Amy Crook: Battling pollution with science

Posted: Friday, March 29, 2002

Aquatic biologist Amy Crook of Douglas isn't used to media interviews longer than five minutes.

"I am usually the science nerd that is quoted about cruise ships," she said with a laugh.

Crook spent many weeks observing discharges on cruise ships and contributing to drafts of environmental studies. She also spent a year and a half dealing with the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Most recently all her working time has been given to the Center for Science in Public Participation, or SCP2, which gives technical support to grass roots public interest groups and Native corporations. Cook has been under contract to SCP2 since 1999.

"I always knew I wanted to do biology, and that got refined to fisheries," Crook said.

Crook has a bachelor's degree in fisheries resource management from the University of Michigan and a master's degree in natural resource management from Oregon State.

After graduate school, she worked in Newfoundland as a habitat and fish biologist, restoring streams and studying capelin, a fish that spawns on beaches.

In 1985, she moved to Juneau to work with the state Department of Environment Conservation, when it had a job classification called "ecologist," and found herself drifting deeper and deeper into water-pollution projects.

When the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, Crook was assigned to fly out of Seward in helicopters, checking on the progress of the cleanup and retrieving dead and live sea otters and birds for research.

"It was some of the worst time I ever spent - and some of the best, because I learned so much," Crook said. "Flying over some of the most spectacular land on earth, being moved by the beauty of the surroundings, and then coming over that crest, dropping down and seeing the devastation.

"One day we had to pick up a mother otter whose pup had been stillborn, and she was clutching it to her chest and screaming," Crook said. "We had to put her in a dog kennel. I felt unworthy to be a human."

When the helicopter surveys were concluded, Crook was assigned to Valdez to write about toxicity for DEC. That experience deepened her interest in the effects on the environment of contaminants from seafood processors, pulp mills and mines.

During her 13 years with the state, Crook worked on a variety of projects "trying to make science acceptable for regular folk. My role has been to decipher the science behind and in the documents and making the whole public review process more human."

Trying to explain the consequences of not participating in project reviews to village elders is very difficult, she said.

Crook has been working with environmental groups throughout Southeast Alaska and adjoining regions of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. Habitats don't just stop where a national border has been established; they continue in watersheds. For example, she has studied the Tulsequah Mine, a hard-rock proposal that some fear would pollute the Taku River, which flows from Canada into Alaska.

She worked as both a technical advisor and a public interest representative with the DEC commissioner and a Coast Guard admiral when they began an initiative in December 1999 to look at gray water and other discharges from cruise lines. Gray water comes from kitchens and showers on board ships.

Her work helped bring about the law passed last June, the first law in the nation that specifically regulates cruise ship pollution.

When she's not working - in the field or at home wearing a telephone headset - Crook amuses herself with renovating her 1940s home, and knitting, reading and gardening.

Crook never seems to run out of work, and she doesn't see a shortage occurring in her lifetime, she said.

She pulls out a curling black and white photo of the event that spurred her to a career battling pollution. The photo shows dead fish laid like tiles from bank to bank in a Kalamazoo, Mich., river, fish killed by a spill from a pulp mill. When she saw this at age 13, she knew what she wanted to do with her life: prevent things like that from happening again.

Crook encourages the public to attend meetings about environmental issues affecting their communities.

"Don't be daunted," she said. "There is never a stupid question. If you speak from experience and your heart and your belief, that is as important as having the knowledge of the science."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.

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