Probing An Oil-Stained Legacy

You thought the Exxon Valdez disaster was over? Think again

04-01-1993 // Rick Steiner

Four years ago, marine biologist and fisherman Rick Steiner was preparing to leave his home in Prince William Sound's village of Cordova for a two-week research cruise. Interrupted by the Exxon Valdez disaster, he instead helped organize the fishermen's defense of critical wildlife habitat from oncoming oil. He has worked on "constructive resolution of this disaster" ever since. He helped invent the Regional Citizens Advisory Council described below, was involved in some of the behind-the-scenes activity that led to the Exxon/federal/ state lawsuit settlement and helped define the terms of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. As a University of Alaska associate professor, Steiner also runs the Cordova office of the school's marine advisory program. Here are his reflections - part update and part essay - on the spill four years later.


On a cold, clear day in late March 1989, I crouched on Applegate Rocks, a tiny islet some 20 miles downcurrent of where the supertanker Exxon Valdez was impaled on Bligh Reef and hemorrhaging oil. Having spent the preceding four days in the warlike chaos of Valdez trying to help organize a response to the largest oil spill in our nation's history, I was more than ready, I thought, to get out into it.

Strangely, during that same time, the northern lights had been about as spectacular as any of us had ever seen. Native mythology of the sound believed that, however beautiful, such a display was an omen for death.

On the hour-long trip by helicopter to Applegate Rocks, I had stared with increasing nervousness at the deep-blue and emerald fjord waters just beginning to awaken from winter with literally billions of herring, juvenile salmon, sea birds, waterfowl, otters and whales. Then the ocean surface became smooth and dark. Where we landed, a thick layer of black crude oil covered the water as far as the eye could see and had just coated the entire intertidal zone. Every living being - seals, sea otters, birds - was either dead or dying in agony.

I found myself kneeling, trying to make sense of it all , when I saw an oil-soaked scoter whose throat had been ripped open by gulls. It sat still, eyes fixed on the horizon, waiting to die. There, crumpled aside a boulder, next to a dying duck, I felt the enormity of the tragedy come into focus. I promised the scoter I would do absolutely everything I could so that it would not have died in vain. That was the deal. It would die, and I would try to fix things.

Now, four years later, I truly worry about my end of the bargain. Through the perspective that only time can provide, we can now look back to see the extent of the damage; determine what we are and are not able to do about it, with intervention and funds from legal settlements; and judge how far we've come in correcting the flawed oil-transport system that led to the disaster. One of the most pressing questions at this stage is how best to aid recovery using the millions from legal settlements: What is the meaning of restoration for a region devastated by an oil spill?

The first time I saw Prince William Sound, in the summer of 1980, I might as well have walked through the mountain pass into Shangri-la. Tucked between the north coast of the Gulf of Alaska and the glacier-capped Chugach Mountains, the sound was one of the few special places left in the country that seemed safely far away from the problems of the twentieth century. People had lived, hunted and fished here for millennia but had left hardly a mark. The magic of the place struck me much as it must have early explorers like John Burroughs, who described a "vast, shifting panorama of sea and islands and wooded shores and towering peaks spread before us on every hand ... an enchanted circle." That abundance and beauty-despite the long and dark winters, high winds and more rain and snow at sea level than  anywhere else in the world-convinced me to settle here. Now, with one wrong turn of a loaded supertanker, this enchanted wonderland was gone.

When 40,000 tons of a toxic, pcrsistent chemical spills into a highly productive marine environment, we should expect the damage to be extensive. It was. The oil spread over some 10,000 square miles and oiled more than 1,200 miles of coastline-including shores of three national parks, three national wildlife refuges and a national forest. The estimated number of animals killed - 300,000 to 645,000 birds and 4,000 to 6,000 marine mammals - is the largest known mortality of birds and marine mammals in any oil spill ever.

Today, there is little obvious evidence of the damage. From the air, the sound, along with the many hundreds of miles of once-oiled shoreline beyond, appears pristine. The beaches have been mostly scoured by winter storms. And many invertebrates and plant species have begun to recolonize the intertidal zone, even in areas blasted by hot-water wash. The bald eagle nesting rate, which failed by 85 percent in 1989, returned the next year to pre-spill levels.

But those of us who knew the region before the disaster notice a new silence, especially in places once populated with seals, otters or birds. And some beaches still have patches of asphaltlike oil that will probably take decades to degrade in the cold; sometimes the oil still sheens into the water. Unlike eagles, many creatures have not rebounded. Particularly striking is the dearth of sea otters, harlequin ducks, murres and oystercatchers. In intertidal zones, mussel mats retain oil trapped four years ago. Not only is that bad news for mussels, but also for the many animals that eat them.

Fishermen had to wait until last summer's salmon return to see if the oil had harmed the progeny of the juvenile pink salmon that had emerged at the time of the spill. The return was disastrous, only one-quarter to one-third of what had been projected, and included the first significant failure ever of salmon to return to Prince William Sound's commercial hatcheries, suggesting an ongoing genetic impact of the oil. In contrast, Alaskans outside the spill-affected area harvested large salmon returns, even higher than projected.

Scientific studies of the damage - $100 million worth by state and federal governments - have confirmed that the damage was severe and is ongoing. The results, kept secret at first for use in lawsuits, have only been made public since 1991. The studies have confirmed what we already knew - that oil doesn't mix with water and wildlife. But they also document exactly how and why. The studies revealed that the oil quickly permeated into every corner of thc ecosystem. It became a biological tracer, a barium enema of sorts, indicating how strongly the various organs of the ecosystem are  interconnected. North Slope crude found its way into the water column, sediments, bottom fish , barnacles, mussels, worms, algae, salmon, herring, trout, eagles, oystercatchers, guillemots, scoters, loons, ducks, murres, dozens of other bird species, sea otters, seals, sea lions, whales, mink, river otters, deer, brown bears and, of course, humans working on the cleanup. In short, virtually everything that interacts with the upper layer of the sea was impacted.

Throughout the region, many of the fish, birds and mammals that survived are, to this day, in generally poorer condition. A virtually complete reproductive failure occurred in murres and harlequin ducks in the region. Murre populations are not expected to recover completely for up to 75 years. Herring that hatched during the spill appear to be missing from the sound. State scientists now estimate that 15 million to 25 million pink salmon may have been lost to the 1990 return alone due to spill effects. Officials have yet to draw a conclusion about the cause of last summer's poor return.

State and federal scientists have found the effects of the oil in organisms from fish to whales - in such forms as brain damage, reproductive failure, genetic damage, structural deformities such as curved spines, lethargy, lowered growth rates and body weights, changed feeding habits, reduced egg volume, eye tumors, increased numbers of parasites, liver damage and behavioral abnormalities.

The response to the spill - including the many thousands of cleanup workers, boats, planes and helicopters - further compounded the spill's impact. Even the sea-otter rescue effort, as emotionally helpful to humans as it was at the time, possibly had a net negative effect on the otter population. Unoiled otters became oiled trying to avoid capture , captured animals were traumatized and some may have spread a viral disease from treatment centers to the wild. Most died shortly after release.

Like it or not, our mostly futile efforts to contain and clean up the spill meant little to wildlife. During late nights holed up in the Valdez courtroom commandeered by local fishermen as an operations center for the first month, sometimes, between buckets of coffee, we had time to reflect. Telephone calls came from all over, some promising to turn oil into water, others just to offer condolences. Thc call that really jolted me was from a friend in the oil industry who predicted that "lawyers yet to be born will work on this case."

The notion of quickly settling impending legal battles was born early; my fishermen friends and I agreed even in those early days that the priority was obtaining funds to use soon for the sake of the ecosystem. We were not alone. By the summer of 1990, a coalition of environmental, fishing and Native groups proposed that Alaska and the federal Justice Department negotiate an out-of-court settlement of the governments' civil and criminal cases against Exxon.

On October 8 , 1991, I sat in the back of a tense Anchorage courtroom to see Exxon's executives and lawyers, along with attorneys from the Justice Department and the state of Alaska, meet front and center before a white-haired U.S. District Court judge for approval of the settlement. The deal requires Exxon to pay a $25 million fine, $100 million in criminal restitution and $900 million over ten years for civil damages (which are tax deductible for Exxon). After the government agencies collect about $215 million and Exxon about $40 million for expenses, about $745 million should go for restoration.

But that, it turns out, is far easier said than done. Since the settlement, an impassioned debate has flared over how best to spend the money, which is administered by a trustee council of several state and federal agencies. Scientists want more science; fishermen want fisheries-enhancement projects; and developers talk about building roads, dams, ports, tourist facilities, even industrial technology centers. Former Interior secretary Manuel Lujan and Alaska governor Walter Hickel went so far last year as to propose simply banking the Exxon money and spending just the interest.

As of this writing, the agencies have funded little other than reimbursements, administrative overhead and further studies. They say they are being cautious in deciding how to spend limited dollars. But a report issued last October by five environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, charges that "not one penny has yet been spent on substantive restoration, and the Bush and Hickel administrations have crippled the process with red tape."

If anything has become clear, it is that there is really no such thing as oil-spill restoration. We simply cannot fix a broken ecosystem like we can a broken machine. For many, this realization has been a bitter pill to swallow. Some of the more viable alternatives include increased management of human activities; manipulation of natural resources, such as improvement of fish-spawning habitat; and habitat acquisition.

Aside from oil spills, many local people perceive the greatest threat to the region's integrity to be clear cutting planned for the several hundred thousand acres of privately owned forests along the coastline. That logging, ironically, started near the time of the spill. On each flight out to the spill through Valdez Arm, I could look out one side of the aircraft to see the nation's largest oil spill and, with amazement, out the other side to see a brown, muddy sear spreading across what had for centuries been a deep green, forested mountainside of ancient spruce and hemlock trees. These old-growth forests are the northernmost extension of the temperate rain forest. Not only are thcy critical to crcatures ranging from salmon that need the clear streams to bears, but the woods provide habitat for many species injured by the spill. One proposal for the restoration money is to buy and protect at least 500,000 acres of forest along the shores of Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula and the islands of Afognak and Kodiak. Detractors point out that since the forest wasn't hurt by the spill, its purchase is not strictly restoration.

Even so, the Alaska legislature passed a bill last year that earmarked most of the state's share of the criminal payment for just such habitat aquisition. But, despite overwhelming support from environmental groups and citizens of the spill-impacted region who feel this is the best way to offset the spill damage, Governor Hickel vetoed the measure. For now, the definition of restoration for the Exxon Valdez disaster awaits the development of a restoration plan to be ready by early 1994, some five years after the grounding.

As for the thousands of private claims of fishermen, Alaska Natives, municipalities and businesses against Exxon and the pipeline consortium Alyeska , they are not scheduled to go to trial until next year. Until these cases are resolved, the spill's socioeconomic wounds will fester.

On the brighter side, the oil-transport system has been partially reformed. In 1990, Congress unanimously passed the Oil Pollution Act, which includes a comprehensive liability scheme, a $1 billion response fund, tougher civil and criminal penalties and more thorough contingency planning. Its requirements include upgrading shoreside vessel-traffic systems, more stringent pilotage requirements in hazardous areas, mandatory crew rest schedules and testing for drugs and  alcohol. All new tankers must have double hulls, and large single-hulled tankers mus t be phased out between 1995 and 2010. (However, as public memory of the spill fades, the oil industry is weakening many of the act's strong provisions through the regulatory process.)

In Alaska, a Regional Citizens Advisory Council that oversees safe transport of oil, funded by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company to the tune of $2 million a year, has been established. (The funding pays for studies and administrative costs; no members no members receive money. And much more spill response equipment is on hand - enough, says  Alyeska, to recover a 300,000 barrel spill within 72 hours in ideal conditions. In Prince William Sound, every outbound tanker is now escorted by a tug and a specially equipped spill-response vessel. A simple navigational light now glows on Bligh Reef - a tombstone of sorts.

Like Alaska, virtually every coastal and Great Lakes state in the nation has revised and strengthened spill prevention and response systems. Today, the nation is somewhat safer from oil spills than we were in 1989. But given that the oil-transport system that led to the Exxon Valdez spill was seriously flawed every step of the way, assessing how far we've come since depends on whether you see the glass as part full or part empty.

And to some, the glass looks far more empty. Above all, the argument goes, we seem to have missed the real implications of this sort of disaster - the dysfunction of a notion of progress based on oil.

I often think about that notion now, four years after the Exxon Valdez took over my life. I come down late at night to my office, a shack on pilings that sway in the strong winds of Cordova's harbor. I frequently catch myself in something of a stupor, staring out at sea otters munching crabs in the harbor lights, indifferent to southeasterly gales, floating among boats with engines that use oil. Society seems reluctant to constrain its voracious appetite for oil. Humanity still seems willing to wage wars to secure oil supplies; convert wilderness and disrupt communities to explore for and pump oil; transport it through vulnerable pipelines across land and seabed; run it through chronically polluting marine terminals; and load it onto seriously aging, mostly single-hulled vessels guided by shoreside vessel-traffic systems that are generally outdated. Despite safeguards, tankers still collide, ground and explode, spilling an es timated 3 million barrels of their toxic cargo into the world's oceans every year. Seldom is more than 10 percent recovered. As a scientist, I also ponder what we've learned from this oil spill, and I know that research and body counts only go so far in helping us digest the spill's impact.

The essence of the disaster lies in images of once-playful river otters oiled and crawling off to die in rock crevasses along their home streams; bald eagles losing their grip in the tree tops, falling dead deep in the forest; orphaned sea otter pups searching for dead parents, shivering through oiled fur in cold water that once seemed warm; seals, sea lions and whales staring up at a black sea surface through which they must swim in order to take their next breath, eyes and nostrils inflamed, often then inhaling oil instead of air; diving birds, soaked in oil and unable to fly, with simply nowhere to go but back into the thick of the oil.

If nothing else, the Exxon Valdez should serve to remind all of us that any true prosperity we seek in this world must also include consideration for the many innocent beings along the way, like the scoter at Applegate Rocks.

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