The Lingering Lessons of the Exxon Valdez Spill
Published on Monday, March 22, 2004 by the Seattle Times
The Lingering Lessons of the Exxon Valdez Spill
by Marybeth Holleman

Fifteen years ago this week, the Exxon Valdez slammed into Bligh Reef and spilled over 40,000 tons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

What ensued 1,500 miles of oiled shoreline, several hundred thousand dead birds and marine mammals remains the most damaging oil spill in history. Not even the 1.7 million tons of oil unleashed by Saddam Hussein on his retreat from Kuwait in 1991 was as damaging; in the warm climate of the Persian Gulf, 40 percent evaporated within a few weeks.

We are compelled to continue paying attention to the Alaska oil spill for the same reason we study history: to learn from past mistakes. Certainly, Puget Sound can learn from the Alaska spill. It's the same old, weather-beaten, mostly single-hull tankers, carrying the same thick toxic Alaska North Slope crude, that ply the waters of Puget Sound every day waters and shorelines more similar to Alaska than to Iran. It could happen again; it could happen here.

What's more, the Exxon Valdez oil spill isn't yet history. Even though oil-spill science has made it one of the most studied coastal ecosystems in the world, this 10,000-square-mile tapestry of icefields, mountains, forests and sea is far from recovered. Lingering and unanticipated injuries abound.

A 2001 study found more than 100 tons of toxic oil remaining on dozens of the Sound's beaches, oil that seeps out with every tide, and that because incomplete weathering left behind higher concentrations of toxins is even more poisonous now than when it gushed from the ripped tanker. This oil will remain on these beaches for decades to come.

Chronic exposure to persistent oil and a cascade of indirect effects have interrupted and decreased wildlife populations. The acute mortality of those first few months was not the worst of it. Today, only six of the 26 species and habitats most injured by oil have recovered. Some including orcas, harbor seals and harlequin ducks continue to decline.

Herring populations, critical food for over 40 species of fish, mammals and birds, crashed several years after the spill and have not recovered. Sea otter populations in heavily oiled regions have likewise failed to recover; their survival rates actually continued to decline for years after 1989. What's more, their absence in controlling sea urchin populations may lead to the loss of kelp beds.

And, like a clear-cut old-growth forest, some intertidal habitats have not recovered their pre-spill structure and species diversity. It's an inexorable domino effect throughout the ecosystem.

While the ecosystem and its wild inhabitants continue to bear the brunt of this catastrophe, human communities are also still affected. The year of the spill, some of us recalled the 1978 Amoco Cadiz spill off the coast of Brittany, incredulous that it had taken 11 years for Amoco to pay those whose livelihoods had suffered. We were certain justice would never take that long in this country.

Yet amazingly 15 years later, Exxon has yet to pay what it owes to thousands of people whose commercial fishing and subsistence economies were upended by the spill. The $5 billion verdict handed down by a jury in 1994 is still not paid. Meanwhile, over 1,200 of the plaintiffs have passed away, each of them having spent the last years of their lives waiting for the spill to be over.

We've made progress on some fronts notably, our coastal habitat protection program, an improved spill-prevention and response system, and a citizens council to oversee the oil industry and state and federal governments but we haven't done enough. Government officials haven't asked Exxon for the additional $100 million under a "reopener for unknown injury" clause, though unanticipated damage is as easy to find as oil under beach rocks.

And we've made some things worse: The massive $400 million spill-research boom in the Sound brought its own unanticipated injury, through intrusive sampling methods and the swarms of scientists, tent camps, boats and planes now in the Sound much of the year. It's as if we have confused science with restoration, knowledge with healing.

A spill such as this could happen again in Alaska; it could happen in Puget Sound. Despite precautions, major oil spills continue all over the world Spain, France, Scotland, Pakistan.

Here in Alaska, when we see the images of yet another oil spill, we get it, at a visceral level: This isn't just an echo of our past. It's a reminder to all of us who live near and care for precious coastal areas that another tragedy could happen any day.

Alaska resident Marybeth Holleman is author of "The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost" (University of Utah Press).

Copyright 2004 The Seattle Times Company