In Gulf disaster, echoes, lessons of Exxon Valdez spill

Posted: Monday, June 14, 2010

ANCHORAGE - With their futures dark and confused, desperate residents of the Gulf of Mexico are turning to veterans of Alaska's Exxon Valdez oil spill for clues about what they're facing. The word from Alaska, whether it's about cleaning up, economic recovery, despondency or lawsuits: Expect years of deep trouble, but there are ways to cope.

"Here's a life-changing and terrible event, and the less people know about it, the more concerned they get," said Stan Senner, who served as science coordinator for the federal-state agency that was set up to study and recover from the 1989 Alaska oil spill. "No one wants to hear bad news, but even worse is just simply not knowing the news."

Senner, now the director of conservation science for the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group, is among dozens of Exxon Valdez experts who've been trekking around the Gulf, attending community meetings, boating through marshes threatened by oil and lobbying officials to avoid mistakes made 21 years ago in Alaska. Other Alaskans who've remained home are taking phone calls by the dozens from the area.

Senner said that a key lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez was the need for "complete transparency on the part of the government in what they know and what they're doing to find out what they don't know."

The Gulf spill has gotten off to a bad start, he said. "There's an amazing lack of information about what is being done and what the government knows," he said.

For Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska marine science professor who spent years studying Prince William Sound, where the spill occurred, and advocating reduced reliance on petroleum, the battle was lost the moment oil got away.

"You can respond with thousands of people and thousands of boats and millions of feet of boom and skimmers, but you're not going to be very effective," said Steiner, reached by phone near Barataria Bay in Louisiana, where he's been working with environmental groups and volunteers.

"The damage will be done," Steiner said. "There's really no easy way to rehabilitate oiled wildlife, no easy way to restore an oil-injured ecosystem, and there's certainly no easy way to make lives whole that were turned upside down by these things. Those are lessons we learned the hard way in Alaska, and they're lessons that are being learned here, very poignantly."

In some cases, seeing the Gulf spill has rekindled the smoldering anger that many Alaskans still carry from the Exxon Valdez.

"We didn't learn much in 21 years," said John Devens, the mayor of Valdez when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989. "BP seems to be making exactly the same mistakes Exxon made."

Steiner, Senner and others note that there are substantial differences between the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the BP gusher in the Gulf. For starters, the Exxon Valdez held a defined volume of oil.

Even if the tanker had broken up before its undamaged tanks could be off-loaded, no more than 54 million gallons would spill into Prince William Sound. The latest estimates say the Gulf well has been gushing as much as 2 million gallons a day with no likely halt to the flow until relief wells are completed in August, though some is now being captured by a suction pipe.

Prince Williams Sound is a small, relatively closed body of water, and the oil quickly left on currents and spread to the Gulf of Alaska. In less than two months, it had traveled nearly 500 miles, oiling the Alaska Peninsula shoreline - roughly the distance from where the Deepwater Horizon exploded to Miami. The Gulf of Mexico is more confined, although the possibility remains that some of the oil could find its way to the Gulf Stream and up the Atlantic coast.

The BP spill is rising from 5,000 feet below the ocean surface, causing some amount of oil to disperse through the water column even without the use of chemical dispersants, which are also being applied.

The Exxon Valdez dumped its oil on the surface, where it globbed up in a mousse-like consistency and quickly came ashore on rocky beaches, tidal pools and salt marshes. The thick layer of oil lent itself to removal by skimmers, though there weren't enough, and the opportunity to pick up more oil was lost when storms struck Prince William Sound three days after the spill.

In sparsely populated Alaska, the main effects were felt in the fishing towns of Cordova, Valdez, Homer and Kodiak, and in tiny coastal Alaska Native villages that relied on subsistence gathering from the once pristine waters. The government presence consisted of Alaska and U.S. agencies.

The Gulf of Mexico involves four state governments, numerous counties or parishes, fishing communities of many different ethnic groups, a major tourism economy and a petroleum industry that had spilled before.

Still, Exxon Valdez veterans see far more similarities than differences.

Steve Picou, a sociology professor of the University of South Alabama in Mobile, was a regular visitor to Alaska following the Exxon Valdez spill, studying its long-term social costs, including increased rates of bankruptcy, substance abuse, divorce and suicide.

An expert in disasters, he now has a close-up view of an evolving one from his home in Orange Beach, Ala. He's been spending most of his time on the road, trying to educate communities and mental health professionals about what to expect.

"We're trying to explain to people this is going to be a long-term situation - the table is set just like in 1989. Everyone is very, very distracted, maximally disrupted, they're expressing anger," Picou said.

After the 1989 spill, Picou said, a second disastrous wave broke over the communities: 19 years of litigation and successful appeals by Exxon that ultimately reduced the damages paid to 32,000 fishermen and Native plaintiffs from the $5 billion a jury awarded to $507 million. The result was a loss of faith in the legal system, Picou said, and adding injury to injury.

Picou said he expects the BP spill to result in even more complex litigation, in part because the current spill might have 10 times more victims than there were in Alaska, and in part because BP, the drilling contractor and other companies involved in the blowout are pointing fingers at each other.

Denny Kelso was Alaska's commissioner of Environmental Conservation in 1989. On the day of the spill, he and then-Gov. Steve Cowper motored out to the Exxon Valdez, climbed up a rope ladder and stood on the deck as oil continued to boil from her holds. At a later congressional hearing, he famously called the industry's spill cleanup plan "probably the biggest piece of maritime fiction since 'Moby Dick.' "

Today, Kelso is the executive vice president of the Ocean Conservancy and has been dividing his time between his home in California and the Gulf of Mexico, and he's among many Exxon Valdez veterans who criticize the use of dispersants that break down the oil. It makes the oil less visible but at least as toxic, he said, and oil treated with dispersants is more likely to get past booms protecting critical shoreline because it's not floating as a mass on the surface.



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