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Alaska Life

21 years later, Exxon Valdez story is still complicated

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published August 2, 2010

0802-exxon21laterWHITTIER -- What no one wrote about 21 years ago was that even then a reporter had to go looking to find Exxon Valdez oil in Prince William Sound. It was more than a 10-mile run from the harbor here east across the clean, generally calm waters of Passage Canal just to reach the clean, open chop common to Port Wells at the western corner of the Sound proper.

At that point you could turn the wheel of the Muckracker, the Anchorage Daily News' 19-foot Boston Whaler skiff, north into the clean, wild waters of College Fjord and go on for more than 20 miles past the waters off the mouth of the Coghill River teeming with sockeye salmon in late June and early July and on to the white face of Harvard Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in this corner of Alaska.

Nobody, to my knowledge, ever did, though. The salmon fishing off the mouth of the Coghill can be very good in midsummer, but the Daily News reporters involved in oil spill coverage back in the day were young and responsible and focused on the story of the moment.

No Daily News reporter would even have thought of taking the boat off on a pleasure trip, though some of the managers who jockeyed for position after freewheeling editor Howard Weaver became preoccupied with studying philosophy at Cambridge University clearly saw it otherwise.

They began demanding detailed plans from anyone wanting to use the boat to go anywhere. As a result, it sat tied to the dock in Whittier a lot more than it should have and The Seattle Times won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Exxon Valdez spill.

The sad thing is a lot of the spill madness escaped all the news coverage because so few reporters were hanging out in the Sound. There weren't enough reporters out there in boats making the decision to spin the wheel west at Port Wells to head for Knight and Naked and the other smeared islands.

To this day, one hears stories about the waste and theft associated with the spill cleanup, about the Exxon executives who were supposed to be taken to see oiled beaches only to be taken to fish for halibut off those beaches instead, about the unoiled sea otters captured by out-of-work fishermen because catching otters was what they were hired to do and, as fishermen, well, catching things is fun.

The oil spill cleanup was madness. Every reporter -- even the ones who saw only a tiny part of what was going on -- figured out that much fast.

The clean, wild places remaining in the Sound weren't part of the story. Probably they should have been. Context is everything in journalism, or at least it's supposed to be. Journalists like to believe they at least try to give people an accurate picture of the world. We didn't do that very well in the Sound.

Anyone reading about the Exxon spill would have been hard pressed to know how much of the area was spared or how the oil itself hopscotched north and west toward the Gulf of Alaska like a major forest fire.

There were always pockets of devastation scattered amidst areas that somehow miraculously escaped.

I remember helming the Muckraker carefully into Marsha Bay in the dark of night. It was early in the spill when Weaver was still letting some reporters run wild. And I'd been the one who talked the Daily News into buying the boat, though in retrospect, I should have just bought the boat myself and run truly wild.

That would have headed off the issues to come with all the haggling over "scoping" to determine "well, EXACTLY what are we going to find if we go there?" Not to mention all the worrying about potential legal liabilities with bumbling reporters at the controls of the Muckraker.

None of that really started until the second or third year of spill coverage, though. In 1989, the only real concern was that somebody might bring a beer on the boat. Drunken Exxon Valdez skipper Joe Hazelwood had made such a mess of things we couldn't even throw a beer in the cooler to enjoy at the end of the day.

But we could run around largely unsupervised. I remember well dropping another reporter off with whale researchers near the northern tip of heavily oiled Knight Island and then going on my own personal sightseeing cruise of the Sound.

I went to sleep the first night on board the Muckraker anchored in Marsha Bay on the east side of Knight. There was the smell of seawater and kelp in the air. Gulls could be heard squawking and fish splashing.

The next day, I puttered out of the bay and motored north a few miles along the island to Bay of Isles, where everything was dramatically different. Bay of Isles was a nightmare in what had been an unspoiled wilderness. Bay of Isles was an industrial war zone.

The oil hit hard in Bay of Isles. All kinds of machinery had been moved into the bay for cleanup. There were ships anchored everywhere.

The air reeked of oil. Equipment prowled the shorelines. The experts in oil spill cleanup (experts in oil spill cleanup, now there's an oxymoron if ever there was one) were huddled, trying to figure out how to clean up the bay.

They never did figure it out.

Bay of Isles is one of those places where oil remains to this day. People go there to write about how the Sound is still despoiled.

It is a gross oversimplification of where things stand, and in that way a gross distortion of everything. But then again, in retrospect, coverage of the Exxon Valdez always was more of a caricature than a photograph.

Everyone who wrote about the spill pretty much followed the same script, which right there tends to obscure the truth. The truth is a mess of grays. Scripts are black and white, neat and clean, for a simple reason. Who the hell wants to watch a movie where it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys?

The good guys and the bad guys in the Sound were easy to define. The tanker hit the rocks because money-grubbing Exxon left drunk skipper Joe Hazelwood at the helm.

Never mind that many knowledgeable Sound mariners thought the ship would have missed Bligh Reef if Hazelwood had actually been at the helm. He was below in his cabin sleeping off his drunk. And never even discussed was that idea Exxon might have been trying to retain a skipper with a medical problem (alcoholism) who'd proven himself hugely capable in the past.

Hazelwood went into an alcohol rehabilitation program in 1985, the same year his leadership was credited for saving the Exxon Chester, an asphalt carrier, that lost its mast and more in a monster storm off the East Coast. By 1987, Hazelwood was the alternate master of the Valdez, which won the Exxon Fleet safety award that year and the next -- the year before the ship hit Bligh Reef.

Hazelwood's real crime in 1989 wasn't getting drunk in Valdez, the city, before putting to sea in Valdez, the ship. It was going to his cabin and leaving the bridge under the command of a crew that would prove incompetent. But after the ship hit the rocks on the night of March 23, 1989, it was easiest to just blame the "drunk skipper."

Society is intolerant of drunks running into things; people who simply can't drive, well, that's another matter. As I've many times told bicycling friends, "Pray that if you get run down it's by a drunk and not just an incompetent, because if it's the latter the police won't do a thing because nobody cares."

Given what we all know now about the dangers of what has come to be called "distracted driving," you'd think this attitude would be different, but it isn't. So what if distracted driving is more dangerous than drunk driving? Drunk driving is the bad thing.

And it was only more so 21 years ago. It made Hazelwood an easy mark.

As for Exxon, it was a huge, rich and arrogant company that launched a limp, don't-worry response to the first news of oil in the water. When the spill became a godawful, worry-now disaster a few days later, Exxon was toast.

All of which made the spill simple and easy to report. Exxon was a greedy company that put a drunk skipper at the helm of a huge tanker and the rest of what happened --the whole ugly devastation of the Sound -- was predictable.

The nuances all got lost. That most of the Sound remained unoiled never seemed worth reporting. That the 1,300 miles of shoreline eventually smeared by oil was only a small fraction of the Alaska shoreline didn't seem all that important. The spread of the oil was the thing. It hit not only the Sound, but the outer edges of the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and the Gulf of Alaska coast all the way north and west to Katmai.

Who knows how many miles of shoreline there are there -- probably well over 10,000 miles. Prince William Sound alone has 3,500 miles and Kodiak Island another 3,900 miles. The reality was that only a small portion of Sound and coast beaches were oiled, but they were oiled.

Numbers were insignificant, too, next to the gut-wrenching photographs of oiled, dead sea otters and oiled, dead birds. Who cared if the spill wasn't as bad as it could be? It was bad. It was really, really bad.

And after the photos of the dead otters and dead birds came the otherworldly photographs and video of the assault on beach oil with all those poor bastards at work in their oilies coated with crude, and the clouds of oil and steam in the air as barges equipped with hot-water fire hoses attacked rocky beaches.

It was an overwhelming madness of a disaster that hid the even greater environmental disaster still visible around the edges of the picture if you were there, and if you knew a thing or two about ecology.

Strangely enough, what I remember most about roaring all over the Sound in the Muckraker 21 years ago -- other than the personal hypocrisy of burning through fossil fuel in huge volumes to document the destructive nature of fossil fuel -- were all the old places where the previous disaster was still so obvious.

That disaster was, of course, Alaska's Good Friday earthquake of 1964.

When the land shifted, patches of forest all over Southcentral Alaska dropped below sea level. The spruce trees growing on those lands sucked seawater up through their roots. They died and were preserved all at the same time.

Even on the drive now from Anchorage to this port, you see these dead forests along Turnagain Arm, most notably at Girdwood and Portage where they are right next to the road. The dead forests are all over the Sound, too. And if you head south and east from here toward Montague Island, you find where the earthquake lifted lands instead of sinking them and cut off, forever, the access to some salmon streams.

Before the quake, Cordova -- the community at the south edge of the Sound -- billed itself as "The Razor Clam Capital of the World." The quake largely destroyed the clam beds. There is no commercial razor clam business left in Cordova. There is a very healthy commercial salmon fishing business.

One business died in a natural disaster. The other survived and flourished after a manmade disaster. Life is an absurdist comedy, and then you die.

It's hard now for me to know what exactly to think about the Exxon Valdez spill, but from the waterfront here, looking out across the clean waters of Passage Canal, the one thing that is easy to recognize is that none of the story is simple as some today make it out to be.

The scientists say there is 15,000 to 21,000 gallons of Exxon oil lingering beneath about 20 acres of beach in the Sound. There is probably about the same volume of oil, if my calculations are right, in the 400-plus acres of asphalt covering Merrill Field outside the offices of the Alaska Dispatch back in Anchorage.

There is no telling how much oil there is lingering in all of the asphalt in all of Alaska, but it is orders of magnitude more than the volume in the Sound and it covers many, many, many times the area. Yet most people think of that asphalt oil as "good" -- and, as a general rule, just want more if it.

Here I guess I better confess, in the interest of objectivity, that I personally enjoyed the drive from Anchorage to this port city over the string of old, hardened oil that stretches for more than 50 miles along Turnagain Arm and into Portage Valley toward the mouth of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. No matter how many times I've made the drive atop the oil of the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm, the drive remains spectacular -- the Kenai and Chugach mountains rising steeply to snow-dotted ridges on either side of the muddy waters always rushing in and out across the braided bars of mud and sand.

It's an awesome drive even when you don't see beluga whales or Dall sheep or moose or bears or all the wild things seldom seen anywhere else. My only really complaint is that so many others enjoy this stretch of the highway, too.

It would be nice to have it to myself, or better yet to myself and my bike, because the truth is the road is even more fun to travel without the dust and oily stink of motor vehicles. I sometimes don't like our oil-based lifestyle all that much, but it's a tough and complicated addiction to shake.

Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise -- most especially those into the game of vilifying oil these days because it is so easy in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster -- is conning not only you but themselves. Oil is us, no matter how dangerous it might be, and it is dangerous -- extremely dangerous.

Oil will, in all likelihood, kill someone reading this or someone they know this year. It might even be BP or Exxon oil that does the killing. And the oil is certain to seriously injure someone, possibly someone reading this, within minutes. Data from the National Safety Council indicates someone suffers a disabling injury due to oil about every 15 seconds.

But death or injury will not come in the way you think. It will not happen because you had contact with a tar ball on a beach along the Gulf of Mexico -- where BP's disaster is now making Exxon's looking like almost nothing -- or because you went to Bay of Isles in the Sound and smelled old oil.

No, death or injury will come because someone embraced the convenience of fossil fuels, pumped the tank of their motor vehicle full of gasoline without a thought and then drove in the same unthinking way, or was hit by someone driving in an unthinking way.

"In the United States," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, "motor vehicle-related injuries are the leading cause of death for people ages 1-34, and nearly 5 million people sustain injuries that require an emergency department visit."

This is the true cost of our oil-fueled lifestyles.

Oil will -- in your lifetime -- surely kill someone you know, possibly someone you love, but it is doubtful you will read about it in the context of the dangers of oil because the gasoline you put in the tank of your car is the "good oil" and the other oil is the "bad oil."

The good oil that we want cheap at the pump and the bad oil for which we don't want to pay the costs.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)

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