This is the first in a three-part series examining the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill as the state nears the 25th anniversary of the environmental catastrophe.
Ask virtually anyone who was in Homer 25 years ago during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and you are likely to hear a story of frustration, shock, disappointment and sadness as they recount the days, weeks and months that followed one of the nation’s largest oil spills.
On the night of March 23, 1989, the Exxon Valdez bashed into Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, ripping several holes in the bottom of the single-hulled tanker. Crude oil, loaded on the night before from the trans-Alaska pipeline and headed to Pacific Northwest refineries, gushed from the vessel. It is estimated that 11 million gallons of crude oil bled into the sound, though some say it was much more, and images of oiled birds and otters quickly caught the world’s attention. Most who lived through the spill know the details. Captain Joseph Hazelwood was in command of the vessel and diverted course from normal shipping routes to avoid icebergs. He then turned the bridge over to the ship’s third mate and went to bed. At 12:27 a.m., the U.S. Coast Guard got a call from Hazelwood. “We’ve fetched up hard aground, north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef and, evidently, we’re leaking some oil,” Hazelwood told officials in a recording that would be played time and again on documentaries. Hazelwood, many alleged, slurred on that recording, and was later found to have been drinking, making him an easy target for the fury and frustration that followed the spill. But others pointed to overworked crew, broken radar equipment, and insufficient safety protocols, all factors overlooked until disaster struck. No matter who or what was to blame, the question quickly became what to do next.
Not if, when
News of the oil spill spread through the state the following morning, but few knew about it before Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and fisherman in Cordova. In fact, in some ways, Ott knew about the spill before it happened. The night before, Ott, who had been nominated by the local fishing union as their spokesperson, telephonically attended a meeting in Valdez to talk about the need for better protections for Prince William Sound. For over a decade, the oil industry had been pumping crude from the pipeline into tankers. Initially, there had been safety measures in place, but with no mishaps, those measures had been relaxed. Ott said she had told people for years that the setup was ripe for disaster. But it just so happened that one of those conversations happened as the Exxon Valdez was loading its tanks full of crude. “They asked me, ‘What are the risks of our oil neighbor?’” Ott recalled. “That’s when I told them, ‘It’s not if, but when it occurs, and we’re not going to be prepared as a community.’” The next morning, Ott heard a knock on her door. She lived on a hill high above Cordova, only accessible by climbing up the mountain, so she knew a knock at 7 a.m. must be an emergency. At her doorstep was Jack Lamb, Cordova District Fishermen United officer. “He said, ‘We’ve had the big one,’” Ott recalled.
Racing to dress, Ott’s first thoughts were to see what was happening. She got in touch with a local bush pilot and they were soon headed over Prince William Sound. Ott said they were the second plane to fly over “the mess. I was shocked by seeing this little tanker in this big ink stain, all over beautiful Prince William Sound,” she said. “It was this giant amoeba, and I knew ... it was going to be all over the place.” Even in those early hours, the toxic nature of the oil was obvious to those with Ott on the plane. All of them started to get sick to their stomachs, she said. They climbed in elevation, out of what Ott described as a blue fog that was “like a gas station on steroids.” Soon, the air cleared. In those first moments, Ott said she felt a sense of helplessness. She wondered what one person could really do in the face of something so large. But there was also a recognition that she had been put in the right place at the right time to be of assistance to her community. “That’s when I had my thought, ‘I know enough to make a difference, but do I care enough?’” she said. “That’s when I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to end this threat, because as long as we drill, we are going to spill.”
Early cleanup efforts minimal
By today’s standards, the initial response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill was laughable. Even nine hours after the spill, no response equipment was on scene. The Exxon Baton Rouge was diverted, allowed to dump its oily ballast water into the sound on its way, to provide a place to pump the remaining oil off the Exxon Valdez. But equipment that was supposed to be ready was not, and the first-day response drew anger from fishermen and state officials, including then-Gov. Steve Cowper, who called the response “slow and inadequate.”
The transfer began on day two, and after the fact, some praised the work of those involved in pumping thousands of gallons of oil off the leaking vessel. But news on other fronts was bad. Many tanks on the Exxon Valdez were ruptured. The leaking continued. Boom and other supplies were inadequate. While planes gathered up boom from around the world and flew it to Alaska, residents watched in horror. The response effort included an experimental drop of chemical dispersants, which some claimed were as dangerous as the oil itself. A portion of the oil was burned off, which was somewhat effective. But little in the way of a comprehensive plan was forming. Frank Mullen, an Alaska fisherman since he was a teenager and a Kenai Peninsula Borough assemblyman at the time, said the initial days left him and others in shock. “Nobody had ever seen or heard of anything like it,” Mullen said. “As people started to understand what a killing machine it was, it was really emotional for people who lived here and loved Alaska.”
Mullen recalled meetings where fishermen were told by Exxon officials that they were going to be “made whole”: “I remember fishermen by the hundreds standing around in jammed rooms, shaking their fists in anger at the corporate guys, saying, ‘Tell us about that. Tell us how you’re going to do that. We’ve been out there. We’ve carried the oil home by the bucketful. You’re lying to us if you’re telling us your going to pick it up and make us whole.”
Wind blows slick toward Homer
While there might have been hope of containing the spill early on, by two days after the spill, the winds had picked up, whipping the oil into a mousse described as resembling peanut butter. What had been a relatively contained oil stain was now scattered over hundreds of miles, and with that movement, the Kenai Peninsula’s position relative to Prince William Sound became all the more clear. Mike O’Meara had been working for the Pratt Museum since the early days of the spill, documenting what was happening for an exhibit on the disaster. Initially, the spill had seemed relatively far away, but when the wind blew it out into the Gulf of Alaska, people started trying to construct boom out of logs to protect portions of Kachemak Bay, since nothing commercial was available. Frustration mounted at the lack of response. The stress of the situation started to wear on people. “It was like a war zone,” O’Meara recalled. “Every morning I would come into town and think maybe this is the last time I see this intact.”
For Willy Dunne, who had been in Homer for only two years when the spill occurred, there was a similar sense of initial shock, followed by anger. He was just starting his family, building a cabin, and living to some extent off the land and the sea. He had spent time in Prince William Sound and the thought of it covered with oil was devastating, he said. “To have this entity, irresponsibly cause damage -- it felt like my family’s future was threatened,” he said. “It was like some entity comes in and breaks into your house -- it was such a violation.”
Mullen, meanwhile, began attending official meetings as a member of the borough assembly as the slick moved toward Seward and the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula. “Lots of people said a lot of stuff, but there was not a lot of action,” Mullen said. “There wasn’t much they could do. Exxon tried to buy every piece of boom out there and it wasn’t enough. I really came away with the feeling of hopelessness.” Animal rescue centers were set up around the Kenai Peninsula, Mullen said, and had some success, though the majority of the birds, otters and marine mammals that got oiled died before rescuers could get to them. Mullen remembers doing surveys in a helicopter and landing on remote beaches. “I hoped I could save a bird. You’re walking around in this mousse and you feel lumps in it as you are walking and you realize they are carcasses of otters. There were just hundreds of them, dead and mixed in with this gooey Vaseline.”
All of a sudden, the oil was in Homer’s backyard, and so were the VECO company officials contracted by Exxon to oversee the cleanup. With them came a new element to the drama of the spill -- money. With all fishing except setnetting shut down in the Cook Inlet, lots of fishermen were idle. VECO hired them, paying boat owners thousands of dollars. People were hired to clean up beaches. Some called it an exercise in futility. But the money was good, and the expectations were low.
Dunne took a job surveying the beaches for Alaska State Parks. Initially, he thought it was a volunteer position. On the boat ride over, he and other would-be volunteers were told it had been changed to a paid position. On the outer coast, his job was to count dead sea life. “We were walking up to our calves in mousse with a halibut gaff to hook dead birds with,” Dunne said. “It was surreal. It was hard to imagine that this could ever happen.” After three weeks on the coast, Dunne said he had seen enough. He hitched a ride back home and didn’t go back. The destruction got to him, but so did the greed. “The oil spill interrupted everything, but for some people, it was just a well-paid party,” Dunne said. That was a sentiment that divided more than a few communities in Alaska, as people began to notice the spill money divided those desperate to save their state and others less passionate about the effort.
Some, such as a group of volunteers who called themselves the Homer Area Recovery Coalition, banded together to clean up Mars Cove. With equipment they built, volunteers meticulously cleaned each stone on the beach. Mullen and other Cook Inlet Fishermen showed their frustration with the process in another way. They blockaded an oil tanker from docking at the Nikiski delivery terminal. “When you are sitting on the deck of drift boat looking up at a 1,100-foot ship, that’s a long ways up there,” Mullen said, recalling that the tanker, which was unescorted and operating under its own power, played a game of chicken with them. After the ship came to a halt, one of the gillnetters put the bow of his boat against the tanker, just for show. “I think we made our point,” Mullen said. “Before you’re going to haul crude oil around, let’s have a response plan. Let’s have some idea what you’re going to do if it spills.”
This article originally appeared in the Homer Tribune and is republished here by permission.