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A quarter-century later, anguish over Exxon Valdez misplaced

Craig Medred
The Exxon Valdez cleanup helped pull Alaska over a economic slump.
State of Alaska photo

Looking back 25 years after the misfit crew of drunken Joe Hazelwood put the Exxon Valdez on the rocks on outside of Valdez Narrows, there are no nightmare memories.

This is clearly not the politically correct thing to say. If you want that, go read National Public Radio's "dead zone" fairy tale about Cordova, the city the oil spill missed only to have it become the focus of so much oil-spill anguish. 

Disasters -- be they natural, manmade, familial, business or some other type -- are horrible things. They change lives. And then you move on or turn into some sort of shriveled wreck of a human dwelling, obsessed with how life done you wrong. Or some sort of environmental Chicken Little trying to profit off the mistakes of the past for reasons noble or nefarious.

The two are often hard to separate. Part of the revisit of the Exxon Valdez spill now is about reminding people this sort of thing can happen if businesses aren't held accountable for behaving irresponsibly, and part of it is about fund raising. 

Money, money, money...

Everything, or almost everything in a capitalist society, is about money. It is the lifeblood of commerce, politics and individual freedom. A journalism friend now past middle age underlined the latter for me in an email the other day about a subject other than the spill. It was email about job dissatisfaction that contained this all-too-common observation: "I spent a really depressed week when this first cropped up and considered resigning but..."

Anyone over 30 can tick off the buts: debt, family responsibilities, poor job market, friends you don't want to leave. Keep going. One can always find ways to rationalize the avoidance of change. We hate change.

Booming community of people trying to strike it rich

Disasters are painful because they are instantaneous change we cannot avoid. And the Exxon Vadlez oil spill was one ugly change. It swept through Prince William Sound like the stinkiest of farts at a dinner party. 

I use that distasteful metaphor only because the sweet, sickening smell of oil is my most vivid memory of the spill and the craziness that followed, and it was almost nothing but craziness from the start, with so many moving to capitalize on the disaster.

Cordova was no "dead zone." It was booming community full of people trying to strike it rich on oil, albeit spilled oil. 

It’s odd to have lived through the high point of Alaska's oil history, construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, and the low point, the Exxon Valdez spill, only to find them both about the same thing for many an Alaskan, both old and new.

After the first oil boom, the slogan heard round the state was "Lord, please give me one more pipeline; I promise I won't piss all the money away this time." After the spill came the same slogan with the words "oil spill" replacing the word "pipeline."

Sadly, I didn't have the good sense to make any money off either of these modern-day bonanzas for the working man and the small-time entrepreneur.

No, as a reporter, I was involved in watching. The oil spill was a weird scene, and it came at a weird time in Alaska history. The oil-rich state was on the ropes by the late 1980s. It had grown fat on oil wealth and invested poorly.

Some in the administration of Gov. Jay Hammond got the idea in the 1970s that Alaska could become one of the world's new agriculture centers. The idea was Alaskans would grow barley for export. It didn't work. Nor did efforts to create a dairy industry or bring industrial agriculture to the north in other guises.

Looking back on that, one can only wonder what the most enviro-governor in state history was thinking. Nothing changes the environment more than farming; nothing humans have done in history has had a bigger footprint on the land. And all his failed agricultural initiative really did was ignite the idea that profligate government spending was good for the state. 

That idea spread far and wide. In 1983, Anchorage unleashed "Project '80s" and work began on the Egan Civic and Convention Center ($27 million), the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts ($40 million); the Z. J. Loussac Library ($39 million), the Sullivan Arena ($32 million), and a $23 million expansion to the Anchorage Museum.

Anchorage's economy was flush. Then in 1986 came the oil glut, and oil prices went in the toilet. A state economy built on $24 per barrel oil was staring at $10 per barrel oil. The recession that followed was inevitable. Suddenly Anchorage -- ground zero for growth at the time -- was full of Pete Zamarillo's empty strip malls.  

Anyone who thought strip malls were ugly during the boom days discovered when the bust hit how ugly they could get. Many people fled the 49th state. The years 1986 through 1988 marked one of the few periods in Alaska history when the state population declined, and it was different than time than in 1977-78 when pipeline construction was winding down and those who'd come north only for the work were heading home.

Spreading cash like confetti

This time, people who wanted to stay leaving. I knew some of them. They had houses, especially condominiums, that were financially underwater. Some just handed the banks the keys and walked away, saying: "Here, it's yours. Catch me if you can."

Against that backdrop, it seemed sort of natural that when the oil hit the water, the first thing many people did was go looking for the big payday. A lot of them, the really smart ones, figured out ways to get paid to do nothing. Exxon was spreading cash around like confetti to make it look like it was trying to "clean up" the spill, which was one of the great absurdities.

It took only a couple of days, and a little background reporting, to realize that cleaning up a spill was nonsense. The technology to do that didn't exist at the time. It still doesn't.  

I remember making this discovery early on with the tanker Exxon Valdez parked on Bligh Reef, and a nice big oil slick just sort of hanging around her hull while bureaucrats debated what to do about the oil loose on the water:

• Disperse it with chemicals; unpopular with environmentalists.
• Burn it, unpopular with environmentalists and somewhat impractical given that the wrecked tanker still contained 44 million gallons of oil in unruptured holds that might leak if the ship itself started burning.
• Suck it up, a pipe dream.

Still, it didn't look that bad at first. It really didn't. There were a few birds that managed to get into the oil and die, but it was no big deal.

The big deal came three or four days later when the wind came up. I don't remember the exact date other than it was the same day it was announced the Anchorage Daily News had won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories portraying alcohol as the scourge of Alaska Natives.

Daily News managing editor Howard Weaver and most in the middle of that newsroom were celebrating their "success" in painting the state's aboriginal population as a bunch of drunks while a handful of reporters were off in another corner of the newsroom trying to report on what was becoming some sort of environmental Armageddon.

Things would only grow more bizarre in the days, weeks and months to follow. Alaskans and the world would learn much about oily "mousse," an emulsification of oil and water that swelled the 11 million gallon spill to two or three times its original size and made it even more difficult to clean up.

The skimmers couldn't suck mousse. Dispersants didn't disperse it. It wouldn't burn. And it was everywhere.

It swept across the Gulf of Alaska. Fouled the beaches of the southern Kenai Peninsula. Dirtied grizzly bears on Kodiak Island and in Katmai National Park and Preserve and killed seabirds by the hundreds of thousands.

Mostly change, not destruction

I remember doing a lot of research at the time and writing that the oil spills seldom turn out to be as bad as they look at the beginning -- and this one looked really bad. But they would have lingering effects long after everyone thought the spill history.

Oil didn't destroy the environment; it just changed it. We humans are not nearly as powerful as we like to think we are. We can certainly make a mess of the planet, but life finds a way to adapt and continue to flourish.

The adapters found their niches in the Sound. 

Crazily enough, humpback whales, once an endangered species, were among the adapters. When herring stocks dipped, apparently due to viral hemorrhagic septicemia possibly related to the oil spill, commercial fishing of those small fish was shut down in the Sound.

While the fishermen were on the beach, the whales moved in and took over. What developed was some sort of "balance of nature" that was good for the whales, and bad for the fishermen. The whales fed on herring. Their predation kept the stock from growing. And the fishermen were left on the beach.

"The ecological literature is replete with examples of the far reaching and unanticipated effects as apex predators (like whales) re-enter ecosystems," scientists for the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration would note in a 2010 study titled "Humpback Whale Predation and the Case for Top-Down Control of Local Herring Populations in the Gulf of Alaska": "Currently the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council is contemplating several restoration options for Prince William Sound herring. Predation by humpback whales presents a daunting obstacle to these efforts. Moreover, enhancing bottom-up processes may have little effect on herring production if the top-down effects exerted by whales continue to be a dominating force."

Herring mystery?

Who would have imagined back in 1989 that the oil spill would prove a plus for the whales that are now over-wintering in the Sound, something they didn't do pre-spill. They found a nice little niche and moved in. Not so good if you're a commercial fisherman.

"Today... the biggest mystery that remains is what happened to Prince William Sound's herring fishery" is how NPR sees it in yet another 25th anniversary story titled "Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Brings 'Bad Juju' And Pain 25 Years Later": "Other fish -- salmon, cod and halibut -- have rebounded. Scientists are still trying to figure out why herring are not back to fishable levels now 25 years after the spill."

"Rebounded?" Cod and halibut were unaffected by the spill, and the affects on salmon were minimal. The oil floated atop the water. The fish swam beneath. The damage done to salmon was primarily in places where they spawned in intertidal zones. Eggs deposited in oil developed all sorts of abnormalities, but those eggs represented a small percent of the spawn in the Sound.

NPR reporters are to be excused if they missed this. It is a sad fact of life that what one sees is too often colored by our prejudices. This was often obvious during the spill. There was a disagreement at the Daily News about what has since become an iconic photo of a dead Sitka blacktail deer in an oil slick. There was no evidence the oil spill killed that deer. Absolutely none.

There was also no evidence the oil spill didn't kill the deer.

As a student of ecology and a reporter who'd walked beaches in Southeast Alaska with Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists assessing what they called "winter kill," I had my prejudices. Dead Sitka blacktails can be almost as common as driftwood on the beaches of Alaska in the spring due to this phenomenon.

The smallish, short-legged deer do not fare well in areas of deep snow. It pushes them down out of the mountains where the eating is good, and then it often buries the food down low. They regularly are forced to scrounge out a living along the beach edge hoping spring arrives before they starve to death. Often they don't make it.

As someone familiar with winter kill, and the fact a lot of deer die on the beaches of the Sound every winter, I leaned toward the idea the most likely reason there was a dead deer floating in the oil in early April, when Sound beaches were still deep in snow, was that a deer died of natural causes on a beach, a high tide lifted the carcass, and it drifted offshore. This was definitely not the majority view.

There was some debate about what to do with that photo. It was a powerful image, and in the journalism business powerful images sell news. And there was no way of proving the spill didn't kill the deer. 

There were any number of chemicals rapidly evaporating into the air over the oil. Oil vapors might have killed it if the deer had breathed them. Maybe. And there was a remote possibility the animal could have eaten something contaminated with oil that might have fouled up what is a pretty complicated digestive track.

The photo ran. The cutline, if I remember right, was a compromise that said simply that the dead animal was found floating the spill area, which was perfectly true. At the time, one could have written almost anything bad about the spill without challenge.

Dead spruce trees

Realistically, one could also have argued that the actual scene on the ground was so horrific, so beyond the comprehension of anyone who wasn't actually there, that any exaggeration understated the reality.

The spill was a disaster. Disasters are always hard to comprehend in the moment unless you are there. Afterward, it all changes. How our view of them is shaped over time is complicated by all sorts of human factors including who we individually want to blame.

Take a drive on the Seward Highway south of Anchorage. Make a stop at Bird Point to view the eerie stalks of dead, salt-soaked trees along Turnagain Arm. They are victims of an environmental disaster. Look south across the Arm into the mass of gray, dead spruce trees on the north end of the Kenai Peninsula. They are victims of another environmental disaster.

The salt-impregnated trees are victims of the Good Friday earthquake of 1964. It dropped the land in places and uplifted it others. All of which brought permanent environmental changes.

The dead spruce on the Kenai are victims of spruce bark beetles that have flourished as the Southcentral region of the state has warmed in recent times. Some contend this is part of the fallout from global warming. The oil that makes it south from Valdez in the pipeline -- the oil that doesn't spill -- is refined into gas and diesel that play a role in global warming.

How big their role is a hotly debated subject. The modern world runs on energy from fossil fuels. Where gas, diesel or natural gas are unavailable, people burn coal or wood. Coal and wood produce more carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, than petrochemicals.

Coal and wood also have some other nasty side affects. The World Health Organization estimates 7 million people died due to air pollution globally in 2012. 

Seven million. About half those deaths were tied to indoor cooking with wood or coal. People don't cook that way because they have a choice. They cook that way because it is the only way to cook, and if you don't eat you die.

"Meanwhile," CNN reported, "outdoor air pollution killed an estimated 3.7 million people, with more than 80 percent of the deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries."

Those people generally cannot afford oil. We're lucky to be Americans, where life is easy and our main problem is getting upset about the cost of gasoline when we fill up the pickup at the gas station. We don't think twice about where that fuel comes from, of course, unless someone spills some crude.

Then we cry bloody murder, and some proclaim it the end of the world because, well, it's a good way to raise money so they can buy gas to fuel their vehicles. But the truth is, it's not the end of the world. No isolated disaster ever is.

The end of the world is far more likely to come from the things we do consciously but don't care to change. There is a valid argument to be made that we could manage to superheat the planet enough to make it uninhabitable for our species. There is an equally interesting scientific argument to made that between sooty skies and new clouds forming above the surface of a warming planet, we could trigger a new Ice Age, which would be every bit as bad as global warming, and probably worse.

Let's hope neither happens. Because if they did, no one would be around to write the shallow, distorted and seemingly obligatory stories on the anniversaries of the day human life ended on this planet.