Exxon Valdez - Legacy of a Spill

May 13, 1999

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

Spill-linked fears color subsistence life

Daily News reporter

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At home in Chenega Bay, Donald Kompkoff could look out his window and see what was fresh at the supermarket that day - what fish were jumping, what ducks were flying, what seals were spying from the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. He could grab his gun, some shells, salt and pepper and a big pot and head across the bay for supper. He couldn't imagine living any other way .

This was before that infamous meeting between the tanker and the rocks.

Now, 10 years later, Kompkoff lives in Valdez, where he looks out his window at his neighbors' houses and cars. He pulls 12-hour shifts with an oil-spill response vessel, escorting loaded oil tankers past the navigational marker at Bligh Reef, a reminder as subtle as a blinking tombstone. Kompkoff returns to the village as often as he can to hunt and fish and gather his Native foods. And when he can't, he makes do with what the land around the city has to offer.

Though his life has changed dramatically since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Kompkoff, 60, has not given up subsistence; he never will.

"It's the happiest time of my life," he said.

Worried about contamination during the first year or two, Native people along the spill's path abandoned about half the wild foods they normally eat.

But the spill didn't render a deathblow to subsistence as some once feared. The hunting and gathering of Native foods is going strong today because so many Natives share Kompkoff's commitment. For many, the disaster sparked a renewed reverence for what seemed on the verge of being lost.

"I think the spill made me realize how important our food source is to us," said Nancy Yeaton, natural resources specialist for the tribal council at Nanwalek. "It's everything; it's who we are."

A recent survey by the state and a Native organization shows that in eight of the most heavily impacted communities from Cordova to Kodiak Island, people are harvesting wild foods almost as much as they were before the spill. Prince William Sound communities are actually harvesting more.

Still, subsistence is recovering, not recovered, emphasized Jim Fall, regional manager for Alaska Department of Fish and Game's subsistence division. Because most species have yet to rebound, people's diets have shifted, and subsistence users are working harder, traveling farther and spending more money to find their Native foods.

That's been Kompkoff's experience. "Before the spill, we used to go out seal hunting right across the bay from the village there, get two or three seals, bring 'em home," he said. "It was so easy. Now we have to travel I'd say 20-some miles to get seal."

Biologists confirm that many species, particularly harbor seals, have declined in Prince William Sound. But they doubt the spill is the sole culprit. Other pollutants, climatic changes and increased fishing in the North Pacific also are suspect.

Although this latest survey shows that harvests are up, there's no doubt the spill has altered subsistence in ways that ultimately may take a generation or more to assess.

"The spill sort of weaved itself into people's lives," said John Russell, a California anthropologist studying the spill's impact on those who lived through it. "Something's different. You can't quite put your finger on it, but something's different."

Rita Miraglia, a Fish and Game subsistence specialist, has a sense of it.

"People say they don't feel the same way about the food as they did before the spill," she said.


Worries over food contamination have eased considerably since the last Fish and Game survey in 1994; the vast majority now believes the resources are safe. But concern still lingers in at least some people's minds.

Nanwalek elder Vincent Kvasnikoff is among them, though he could never give up his Native food.

"It kind of worries me," he said. "Maybe we already had so much we're already sick. What can we do? We go ahead and eat it."

Until the spill, the wholesomeness of subsistence food was a given. Nagging doubts, no matter how incidental, are something new. And that has Miraglia concerned.

"Two of the really active hunters (from Chenega) passed away last year," she said. "Both of them quit hunting as a result of the spill. One of them told me, basically, what's the point in going out and getting food to bring back to my family and friends if it might kill them?

"They didn't live long enough to reach the point where they could go back to hunting and feel good about it."

Another villager she knows continued to hunt right after the spill - until a report came out showing that heavily oiled seals were developing brain lesions, which seemed to affect the seals' dive reflexes, causing them to drown. After that, Miraglia said, the hunter feared that if he ate seal meat, he would get brain lesions, too. For a while there was no convincing him otherwise.

"He couldn't get it out of his mind," she said. "So (the spill) damaged people's confidence in the resources."

It hasn't been easy rebuilding trust. Subsistence foods were tested for contamination in the early years of the spill. No or very low concentrations of oil compounds were found in most foods, posing no significant health risk, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Shellfish was the exception, because petroleum hyrdocarbons can concentrate in their tissue. The advice was, and remains today, not to eat shellfish from beaches where you see or smell any sign of oil.

When these results first came out, representatives from the FDA traveled to villages to assure people their food was, for the most part, safe.

Tatitlek village chief Gary Kompkoff's comment was: "You've got to remember, this is the same group that approved the Dalkon Shield."

"They just weren't buying it," acknowledged Michael Bolger, chief of the FDA's contaminants branch. "No amount of science was going to convince them."

To help boost confidence, villagers were asked to choose sample sites. Village representatives were flown to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration laboratory in Seattle so they could witness the testing. One of the lab technicians turned out to be the son of a Russian Orthodox priest from the Aleutians, Miraglia said, which helped the cause a bit.

Recovery of subsistence harvests started getting under way within a year or two of the spill, even though food safety was still an issue. Once the cleanup jobs ended, people felt they could no longer afford not to harvest wild foods. But mostly they could no longer stand to do without it.

"There are communities where subsistence is absolutely essential to their survival," said Fish and Game's Jim Fall. "Maybe that's the most important thing we've learned."

The latest survey was a cooperative effort between Fish and Game and the Chugach Regional Resource Commission, a nonprofit, tribal organization concerned with natural resource issues in the region. More than anything, it shows that the vital signs of subsistence cannot be measured by pounds of protein alone - but must include everything from the ritual of the harvest to what the human spirit needs to survive.

"It's not just for our bodies but for our minds and souls," said Nancy Yeaton of Nanwalek. "It's a very spiritual thing when you're out gathering food. It's a time for sorting and thinking about life - like sorting out the weeds of your garden."

It's also a time for defining your place in the world, Miraglia said.

"When someone goes out harvesting, they're not just doing it for themselves; they're doing it for their community. It gives them connection to the generations before them. It gives them connection to the generations to come. So it's about continuity."


That continuity was clearly disrupted by Exxon crude. That first year, subsistence harvests in the spill region dropped substantially, down 9 percent at Akhiok to 77 percent at Ouzinkie, both Kodiak Island villages more than 300 miles from Bligh Reef. The slick missed the shores of Tatitlek, just five miles from ground zero. But commercial and subsistence harvests were halted there anyway, just as herring were arriving. Instead of the traditional seal roast on Easter Sunday, Tatitlek residents were stuck with hot dogs and hamburgers.

Many villagers in the spill zone wouldn't have had time to put up food anyway, because they were washing rocks for Exxon. Those left behind watched over the village children and worried about what the disruption would mean to the young ones still learning the ways of subsistence. Many felt torn as they railed against big oil while cashing big paychecks. In some communities, drug and alcohol problems began to rise.

The subsistence glue that had held communities together was in short supply that first year.

Yeaton remembers getting caught up in the "hurricane" as her little village, across Kachemak Bay from Homer, suddenly made world news. Like so many others, when spill-jobs came along, she set aside what mattered most. That became clear the day a news team from the New York Times came to Nanwalek and asked her to be their guide.

"You know, I was just very naive at the time," Yeaton said. "I was feeling a little bit cocky and overwhelmed with this new exposure."

When they asked to see her smokehouse, though, she stopped dead in her tracks.

"I was so embarrassed," she said. "My fish was moldy. I said, 'I don't want you to see it.'

"It was a rude awakening, like, 'Oh my gosh, what have we done?' "

Yeaton and so many others have long since returned to subsistence. And although the range of species they're harvesting is approaching pre-spill levels, the balance has shifted. Some resources - clams, crab and herring, for instance - are hard to find. And because seals are still in trouble, hunters have voluntarily backed off, filling the void with other things, according to Monica Riedel of Cordova, head of the Harbor Seal Commission. The commission is investigating the dramatic decline of the harbor seal, an issue even before the spill.

Since the balance of species has shifted, so have people's diets. The survey shows that marine mammal and shellfish harvests are down. Fish harvests are up.

Fall isn't concerned so much about nutritional shifts as he is cultural ones. Harvesting food along a beach is one thing elders and youths can do together.

"Marine invertebrates are really important, not so much for the quantity, but the quality of the activity," he said. "There's a lot of transmission of traditional knowledge that takes place when people are harvesting clams and bidarkies and snails."

This is why the subsistence survey, funded by the state-federal Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, also asked these kinds of questions - about the sharing of Native foods, the passing on of subsistence values and other social and cultural changes people have noticed over the past 10 years.

When asked if they felt the traditional way of life was affected by the spill, the villagers' answer was about as close to unanimous as it gets. Asked if that way of life has now recovered, most said no. Asked for solutions, their top three ideas were: increasing the number of spirit camps and other cultural education programs, restoring wildlife populations and time.

Although subsistence has yet to fully recover, the survey results are most encouraging considering that 10 years ago, March 24 was considered the day the water died.

"It is too shocking to understand," the late Walter Meganack Sr., former tribal chief of Port Graham, wrote at the time. "Never in the millennium of our tradition have we thought it possible for the water to die. But it is true."

And it did seem true. That spring, instead of collecting sustenance, Native people collected dead birds, dead otters, dead seaweed. Instead of prying delicacies off tidal-pool rocks, they watched snails, barnacles and chitons lose their grip, fall off and rot.

Riedel, the head of the harbor seal commission and a seamstress known for her traditional skin garments, had a harbor seal parka laid out on her sewing table when the news first hit.

"I did not touch that parka for almost two years," she said. "I was so devastated. I never wanted to touch any of my furs."

The spill not only intruded upon subsistence but also upon solitude. Suddenly residents of these remote, roadless villages, where doors were rarely locked, were being studied by scientists and cornered by news teams from as far removed as Australia and Japan. Miraglia remembers how exposed Chenega residents felt when anti-Exxon graffiti was found spray-painted on the walls of the schoolhouse at the old village site, one of only two buildings that wasn't washed out to sea after the 1964 earthquake.

And it got even more personal than that.

"One guy I know in Chenega was telling me at one point he saw somebody parachute into his backyard," Miraglia said. "He didn't know who it was or why he was there."


One of the most irreversible, long-term impacts, in Miraglia's opinion, is that the spill put Prince William Sound on the international map. Spill-related or not, tourism in the Sound has increased significantly over the past 10 years, according to Lisa VonBargen, executive director of the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tourists stopping by the visitor center in Valdez alone has practically doubled, from around 26,000 in 1989 to nearly 50,000 last year. Sportfishing is up around 65 percent. The road to Whittier, due for completion in the spring of 2000, is expected to bring even more people to the Sound.

"If there's a tour boat up in an inlet where people traditionally go to get seals, they're going to turn around and go home," Fall said. "They don't want a confrontation."

On the other hand, many villages have benefited from a wide range of programs emerging from Exxon settlement funds, from the creation of youth spirit camps and clam restoration projects to the building of ferry docks and processing plants - even an archaeological repository in Kodiak to house Alutiiq artifacts, some of which were found by cleanup crews.

Today, villagers are in a much better position to protect what they love. Ten years ago they felt like sitting ducks as 11 million gallons of toxic cargo gushed from Exxon's grounded tanker, and no one knew what to do about it. Now oil-spill response equipment is stockpiled in strategic locations throughout the region, according to Judy Meidinger, senior planning coordinator for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. In the event of another disaster, there are trained response leaders in each community and 300 fishing vessels under contract with Alyeska prepared to do battle.

"(The villagers) want to be ready," Miraglia said, "because they're convinced it's going to happen again. They talk about it in those terms. They don't say 'if,' they say 'when.' "

Meanwhile Chenega, which took a direct hit from floating oil, is still dealing with Exxon Valdez oil. Two summers ago, after repeated requests, the village finally secured a $2 million, additional cleanup job on eight local beaches. The chemical solvent, considered one of the more toxic in the cleanup arsenal, was supposed to remove old, hardened oil buried beneath sand and gravel. It didn't.

"People keep talking about closure," Miraglia said. "Well, there's still oil out on those beaches adjacent to the land people from Chenega use, and nobody knows how to get it out. So it's hard to see how Chenega's going to get closure. Because what does that consist of when you go out to dig clams and you encounter asphalt? It may not be harmful anymore, but it's still there; you still see it. On warm days there's still tar coming up.

"What ceremony can you do that's going to heal that?"

q Reporter Debra McKinney can be reached at dmckinney@adn.com.

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

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