Coast Guard Vice Adm. Clyde Robbins, federal onscene coordinator of the cleanup, came to Valdez from Alameda, Calif., where he commanded the Pacific area. He said the oil cleanup was more successful than he expected, but he hadn't expected much success.
"The memory I see when I close my eyes at night was that covering of oil on the beach amongst the stones. It was a shimmering black mass that sat there and floated. I'm not sure whether it's because I keep remembering it, or if I'm reminded of it because of television. (But) that is the image that comes up when they talk about oil spill. If there is an image that would drive me toward a good preventive program, that would be it. I think about it and I think, "We've got to keep that from happening.' "
Kelley Weaverling, Cordova bookstore owner, was proclaimed Alaska's oil spill hero by Newsweek for organizing volunteer work to rescue animals. That fame recently put him on a stage in Los Angeles, lecturing with television star Ted Danson.
"The impact on you is how closely you relate to the place. If you go by in a cruise ship, it won't bother you at all. If you go in a motor boat, and anchor out, it won't bother you that much. But if you interact with Prince William Sound, if you paddle along the beach and get out and camp and spend time on the beach, then there are vast parts of Prince William Sound that are devastated and will never be the same. It's just not the place it used to be. I don't think it ever will be. I'll be able to go somewhere in Prince William Sound and see a spoiled beach as long as I'm alive. It's just a sense of futility. The work this summer may have done a little good, but over all it seemed so futile."
Lynn Chrystal, meteorologist in Valdez and current candidate for mayor, was mayor of Valdez when the pipeline was built, and has served since on the city council. This spring he said the spill was "like you found out your wife is cheating on you." But this fall he said it helped him and the town financially.
"I'm not worried about the longterm effects at all. I'm absolutely convinced that it's going to be just fine. I'm totally conviced nature will take care of this thing. How long it will be is the question. The beaches are always dark anyway. Even the normal stains right here in the port. If you go out at low tide you'll see what appears to be black and that's normal things that live on the rocks and stuff. I don't know if a person will visually be able to see if you see a rock that's marked, whether it's natural or not."
Doris Lopez, Valdez fisherman, early on gave voice to fishermen's and environmentalists' sense of loss and outrage. At the same time, one of her family's two boats was chartered to Exxon. When Exxon briefly cancelled the charter, she stopped her activism, though she still calls the cleanup "a snow job."
"They fired our boat for alcohol on board. They said they had a report. The contents of the report changed each time they talked about it. They would never let me see the report. From that, we figured out that they basically don't like us, and probably it had to do with me speaking out so much. So we laid low for a while, because we didn't know what was going to happen with fishing, and with the court cases. We decided that an Exxon contract in the hand was better than an Exxon check in the mail. If I was single, and didn't have kids, I probably would still be going at it pretty hard. But you just can't deal with these people and then come home and be a loving mother."
Jerome Selby, borough mayor of Kodiak, organized a local cleanup effort using state and Exxon money. Locals said Exxon's efforts came too late and did too little.
"Dealing with the spill was like fighting a windmill. You knew the oil was coming, and there were no real effective ways of dealing with it. After a while you just had to accept that it was going to hit and it was going to damage the island. By the time it got to us, the spill was old news, and yet we lost more than anyone else. No one else lost a $100 million salmon fishery. So we were impacted very hard, and no one was listening. We have approximately 2,000 miles of beach in the Kodiak area that had oil on it, and Exxon worked on about 600 miles of it. So there's some anger, and some acceptance, too. (We're) getting ready to get out there and remove as much as we can to make sure we have a salmon season next year. That's what we need: to take some of the uncertainty out of people's lives."
August Aga, of Larsen Bay, a Native village on Kodiak, helped organize the village's own cleanup this spring when the oil arrived but Exxon cleanup efforts hadn't yet.
"On the 12th of May all this stuff just started coming in. Big patties three feet in diameter of solid mousse. The people just got out and started working. Pretty much the whole village got out. We got fish totes from the cannery and we stated picking up the patties with our bare hands. We got 4,000 gallons. It stopped everything. The summer was like one long day. This oil hit, and came to the island, everyone's plans stopped. Now they're trying to pick them up again."
Tom Copeland, a Cordova fisherman who lives in Bellingham, Wash., became disgusted with the failure to deal with the spill last spring and picked up oil himself with buckets and flour scoops, recovering as much in a day as the average Exxon skimmer.
"You reach a point when you realize you're not living in civilization, you're living in barbaric times. You think there are these people in government who are trying to protect your interests, then you find out that isn't so. A lot of people in Cordova found that out this summer. No, the system doesn't work. Look at the state of Alaska. It's addicted to oil money. You talk about getting kids off drug abuse. Alaska is addicted to oil money. How about your permanent fund? The Alaska state government has got to pull the sixfoot needle out of its arm. It was their goddamned fault. Of course the oil companies weren't going to be ready for the problem. They're only going to do what you make them."
Tammy Gould, a Kodiak homemaker, became a powerful advocate for fishermen left out of the Exxon claims process when her family stood to lose its boat. She got an Exxon charter and made the boat payments, but failed to change the company's claims policy.
"I've always been a talker, but never publicly. It's taught me a lot. I learned a lot over the course of the summer. It's made me feel stronger. Things that were wrong in my life before that I didn't feel I could do anything about, now I feel I can speak out, and I can make a difference, even if it's small. People all over Kodiak are feeling that way. Because there was this sense of being raped and left. I have a lot of friends who know they're stronger because of it who've written letters to the editor even though they never did that before, and who stood up just being counted for the first time. I dropped 20 pounds over the course of the summer. I can't eat when I'm nervous. So some really good things happened."
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