The Exxon Valdez oil-spill cleanup the most intense, expensive and widely publicized environmental rescue effort in American history is over. Most of the oil is gone from Prince William Sound.But long-term effects of the spill and the critical importance of the oil industry to this bustling coastal town remain as ubiquitous as the early morning fog.
"Valdez is an oil town," said Stan Stephens, who operates charter flights catering to out-of-state visitors. "There's not a day when 20 people on the trip don't come up to me and want details on what happened."
What happened was simple and devastating. On March 24, 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spewing nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the water and eventually onto about 1,300 miles of shoreline.
Thousands of fishermen, workers and volunteers streamed into the area to help with cleanup. It was boom time for Valdez.
After three summers of cleanup work, in which Exxon spent $2.5 billion, the cleanup crews have gone home. "For all practical purposes, the cleanup is complete," said Ernie Piper, the Alaska state cleanup coordinator.
"We've done as much as is humanly possible," said Rear Adm. David Ciancaglini, the commander of the Coast Guard's 17th District and federal cleanup coordinator based, until last week, in Anchorage.
But legacies of the spill live on.
Taxi drivers here say tourists still ask to visit Bligh Reef, although it's 25 miles away by boat.
As if to admit the battle to clean 200 still-oiled sites around the Sound is lost or at least left to Nature, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is compiling maps to show kayakers and other tourists where the seeping oil is to help them avoid it. Monitors will watch the spots for seepage for years to come, Piper said.
Even some fishermen with fancy new boats bought with Exxon money now are having trouble making payments in a year that's seen record drops in salmon prices and fishermen's strikes throughout the state.
Fishermen and fish processors received about $300 million in compensation from Exxon after the spill.
Poor quality fish caught in 1989, some still on warehouse shelves, and the "over-capitalization" of the Sound's fleet have created "a bit of a market problem," said Paul McCollum of the Valdez Fisheries Development Assoc.
In addition, Native villagers who live on or near the hardest-hit shorelines say more work including research into the toxic effects of the oil on salmon and other marine life is needed.
Villagers who live off what they hunt and fish seals, fish, sea lions, clams and mollusks, deer, bear and marine birds say their resources have been harmed, their subsistence lifestyle forever changed.
"The uncertainty that existed two years ago still exists today," said Gary Kompkoff, a fisherman and village council president in Tatitlek, a tiny Aleut village that is the community nearest to Bligh Reef.
Such uncertainty also exists in the tourism business.
For Betty Schackne, who runs a small bed-and-breakfast that predated the spill, hard times have returned.
"After the spill, every home was a B&B," she said. At one point, there were 60 such establishments and all the motels and hotels of the area were filled by cleanup workers and officials. After a "very slow" spring and early summer, her August calendar is only half full, she said.
"The boom has unboomed," Schackne said.
Today, most eyes in Valdez are not focused on the spill cleanup, but on prevention or, failing that, early and effective oil-spill response.
New tanker escort vessels, better radar and communications, better skimming and other cleanup equipment stationed throughout the area, and improved spill- response plans have been or are being put in place.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the consortium of oil companies that operates the pipeline, is pumping $40 million a year into its new Ship Escort|Response Vessel System, or SERVS. And the Coast Guard is hiring new people and spending $5 million to revamp its vessel-tracking system.
"The name of the game is prevention," Ciancaglini said.
Despite the better safeguards and response plans, however, no one rules out the possibility that it could all happen again.
"This is not a zero-risk business," said Otto Harrison, Exxon's Alaska operations manager. He said Exxon would like the remaining oil to be gone, but describes the Prince William Sound ecosystem as "abundant, healthy and diverse."
Piper, the state spill coordinator, said it's important that industry, government and the American people never come to think cleaning up the spill has fixed the problem.
Long-term biological studies are pending. Other damage assessments are being closely guarded by lawyers representing both sides in a mountain of civil damage litigation. And the real cost to the Native people here is not known, and perhaps never will be, Piper and others said.
"I view it as an open case. You just cannot close the book on a spill like this," he said.
And as long as tankers fill their tanks with crude and flow through Alaska waters, the potential for another spill exists.
"The risk is still there. We may have reduced some of that risk, but we certainly have not eliminated it. It's not a failsafe operation," said Piper.
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