An impenetrable fog sat like dead weight on the water. The Marine helicopter, rotors swinging, screamed and jiggled as if to pick a fight with the weather. Its big back door hung open like a jackolantern's mouth.
I asked myself once again, "What in the world am I doing here?"
As always, it was too late to change my mind. The helicopter mounted the opaque drizzle and began to fly, thumping through the fog of Prince William Sound. I surveyed the 18 other reporters and photographers lining the walls of the machine, looking as nervous as rookie commandos on their way to battle. I looked at the pilot, turning his map this way and that, even though outside the windows there was only whiteness.
I'd been covering the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez for six weeks, and already I'd been on several such flights. Flights that intensified my fear of flying. Flights during which I would look around the aircraft and wonder how big a story it would be if we crashed. The bigger the potential story, the safer I felt. Would the story rate a black border? I eyed my fellow passengers. Whose name would appear first?
Not mine. I was a small cog in the publicity machine, risking my life to see Vice President Dan Quayle pose for pictures on an oily beach.
I might have been excited, but six weeks had been enough to change me. I'd seen enough oil spread across the wilderness to know that Dan Quayle could stand on it and have his picture taken all year and it wouldn't make any difference.
The whole human race couldn't make much difference. It could send people hopping like sand fleas from beach to beach. It could labor greatly to deceive itself. But it couldn't clean up the oil.
That large reality wasn't hard to see. Only the flights to see officials deliver their symbols tended to coincide with storms. Symbols work on schedules, beaches can wait for good weather.
In early April, I rode on a helicopter full of photographers in search of dead animals on a sunny, smooth, inviting day. I had no particular objective. I had seen lots of oily beaches and dead animals in more exciting circumstances. I was just flying to see more.
We landed on Green Island, where the 1964 earthquake lifted a lacy scattering of rocky islets from a green sea floor. The rocks are like shattered crockery, the shafts of wizened trees pushing apart the cracks. We climbed over them. After the roar of the helicopter, the silence was as benign as the warm sun. I heard a raven cry, and found myself falling under a sad enchantment.
This was the sort of place where I had played in tide pools as a boy, learning the names of animals that live on stalks and crabs that change their shells like kids shedding last year's clothes. I remembered picking mussels one hot Fourth of July on an island in Kachemak Bay and steaming them in wine over a driftwood fire at dusk.
Oil was spewed in patches like vomit. The odd little animals were dying or dead. A rank smell of oil and rotting sea life hung in the air. This was no longer a paradise.
For the first time, the meaning of the oil spill sank in. It had even less than I thought to do with the symbolic acts of officials.
A few weeks ago I went back to Green Island in a small boat. The same rocks I remembered were still slathered with thick, nasty oil. The creatures I remembered were gone. Former tide pools were full of empty shells. Rocks still shed like lepers the life that tried to cling to them.
When I returned to Valdez the next day, it was full of reporters. On big stories, reporters move in great waves; they had sloshed back into town to cover Exxon's pullout. To my amazement, many were impressed that Green Island was especially clean.
Exxon's cleanup manager, Otto Harrison, had taken them to Green Island to show them how well the cleanup had gone. The beach was ironic, he said, because Denny Kelso, Alaska's commissioner of environmental conservation, had pointed to it earlier in the summer as an example of a heavily oiled shore that would never be clean.
The Exxon public relations men all brandished rocks they said came from Green Island. The rocks were nearly clean. Harrison held one up at a press conference.
"If you've been working on this spill for a while, I encourage you to go to Green Island, because you'll feel a lot better," he said.
He waved his clean, feelgood rock. I imagined swallowing it like an aspirin.
The next day, the DEC counterattacked, pointing out that there were lots of beaches on Green Island and lots of rocks. State officials said there had never been much oil on the particular beach where Harrison took reporters. Kelso then took reporters to the beach he said he had visited before, and it was not the same one. It was oily. He charged Harrison with intentionally deceiving the public.
But the reporters said they weren't sure. Where had they been standing each time? Here? Around the point? What exactly did Harrison say? No one was satisfied that they knew precisely what had happened.
I started to wonder why I cared.
More than $1 billion had been spent on fantasy. When the cleanup was over, many of the beaches that withstood the onslaught of thousands of dollars looked the same as beaches that were set aside without being cleaned. The cleanup was declared a success, yet miles of filthy shore remained.
I never expected it to be harder to convince the world of reality than of fantasy, but this summer, fantasy nearly wiped out the truth. Reality was too remote, too inaccessible. It was on distant, isolated beaches all across this part of Alaska. Some people, if they were paid enough, didn't even believe in it when they stood in it up to their ankles.
I nearly succumbed myself when I spent more than two weeks in Valdez without getting out to the beaches. It was a city of dreams, always socked in, living on statistics and the hopeful sincerity of officials with reams of proof for something that simply wasn't so.
Sometimes I wanted to join them. Surely it would be simpler to pretend the beaches were clean than to continue pretending to clean them.
At first, fighting that impulse was easy. A fantasy takes time to gain momentum. At first it appears absurd.
Early one morning in late March I stood on a dock in the Valdez small boat harbor when a line of about 150 men marched past me in single file, each wearing a hard hat, a rain suit and a life preserver, many carrying shovels over their shoulders like rifles. As they passed and climbed onto a tour boat, I asked one after another who they were and where they were going. Not one answered. They looked straight ahead. Their eyes didn't stray.
About a week later I was there again, before first light, in my own rain suit. I asked to go with them, and finally was allowed on board. Workers told me the earlier secrecy was because their cruises had had no destination the boat of workers simply went out and floated around, trying to look busy. But now, I was assured, they were being really productive.
A delicious breakfast was served on the way to Naked Island. Workers making $1,750 a week played dollarante poker and talked about investments. In the observation lounge, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit video flickered on a huge television. Men in thick work clothes rode through the chilly early morning darkness undisturbed by the incongruity of the naked skin, water and sand.
They had to be ready to accept the absurd at face value. At work on the beach, each sat down with an oilabsorbent rag, picked up a pebble, wiped it off, and tossed it toward the water. Some threw at a target to make the day go faster. When I walked along the bottom of the beach, they threw the rocks at me. Throwing the rock you wiped was important, they said, because if you put it down beside you, you couldn't tell it from the uncleaned oily rocks.
For the first of many times to come during the summer, I was a sole unbeliever surrounded by people who at least pretended to be convinced of something that obviously wasn't true.
Almost everyone had a reason that the work was worthwhile. Many said, "It's better than nothing," although they couldn't say why. Or they had to be out here "just in case." Or they were in training, learning to walk on slippery rocks so they would be ready to work on other slippery rocks when better equipment was available.
I kept asking the same question again and again. What good was this doing? George Cowie, a foreman for Exxon's spill contractor, Veco, finally said, "Exxon is a multibilliondollar outfit. They haven't gotten to where they are by being ignorant or stupid. And they've got guys earning $100,000 a year working on this. So I basically trust that they know what they're doing."
I wrote my story for the next day's paper on the boat ride back to town the swimsuits were on the television again doing my best to describe how absurd the work was, and how the workers were being paid enough money to pretend it was real.
After the story appeared, some of the Veco workers went looking for me. A couple of them shouted obscenities at me in the streets and again in a restaurant. Reporters twice tried to substantiate a rumor that a Veco worker had come up behind me in a restaurant and hit me on either side of the head with the two halves of a hamburger. Creative, but not true. Later, another rumor circulated that a Veco worker gave as an excuse for missing work that he had hit me with the burger, been arrested, and spent the day in jail. This excuse was said to have satisfied his supervisors.
I met the foreman, Cowie, twice more. On Naked Island, where his crew was still rockwiping weeks later, he asked me to sign a scrawled document saying I wouldn't blame Veco if his workers physically attacked me. In May, I met him again. He was part of the crew trying to clean the beach on Smith Island for Quayle to visit. There Cowie refused me a ride on a boat with another journalist and made me jump out of his way on a path to keep from being knocked down.
George Cowie and I could have been friends. I liked him the first time we met. He's about my age, and I could easily have been in his shoes. It is probably unfair to expect skepticism from a young man being paid thousands of dollars a week to pretend.
It wasn't always so simple. I accumulated regrets.
I didn't enjoy writing that the bird catchers, kindhearted animal lovers, were only mitigating Exxon's public relations problems by rescuing a few hundred birds among tens of thousands that died. I didn't enjoy describing the dissection of a pregnant dead otter as vividly as I could, but thought I needed to show the contrast between that ugliness and the work at the Valdez otter center, where dead animals were whisked away before volunteers could see them.
When I first saw the technology used to try to wash oil off beaches, I wanted to say it worked. But squirting surface gravel with water doesn't remove heavygrade oil from underneath. Technology can build huge tankers and glass buildings, but can't make wilderness wild again.
I was sorry to make an enemy of a man named Norman, a cannery foreman, whom I respected. He was a poor speaker in poor clothes, but he was proud of the hard work that had made him foreman at the cannery. He was afraid of the oil spill and what it was going to do to him. Unlike the college kids working there, he was not sophisticated, but he had a lot riding on the claim he would file with Exxon. One of his coworkers was afraid of losing the used trailer she had just bought.
At the cannery you could tell the college kids from the people who were making a career of it. The real cannery workers had the kind of health problems that can be fixed for less than the cost of a college education crooked teeth, crossed eyes and thin limbs and they smoked. They seemed defenseless against Exxon employees, who had taken on the unconvincing protective coloration of brandnew, pressed blue jeans. In my story I described Norman drawing "on a cigarette through his ragged teeth."
A few days later I met him in a restaurant. He was as angry as the Veco workers. "What right do you have to print in the paper that I'm a raggedtoothed man?" he shouted. I wanted to explain to him that it was a literary device, that it was meant to help tell his story, that the embarrassment was worth the good of telling his story. But I didn't think I could convince him. And I wasn't sure I could convince myself.
Yet he might have believed the truth of it, as I see it now. I made him a raggedtoothed man out of selfpreservation. The summer was such a whirlpool of lies and illusions that the only way I could stay afloat was to write the truth as I saw it and not care how it hurt anyone. Morally, I don't think that is right, but practically, it was better to feel embattled and vilified than unsure of what to write.
At times, it felt like a war. That's how it was organized. There were sides, and at least some people on each thought you could say anything you liked as long as it helped your own. State and Exxon bureaucrats rarely met except in formal meetings, when their exchanges were rituals of criticism. Each lobbed a few grenades while the other ducked. Neither seemed to listen.
They even lived like warriors. They rarely left their offices, guarded like fortresses by uniformed officers with guns. They slept together in their own camps, ate three meals a day at their desks, worked long, long days, and developed a bunker camaraderie with their coworkers. Most worked only a few weeks before rotating out Exxon people called it a "hitch" or a "tour" and the enemy never had a chance to get to know the people attached to the titles.
The oil spill was eulogized by environmentalists as a nuclear holocaust and celebrated by Exxon as a successful conquest. Writers used the war metaphor as if it were an express train to the truth and no other was leaving the station. In their articles workers on the beaches became soldiers landing at Normandy or retreating from Dunkirk. I was guilty of comparing Valdez to Saigon.
But the war metaphor didn't really fit. Who was the enemy? Not the oil. It didn't fight back, it just sat there. It wasn't trying to prove a point. We were.
The oil was an embarrassment. Workers weren't soldiers fighting it. They were more like partying teenagers who had ruined their parents' carpet, trying hopelessly to clean it up before mom and dad got home.
The desperation of embarrassment motivates such madness, not the fury of war. What else could explain a society spending more than $1 billion enough to build 100 elementary schools at Anchorage prices on a cleanup that was known from the start to be unlikely to work well, if at all, and which might do more harm than good? Besides, wars always end.
The war fought over the oil spill was between people. It was a war of language, and the spoils of victory were getting to call the disaster by a name of your choosing.
Each side won a few battles. Exxon turned "quitting" into "demobilization," then "transition." It changed the summer's goal from "cleaning" and "restoration" to "treatment for the purpose of environmental stabilization," forcing government agencies to retreat to "removal of gross contamination" and "removal of mobile oil."
A battle was fought over the forms used to "sign off" beaches after the goal was achieved, but since the goal was undefined, the term "sign off" could have any number of meanings. Some beaches were signed off without ever having been hit by oil. Some beaches were oiled but never got into the filing system. Others were signed off even though the Coast Guard admitted they still had gross contamination and mobile oil, because the Coast Guard wanted to fill out the forms.
It was a victory for Exxon, which used the signoffs as miles of beach "done," and was able to claim "the last mile" on the day of its selfimposed deadline to quit, or "transition."
Almost everything got a pretty name from Exxon or the state and federal governments. Exxon's beachcleaning chemical, Corexit, was allowed by calling its use a "test," even through the work would not involve any testing. Killing seals to study them was "collection." Animals killed by the oil were called, "specimens," and boats that collected them a "wildlife rescue fleet." Broken down skimmers that were anchored in place were "deployed." Emulsified oil was "chocolate mousse." Floating blobs of it were called "tar balls" or "patties" in polite society, "turds" by workers in the field.
Leaving oil in the environment, to weather and dilute, to bleed out of beaches and poison seashore life, was called, "letting nature clean it up." If you can't buy a happy ending, call the tragic ending by another name.
"Letting nature clean it up" was an especially ironic phrase in Kodiak. While Prince William Sound cleaned itself, Kodiak, downstream in the prevailing currents, got dirtier all summer. Beaches were being freshly hit by oil as Exxon was pulling out in September.
Standing on the beaches of Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula, I felt like I was standing at the edge of the world. The Shelikoff Strait's unreliable horizon was a soft, smudged pencil line, losing itself in equally gray sky like an erasure at the edge of a map. Oil blobs were at my feet. Nature "cleans" itself by spreading the oil ever farther. That kind of "clean" is complete when every beach is equally dirty.
When that day comes, Arnie Shryock still won't be happy. He was in charge of the Kodiak DEC office, and was the gentlest angry man I ever met. He bought a house there this summer, and plans never to leave. His soft voice and fury combined to sound like a conscience to me.
When Exxon left, Shryock told a town meeting the good news from the experts: the oil would keep spreading, and nature would clean itself. But his voice had no hope in it.
"The concept is kind of frightening in some ways," he said. "It may be, as the experts say, that we won't see a longterm impact. But hopefully, that doesn't justify the massive pollution of an oil spill. Hopefully, it doesn't change the way we feel about it as a community, and make fishermen think they can pump their bilges, because it's nothing compared to this huge spill.
"I hope that two or three years down the road we're not looking at this from the standpoint that it's all OK, nature can take care of itself."
Maybe the fantasy will win. Why else do people feel different now, with so little changed from the time they were outraged?
We knew this spring there was no good way to clean the oil spill. Society decided there would be a massive cleanup anyway. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Clyde Robbins, the federal onscene coordinator, acknowledges that the political pressure for a cleanup was irresistible, and probably would have been even if science had known for sure that it would be harmful.
Decisions like this one aren't made on the basis of science. The cleanup was bought and paid for because people wanted it the way they insist on a happy ending at the movies. Why not walk out of the theater with a smile, as the director intended?
Maybe I'm just a sourpuss.
I wasn't hurt financially by the spill. Most of those who were got at least something from Exxon to make up for it. Before the spill I had been boating with my family in the Sound, but I had never lived there. I felt bad about the birds and animals that died, but they weren't pets. Their species were mostly not endangered and their numbers will probably recover.
Still, the wrong I feel has grown only deeper. Before this accident, I knew that our species was destructive, but I thought we could contain our destructiveness. I thought we could live in cities and, if our resources were gathered responsibly, there could still be parts of the world where the wilderness was unburdened by our mark.
When I helped catch birds in Herring Bay, on Knight Island, a week after the spill, I still held those beliefs. I watched flakes of gently falling snow float unmelting on top of the black oil our boat was slicing. I scrambled over an oily rock islet with a dip net to chase a halfdead duck. I felt so foolish I couldn't stop smiling.
Then, recently, I returned to Herring Bay. There was far less oil, but it affected me more deeply. I ate dinner in the rain on an oily beach. The sun was setting and a waterfall roared nearby. Although there were other boats in the bay, we were by ourselves, surrounded in one of the bay's many folds by monoliths of rock. The rain stopped. Above the mountains, the clouds still caught the light. They looked like a crocheted bedspread between me and the sky's blue, which graduated from translucence in the west to blue straight above that made me swallow deep. It was pricked with shooting stars.
It struck me then that this place should belong to no one. Only this moment should. But now the place and all the moments in it had been stolen by the inescapable oil. It was a human place now, a throwaway, like an industrial zone. Spending a billion dollars to find a happy ending had only made it worse.
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