Truth and Consequences Along Oiled Shores

Armed with new understanding of the Exxon tragedy, Alaskans are determined not to let it happen again

  • Lisa Drew
  • Jun 01, 1990
A supertanker bound for the Lower 48 from Valdez, Alaska, maneuvers through Prince William Sound carrying 40 million gallons of crude oil. Suddenly, with treacherous Bligh Reef ahead on the left, the engine fails and the tanker begins a perilous drift. Not to worry. Help is nearby in the form of two escort vessels, and one hooks up a tow line to the ship until it regains power. Catastrophe is averted.

If a supertanker has to face potential disaster, that's how it should go - and that's the way it did go last September 20 for the Atigun Pass, on contract with British Petroleum. The rescue seemed almost routine. "The system made it minor," Tim Plummer of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company told the Anchorage Daily News. But the vessels were on hand only  because of an emergency edict by Alaska Governor Steve Cowper after the grounding of the Exxon Valdez last year. Come up with better protection for Prince William Sound, he ordered the oil industry, or the state will close the pipeline terminal. If the Exxon accident hadn't already happened to prompt the order, this article might have been about the tragedy of the Atigun Pass.

Simple as the new measures may appear, getting them in place took the oiling of 1,000 miles of shoreline, the deaths of thousands of animals, devastating social upheaval in communities along the oil's path and as much as $2 billion of clean- up activity.

That it took so much misery to prompt simple precautions is only one of the hard truths that have become clear in the year since the March 24 grounding. In fixing blame, investigators have found widespread failures of industry and regulatory safeguards; in court , lawyers waging battle for powerful clients have seemed bent on rewriting history; and, in the wild, scientists have measured serious harm to wildlife and the environment.

Then there is a last hard truth for the oil industry. A small army of Alaskans along the oil's path, charged with a fierce new citizen activism, is determined to gain control over the way 25 percent of our country's domestically produced oil leaves the state. In recent months, Alaskans have consolidated power in a group called the Oil Reform Alliance, lobbied for stronger transport regulations and visited Scotland's strictly regulated Sullom Voe terminal.

In a step unimaginable before the spill, this winter a citizen watchdog group signed a contract with Alyeska to monitor terminal operations for the life of the pipeline. Alyeska, which operates the pipeline system for a consortium of oil companies, agreed to give the group access and $2 million a year for expenses a and scientific studies. Members are not compensated for their time.

While Exxon completed its last mile of 1989 cleanup last fall, local people like Bridget Milligan devised ways to keep  cleaning what was left behind. "The spill immediately pushed aside the things we thought were important and said, 'Okay, this is what 's important,''' says fisherman-biologist Rick Steiner of Cordovawho, like many local residents, now talks as easily about vessel traffic systems and on-shore surveillance as about salmon runs and herring spawning grounds. "There is a sense of great clarity."

It is a sense born of the hands-on discovery, all along the oil's path, that Alaskans were their own best experts as they took matters into their own hands. During the first days of chaos, Steiner helped coordinate the defense of a prime salmon hatchery. When Exxon wanted reference books on Prince William Sound, Valdez charter-boat operators Nancy and Jim Lethcoe rushed a third printing of their cruising guide. When the oil rounded the Kenai Peninsula in mid-Apri l, illustrator Charlotte Adamson of Homer realized her experience years earlier with a California spill qualified her to set up a bird rescue center. In Seldovia, Tim Robertson, who had just quit North Slope oil-field work, helped his community prepare for the approaching slick. "It was not a big step," he says, "to deciding I was going to devote a portion of my life to spill prevention."

Making sure the tragedy doesn't happen again first requires understanding what went wrong. When the Alaska Oil Spill Commission - a blue-ribbon group charged by the state to investigate the spill-released its findings in January, chairman Walter Parker said he was most surprised at "how completely the entire regulatory system collapsed in the 1980s." Concluded another commission member, "The system was diseased."

Parker's surprise was not shared by everyone. For biologist-fisherwoman Riki Ott , the question before the tragedy was "when, not if" a big spill would hit. Just hours before it did, Ott told a Valdez civic group, "Fishermen feel that we are playing a game of Russian roulette." But no one with the power to change things seemed to be listening. Even at the  meeting, says charter-boat operator Jim Lethcoe, "We didn't realize we should have made spill risk our first order of  business."

The collapse found by the commission can be traced in the spill's many "ifs": if the vessel had complied with sea lane regulations; if the ship had been built with one of the double hulls industry had promised in 1972; if the Coast Guard hadn't allowed single hulls after all; if the Coast Guard hadn't downgraded its radar system five years earlier, cut its radar staff or approved tanker crew reductions; if Alyeska hadn't cut costs in 1982 by doing away with its full-time oil-spill team; if state and federal governments had insisted on viable, enforced contingency planning; if the oil had been contained and skimmed - if only a fraction of that list were the case, maybe the tragedy could have been averted or lessened.

How could so much go wrong? "The shippers simply stopped following the rules, and the Coast Guard stopped enforcing them," reports the state commission. The oil industry, with its crew reductions and mostly single-hulled ships, was clearly motivated by the bottom line. As for the Coast Guard, it apparently cut its own capabilities because of pressure from tanker owners and slashes in funding during the Reagan years. "Judged on its record," reported the Anchorage Daily  News last fall in a major investigative piece, "the Coast Guard is more often partner than policeman to the shipping companies it is supposed to regulate."

By the time the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, contingency readiness was so dismal that the response went spectacularly awry. Alyeska used a damaged barge stripped for repairs, dug through snow for equipment and had only one worker who could run the forklift and the crane to load the barge. When the night work shift was over, with the tanker gushing crude so furiously that the plume rode 2 feet high on the water, the terminal manager sent workers home. And that was just the beginning of what Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation Dennis Kelso called the "inexcusable" early response.

On the second day, Alyeska signed off responsibility to Exxon - without notifying the state it was doing so - and faded from view. It is not clear what plan Exxon was using. The one it shared with Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly for a report to President Bush contained "no equipment list other than mention of a van and sampling equipment." By that time, the world was watching as Exxon did almost  nothing with the oil while the slick lay on calm seas for another full day. And then came the agonizing months of yellow-suited work forces skimming and scrubbing oil that spread almost 500 miles from Bligh Reef.

For local people, the lesson that they could accomplish far more than industry - a sense that has fueled their activism ever since - started in earnest on the fourth night, after gales had scattered the oil. That's when Kelso invited several frustrated Cordova fishermen to the first strategy session with Exxon and other officials. The fishermen had offered help since the beginning, and once Exxon heard their descriptions of currents and prime hatcheries, the oil giant was ready to be helped.

"We got the okay from Exxon to do anything, spend anything," says Steiner. Meanwhile, Exxon was starting to lament what it now considers one of the most important missed opportunities of the response - the chance to apply dispersants while they might have been effective in the first days. Dispersants are not a magic fix; they break the oil up into particles that sink through the water column instead of washing ashore. The chemicals are most effective on freshly spilled oil with mixing action supplied by waves.

Last year, after Alaska sued Exxon and Alyeska for spill damages, Exxon countersued the state. According to Exxon, the state should pay a portion of cleanup costs because its "active opposition" to dispersants caused the Coast Guard to "delay granting permission for their use." The charge outrages Kelso, who accuses Exxon of "a disinformation campaign" to hide "industry's unreadiness." And that's about as much space as most reports can give the debate - just enough for both sides to appear equal.

In a report to its shareholders, Exxon artfully implies that it could have started spraying immediately if only given permission. Yet Exxon - as its own officials have indicated in Congressional and National Transportation Safety Board hearings - didn't have enough dispersant or planes on hand to treat more than a small fraction of the slick in the first hours and days before the oil became weathered. Even if Exxon had been ready, the chemicals probably wouldn't have worked on the calm seas. And even more curious, dispersant approval was up to the Coast Guard, not the state.

The only tactics that did work were being coordinated by Steiner and others. They directed their fleet from a windowless courtroom donated by the state and scrambled to find boom for blocking the oil - generally made of floats with weighted curtains. Steiner called in vessels from as far away as Seattle -"millions of dollars of contractual decisions made on someone's word," he says.

Out in the sound, the fleet headed toward what became known as the Battle of Sawmill Bay to defend a key salmon  hatchery. Cordova fisherman Stephen Bodnar was one of the first through the slick, where "the oil was so heavy we weren't leaving a wake," and where the three men on board realized they had to go hungry for the time being. "For the first time ever," says Bodnar "we couldn't fish; we couldn't depend on living off the land."

At the hatchery, where even minute amounts of oil threatened the 117 million salmon fry waiting in pens to be released for feeding on spring plankton , the fishermen listened skeptically to oil experts and then devised boom deployment techniques of their own. When oil slipped through, they "roundhauled" it, towing absorbent material in smaller and smaller circles to trap the oil. Or they sopped it up by hand. When they wanted to skim outside the boom in an area they called the Oil Patch, they used a state ferry to bring in "supersuckers," normally used to suck up drilling muds on the North Slope.

At night, they took turns patrolling the inner layer in a skiff by searchlight, and a person on watch had time to reflect under the stars. Because the boom trapped fresh water from a nearby waterfall, thin ice formed in the boat's path. The only sounds were the ice breaking and the cries of a loon. "This has been like the death of a loved one," says  Bodnar. "For a lot of us, this is a real spiritual home."

The heroes of Sawmill Bay were relatively lucky in the support Exxon gave them. By the time oil had sloshed along the Kenai Peninsula and beyond , there were endless stories of incompetent crew bosses and intolerance for initiative. "I got to the point I thought I was going to kill someone in frustration," says fisherman Benn Levine. His boss, he says, insisted the crew work at high tide, when the oiled beach was underwater while consulting an old tide chart. Levine quit after he heard his boss tell a fellow worker to stop revealing pools of oil beneath the rocks.

Levine went to Homer; where he helped fisherman Billy Day lead the volunteer Homer Area Recovery Coalition in cleaning a beach its own way. In July, the group chose Mars Cove, a small jewel of a beach around the bend of the Kenai Peninsula that had seemed nearly perfect before the oil. Citing liability worries, Exxon refused the volunteers material or help with waste disposal. But they went ahead with state and federal permission, funded by a state grant. With their own rock washer, volunteers tediously cleaned the beach section by section until late fall, finishing about a third of the beach.

The effort had as much to do with healing psychic wounds as with cleaning the soiled shore. "We're saying that we control our lives," said Levine. "We're making Mars Cove into a sacred spot - something this community is going to remember."

The Mars Cove workers are among scores of Alaskans who decided to improve on Exxon's methods. In Kodiak, clothing designer Bridget Milligan sewed huge bags of oil-absorbent fabric, put oiled rocks and other beach debris inside, set the bags in the surf, and days later pulled out clean rocks and seaweed: the oil was in the blackened fabric.

"I feel the rest of the world came here, smeared oil on my face and said , 'You can't escape; get involved,''' says Milligan, who spent last winter coordinating a bounty system for collecting oil off Kodiak beaches. Thc state is now evaluating her bags, along with hundreds of other cleanup inventions.

The ingenuity in coping with the spill has come at tremendous social cost. Tensions have risen as "spillionaires" who got rich off clean-up work have rubbed shoulders with those who haven't. Crime rates have soared, and mental health centers have been jammed. At the center of the unrest has been the damage to the environment. "It's hard to convince people to come to Prince William Sound," says Valdez charter-boat operator Stan Stephens, "when in your heart it's broken."

Native communities have been particularly disrupted. Worst has been the uncertainty over subsistence food, which natives have hunted and fished without interruption for thousands of years. Not only have natives worried that their food might be contaminated by oil, many were too busy with clean-up work last summer even to try storing food for the winter as usual. And although they were well paid, they found themselves in an unfamiliar hierarchy, being "told what to do by ignorant people who should be asking, not telling," according to Walter Meganack, chief of the village of Port Graham.

Outsiders probably can't fully appreciate just how deeply those changes affected whole communities. "We hardly talk to each other anymore. Everybody is touchy," Meganack told a group of "oiled mayors" last summer. "Our elders feel helpless. They cannot work on cleanup; they cannot do all the activities of gathering food and preparing for winter. And most of all, they can not teach the young ones the native ways. How will the children learn the values and the ways if the water is dead? If the water is dead, maybe we are dead - our heritage, our tradition, our ways of life and living and relating to nature and each other."

Some village residents used money from clean-up work to buy freezers or outboard motors, while others bought luxuries like satellite dishes. Not accustomed to large influxes of cash, they tended to blow it all at once. Then there are alcohol and drugs. In English Bay, where a sobriety movement had been making headway for years, by summer's end even the alcoholism counselors fell off the wagon. By late fall, "in villages where you had 80 percent sobriety," says Leonard Hamilton, director of Health and Human Services for the seven communities of the North Pacific Rim, "most people" were drinking.

No one knows when subsistence food will be as safe to eat as it was before the spill. There is concern over the possible long-term effects of eating very low, "safe" levels of hydrocarbons in a daily diet. "There are no studies," says Tom  Nighswander of the Public Health Service. "We just have no idea." The state has advised against eating shellfish from contaminated bays, as they accumulate hydrocarbons, but says that finfish, extensively tested, are generally all right. The scarce data on crude oil in food eaten by humans are just about all scientists are releasing from spill studies. Lawyers preparing lawsuits have restricted most of the rest - though U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists have released sobering findings from two bird studies. The first found that bald eagle nest failures in spill-affected areas were more than two times higher than usual. The other concluded that more seabirds died from the Exxon Valdez grounding than from any other oil spill in history. More than 35,000 dead birds were found; as many as 300,000, or more, actually died.

The other hard facts about animal deaths are that workers collected the bodies of 1,016 sea otters, 144 bald eagles and 14 other raptors. As with seabirds, those are just fractions of the real totals. Ninety percent of the known bird deaths were outside Prince William Sound. After the Barren Islands were engulfed by the slick, ocean currents swept masses of dead birds from the islands' spectacular rookeries toward land. Workers found beaches littered wilh thousands of the oiled dead. Common murres - diving birds that use their wings to swim underwater - were especially hard hit. One of their teeming colonies on the Barren Islands may have been wiped out.

"If one thing got to us, it was the animals," says fisherman David Grimes. "That was where we saw ourselves drowning in oil." Early in the spill, otter biologist Lisa Ratterman watched from the air as oil overtook a group of sleeping sea otters in the sound. "A blob of oil hit them," she recalls, "and we saw them struggle and become totally immersed. There was that feeling of helplessness."

Sea otters were among the early visible victims, as their coats, which warm their relatively lean bodies, lose their ability to insulate in oil. Like other animals, otters may also suffer long-term effects from oil in Ihe food chain. And otter pups, which tend to be more exploratory and less savvy than adults, "might go into oil when adults may not," says Rotterman. Her studies before the spill had found that Prince William Sound sea otters have unusual genetic variability. That makes them valuable to otter survival worldwide, since otters have come back from a narrow genetic base after being nearly wiped out early in this century.

Although the worst part of the devastation is over, it hasn't ended yet. Winter storms scoured many beaches, but the state still counts about 100 miles of heavily to moderalely oiled shoreline. The intertidal zone, where most of the oil landed, and where tides still drive sheening oil into the ground, is important to much of the region's wildlife. Bears scavenge along the beach. Deer eat kelp. Sea ducks are almost completely dependent on intertidal invertebrates. River otters and mink live in the intertidal zones of freshwater streams. River otters may end up more affected than sea otters. "They're picking the oil up and living with it for years to come," says Don Calkins of Ihe Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Pacific herring and salmon - including half the salmon in the sound - spawn in intertidal areas.

Biologists also worry aboul the general degradation of the ecosystem. Even deaths of thriving species, like murres, can have unforeseen impacts. The vast quantities of bird droppings that slough off the Barren Islands are important to the ecology of nearby walers, fertilizing plant life at the bottom of the food chain.

Prince William Sound has one of the highest densities of bald eagles in the world, and there is "great potential for them to carry oil on their feathers to the nest," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Tim Bowman. Opportunistic predators, eagles feed on dead animals, which last year were often oiled. According to Fish and Wildlife biologist Ed Bailey, on some islands last summer researchers found that "none of the eagle nests succeeded. None."

There is also much concern about harbor seals and sea lions, which were already mysteriously in decline before the spill. Seals may have inhaled oil; one theory is that they interpret the break in tension at the water's surface as a signal to breathe, and that last summer they took in oil instead of air.

As for the pink salmon fry saved at Sawmill Bay, their fate won't be known until this summer, when they should return. Their caretakers released them last spring, as it was the fry's only chance to feed on blooming plankton. There is no way to know for sure if they or others avoided the oil - or whether they'll know the way. The local joke, says Steiner, is that because sa mon are imprinted on smell, "We'll have to attract them by dribbling oil." Other salmon species won't be back for two to five years.

Meanwhile, Steiner and others will continue to fight for safe oil transport. Although Alyeska's new system is, as he points out, "the Rolls Royce of spill response and prevention," the waters are not yet safe. The Coast Guard's radar quality, licensing requirements and inspection abilities haven't changed. And many vessels in the aging tanker fleet are in alarmingly poor condition.

"What we have is the resolve we didn't have before to fight these things," says fisherman David Grimes. It's the sort of resolve that can turn obstacles into mere annoyances. Last year at a press conference in North Carolina on the hazards of offshore drilling, Grimes and Steiner were mistakenly turned away by a guard. They simply look a short cut across a bay and delivered their message while dripping wet that local people can take action to prevent spills. "You don't feel so foolish now," says Grimes, "standing up and saying what you believe."

Lisa Drew is a senior editor of this magazine.

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