CORDOVA - Communities along the Gulf Coast wondering about what kind of legacy the monstrous oil slick will leave can look no further than the towns along the Alaska coastline that were ravaged by the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
Crude oil from the tanker still lingers on some beaches a full 21 years later. Some marine species never recovered. Families and bank accounts were shattered. Alcoholism, suicide and domestic violence rates all rose in hard-hit towns.
"As far as what's ahead, we have a feeling that we kind of know what those communities and individuals are going to go through, and it's absolutely tragic," said Stan Jones, spokesman for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council.
On March 23, 1989, the 987-foot supertanker left the port in Valdez loaded with 53 million gallons of North Slope crude from the trans-Alaska pipeline. The ship hit a reef three hours later, rupturing eight of its 11 cargo tanks and dumping 10.8 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound.
About 1,300 miles of Alaska shoreline was affected by the spill, including 200 miles that were heavily contaminated, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. Responders found carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters. That was considered to be a fraction of the bird and animal death toll because carcasses usually sink to the seabed. The council estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales died along with billions of salmon and herring eggs.
Exxon said it spent $2.1 billion on a cleanup, but in a testament to the persistence of crude, oil a few inches below the surface remains on isolated beaches. Students on field trips to islands in Prince William Sound devastated by the spill often uncover rocks soiled in oil with little effort. An estimated 20,000 gallons of oil remain from the spill.
"It just smells like a gas station," Kate Alexander of the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova said of the lingering remnants of the spill. "It's a very disturbing experience, but very real."
Alaskans also see uncomfortable parallels as BP takes heat for allegedly downplaying the initial threat of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico after a drilling rig exploded. A similar scenario unfolded in 1989 after the Valdez disaster.
"There were promises made that it was manageable, containable, that it could be cleaned up," said Jones, whose group is dedicated to preventing future oil spills. "It turned out the oil industry was just not capable of doing that. That seems to be what's happening in the gulf."
It is still too early to know what the lasting effects of the Gulf Coast spill will be. The well is spewing an estimated 200,000 gallons of oil a day and is on pace to quickly eclipse the Exxon Valdez spill as the worst oil disaster in U.S. history.
The environmental effects of the current spill will be different in some ways from what happened in Alaska. The warmer temperatures in the Gulf will help the oil degrade faster, and marsh and sand in Louisiana may react differently than Alaska's gravel and rock beaches.
But coastal towns no doubt will clearly feel the pain of a spill. The coastal communities in the Gulf of Mexico rely heavily on shrimp, oyster and other types of fishing just like Alaska towns rely on salmon and herring.
"I was watching the news the other day and I saw the fishermen in the gymnasium, and I went, "Yep, that was us, day three or four,'" said longtime Alaska fisherman RJ Kopchak. "I saw the guys filling out the paperwork to get their first claims processed, and I said, 'Yep, that was us, post spill, day five or six.'"
Exxon Valdez oil in recent years has shown up in sea otters and harlequin ducks. Though it was never definitively proven that killer whales were affected by the spill, "They dramatically lost abundance right during the spill and after the spill," said Craig Tillery, a member of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, who has worked on the spill since the week it happened.
Pacific herring, which spawned in heavily contaminated areas, were hard hit. Herring made a short comeback, but remain classified as "not recovering."
Jones' group commissioned studies to see how the spill affected people in small communities where fishing gives people their identity. Cordova was probably the most painful example because its fishing industry was hurt so much by the spill.
"The community exhibited every kind of social stress you can imagine," Jones said. "Alcoholism went up. Suicide went up. Family violence went up. Divorces went up. Of course, bankruptcies and various kinds of financial failures went up with the attendant stress on families."
Those who lived through the Valdez catastrophe said they felt enormous sorrow for the Gulf Coast because they know how painful it will all be, especially once the prolonged legal battles begin over compensation. The Valdez dispute was agonizingly slow and marked by several frustrating appeals.
Like many in the Alaska fishing business who feel burned after the U.S. Supreme Court slashed the jury award, Lynden O'Toole cautioned those on the Gulf Coast to not pin any hopes on a settlement.
"Don't sit around and wait for somebody, for the justice system, for instance, to come and rescue you because in our experience, that's not going to happen," said O'Toole, who had just gotten into the commercial fishing business when the spill happened.
"What's going to happen is they are going to end up exhausted," Kopchak added. "And eight or 10 years from now, they're still going to be fighting this."
Still, Alaska came away from the disaster with some valuable lessons. The state is much more prepared to deal with a future disaster because it has a huge response apparatus still in place. The system involves a flotilla of fishermen ready to go in the case of another disaster, including 350 vessels under contract ready to participate in a response.
"Some of them are under contract to be ready within six hours, out of port and deploying boom within six hours of the notice, and others come in within 24 hours, and then others are just kind of on a list to be called up as the oil gets farther and farther out of the sound," said Jones.
And Jones' group published a guide for how to cope with disasters like this. "It's not how to clean oiled birds," Jones said. "It's how to help the human beings that are in the way of one of these disasters."
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