Exxon Valdez - Legacy of a Spill

May 13, 1999

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

The Activists

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Riki Ott

As the Exxon Valdez sailed out of port on the evening of March 23, 1989, Riki Ott was talking over a speaker phone to a group of Valdez residents. At about 11 p.m., the biologist and environmental activist addressed the question of what would happen if there was a major spill.

"Gentlemen, it's not if," Ott said. "It's when."

In less than two hours, Ott's gloomy prediction was coming true as oil began emptying into the waters surrounding Bligh Reef.

Ott remains one of the staunchest critics of tanker traffic in Prince William Sound. Two weeks ago, she was a member of a self-described "Truth Squad" that crashed an industry-sponsored scientific conference on the health of the Sound 10 years after the spill. Its message: Oil spill science financed by oil companies is not to be trusted.

"The Exxon Valdez leaves a 10-year legacy of lies," Ott said.

Michael Tumey

Waking up to an 11 million-gallon oil spill on a Saturday morning in late March 1989 changed the lives of thousands of Alaskans. Among them was Michael Tumey, a handyman, climber and volunteer firefighter who lived in Girdwood.

"I felt such a particular hurt," Tumey said a year after the spill. "What meant so much to me in Prince William Sound had been destroyed."

The environmental catastrophe helped turn Tumey from a quiet environmentalist into an activist, he said later. The transition was quick. A month after the spill, Tumey climbed down the side of the Calais II building in Anchorage, where Exxon's offices were located, and draped a huge banner over the building: "Oil Spilled, Exxon Killed, Remember the Sound." Police cited him for trespass, and Tumey pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor. A judge suspended imposition of a sentence and dismissed the charge after six months.

Later in the year, Tumey and other protesters filed into an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce meeting featuring the president of Exxon USA, William Stevens, as guest speaker. When Stevens rose, Tumey rose, too, holding a blackened Sesame Street Big Bird intended to symbolize an oiled bird.

Tumey continues to live in Girdwood. - Don Hunter

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

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