill reform among the top environmental priorities of Congress,” says Will Stelle, majority counsel to the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and the Environment and a veteran of several years on oil legislation. The traditional focus on liability and compensation of victims has been broadened markedly, he says, to force better prevention and cleanup response in a major spill bill now before the House. In the bill, Congress is finally addressing the issues of contingency planning, both aboard vessels and at marine terminals; also scrutinizing whether manning requirements and vessel design should be changed to make spills less likely. Finally, the bill as drafted would beef up the power and capability of the federal government to clean up spills.
The oil industry has voluntarily created its own new response organization, with initial funding of at least $70 million. This will create five regional centers, staffed around the clock, each equipped to respond to a spill of 200,000 barrels, according to industry spokesmen. David Kennedy describes this effort as “pretty significant — it is also going to put several million into research.” But, he says, “I don’t see any radical changes, and I think that’s what will be needed to markedly improve our ability to clean up big spills.”
In Cordova, many of those who profited mightily from Exxon cleanup money are now known as “spillionaires,” a term that may be said jokingly or bitterly, depending on whom you are talking to. Lots of the spillionaires have taken off for Hawaii and other warmer climes until fishing resumes next spring, says Rick Steiner, the University of Alaska Sea Grant agent in Cordova. He and fisherman David Grimes have been making forays to other coastal states all over the country, telling anyone who will listen to learn from Prince William Sound’s experience, not to be complacent. Once, at a press conference in North Carolina with a number of local dignitaries, guards at the marina thought the two guests of honor were too scruffy looking to admit. Grimes and Steiner jumped a fence across the harbor from the press conference and swam over. Hauling themselves out, dripping, they apologized to the assembled officials for being late, but it was a long swim from Alaska.
I watched an oil barge recently, pushed in front of a tug through the golden autumn salt marsh, move up a small tidal river close to where I live near the Chesapeake Bay. Where U.S. Route 50 crosses the Nanticoke River, the barges, nearly as long as the river is wide, must pass through a drawbridge, nearly brushing its massive concrete supports as they do. The tides are tricky at that stretch, and getting through is a much more difficult maneuver than anything the supertanker captains in Alaska routinely do on Prince William Sound. The bridge tender says that this past summer one of the tug captains miscalculated the current and smashed the bridge with a full load; thank God, the dolphins (clusters of huge wooden poles sunk in the river bottom) fended him off enough so that he didn’t crack her open.
If ever there was a place you don’t want an oil spill, it is there. Each spring and summer, so many striped bass are drawn to that very stretch of river to spawn along its swampy fringes that their success or failure measurably influences stocks of the fish throughout the Chesapeake Bay and the length of the East Coast Shad, river herring and white perch also use the same region for reproduction, and down river is a productive oyster- and crab-harvesting industry. It is also one of the most unspoiled and aesthetic waterways left on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. An ex-crewman told me that about six years ago, the barge company began using bigger barges on the up-river run — so big that the captain’s visibility going through the bridge, with all those deck pumps out there 300 feet in front of him, is almost zero. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, he said. All it would take to make it safer is inexpensive modifications to the tugs’ wheelhouses to afford better visibility — or a return to the smaller barges. But there haven’t been any spills, and that, he said, seems good enough for the company.
So I will watch eagerly the passage of the Exxon Valdez-inspired spill legislation through Congress, and dutifully applaud the new response centers going up around the country; but I will also watch those barges going up and down my favorite river, and watch especially hard for signs that we are becoming more caring toward bass and marshes, otters and salmon and the like.