Graphic comparing the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills.
Alaska's present, after 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, might be Gulf Coast's future
Published: Sunday, June 27, 2010, 7:59 AM Updated: Monday, June 28, 2010, 6:16 PM
On a chilly, drizzly recent June afternoon in Cordova, Alaska, the town's fishers gathered for an important announcement.
An official from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game emerged with a flier and tacked it to a bulletin board. The news was good: sockeye salmon were plentiful enough to be harvested for a 12-hour period.
Life in this town of 2,200 centers around fishing, as it has for generations. During salmon season, Cordova operates in its own unique rhythm, set by the comings and goings of the crews who spend days or weeks at a time on their boats, and by the perpetual daylight of the Alaskan summer. Main Street, with its family-owned bookstore, family-owned drugstore and century-old hotel, is like a far-northern version of Mayberry.
But mention the word Exxon to anyone here, and the idyll evaporates. Men break down in tears describing what they lost when 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound in 1989 from a grounded tanker named Exxon Valdez. Twenty-one years later, the herring that once signaled the start of the summer season are largely gone, rendering $300,000 permits worthless. Losses are tallied in divorces, suicides, repossessed boats, depleted college funds, friends who moved away. Cynicism, normally a stranger to small towns, has lodged permanently in people's craws, receiving a fresh injection two years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court whittled a $2.5 billion punitive-damages judgment against Exxon down to $500 million.
Now, whenever they turn on the television, Cordovans see an eerie replay of what they experienced two decades ago. Boats trailing oil-absorbent boom, birds covered beak to tail with black crud, meetings in high school gymnasiums where the oil company promises to make fishers whole: It is all too close to home.
BP spill surpasses Valdez in weeks
Exxon Valdez long ranked as the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, but BP Deepwater Horizon surpassed it in a matter of weeks, if not days. The deep-sea oil rig, which killed 11 workers when it exploded on April 20, has spewed the equivalent of at least three and perhaps 15 Exxon Valdezes into the Gulf of Mexico, with the possibility of total containment still more than a month away.
The ecological disaster thousands of miles to the south has brought renewed interest in remote Cordova, reachable only by boat or plane. Despite the pain of dredging up the past, most Cordovans are willing to share their stories with visitors. They volunteer advice to their Gulf Coast counterparts, with "Don't trust BP" the most common admonition.
"Don't believe anything the oil company says. They have huge PR departments whose job it is to minimize the collateral damage," said Mike Lytle, a Cordova fisherman. "I hope you have better luck than we did with the oil companies."
In some ways, Alaska and Louisiana could not be more different. In Alaska, the lucrative catches are salmon and halibut, not shrimp and oysters. Fillets are grilled with salt and pepper or a dash of teriyaki, not Cajun spice blend. Summer temperatures rarely rise above 60 degrees, and the frigid winters are accompanied by round-the-clock darkness.
fisheries and Big Oil -- or as vulnerable to being sullied when a drilling operation goes horribly wrong. In both states, families have fished the same waters for generations and even the young people cannot imagine any other way of life. Twenty-one years later, Exxon Valdez survivors are like maritime Cassandras, foreseeing the long and bitter journey in store for the Gulf Coast residents they have never met but whose plight they have been following from afar.
"A lot of lives are going to be affected. It'll never be the same. It'll take years and years to work through it," said Bruce Robertson, who has fished local waters for close to 30 years. "Nice families will be broken apart. Businesses will be lost. It's not going to be pretty."
Oil remains just below surface, 21 years after spill
Eleanor Island is one of many uninhabited slips of land scattered across Prince William Sound. Its rocky beaches are home to purple starfish and colonies of tiny mussels. Closer to the treeline, the rocks get smaller. Remove a few shovelfuls of the gravel-like surface and you will strike oil -- not naturally occurring oil but Exxon Valdez oil, buried for 21 years. The water welling up in the hole has a rainbow sheen. Dark brown globs float on the surface, and the smell summons up a gas station.
After the Exxon Valdez slammed into Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, piloted by an unlicensed assistant while the allegedly inebriated captain was below deck, the slick initially did not spread far from the tanker. But efforts to contain it were minimal. On the third day, a powerful storm blew into the Sound, and the oil spread southwest, eventually covering more than 11,000 square miles. Cordova was spared a direct hit, but the town would never be the same.
After a few disastrous seasons, Prince William Sound salmon have rebounded, with a boost from hatcheries that cultivate eggs and release juvenile fish into the wild. Sea otters remain in the "recovering" column; those animals that dig for clams in places with lingering subsurface oil have not bounced back as quickly. One killer whale pod is doing well after losing about 40 percent of its members, but the other local pod appears headed for extinction.
The biggest loss is the herring, once exported to Japan for its pale yellow roe. The whales, sea lions and seabirds appear to have enough herring to eat, but numbers remain far too low to sustain a commercial fishery that once injected millions of dollars into the local economy. People in other Prince William Sound communities who made their living from the sea were affected in much the same way Cordovans were.
"It was a source of a big chunk of our income," said Rochelle van den Broek, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United. "Things are definitely a lot slower. Now, not everyone can afford to live here, and we lose half the town during the winter. There aren't as many kids at school. There's the whole trickle-down effect."
The oily deposits on Eleanor Island are not proof positive that Louisiana oyster fishers or Pensacola sunbathers will still be contending with tarballs 20 years from now. Oil decomposes faster in warm waters than in the icy Alaskan seas, and marshes can cleanse themselves more readily than rocky beaches. The BP spill is much farther offshore than the Exxon Valdez was. But the amount of oil that continues to gush from a mile under the ocean has already exceeded the Alaska spill by an order of magnitude. Another wild card is dispersants, used only briefly to combat Exxon Valdez but a long-term worry for the Gulf of Mexico because of their toxicity.
"What's more hopeful is that the oil will not remain as long. But it will still be very damaging," said Nancy Bird, executive director of the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova.
'The world turned upside down'
In early 1989, Linden O'Toole and her husband, Kevin, were in the market for a salmon seining permit. The fishery was extremely profitable, and the Cordova couple was outbid by one buyer before paying $300,000 for the right to capture salmon by encircling them with nets.
That was a few months before the spill. Nonetheless, 1990 was a banner year for Prince William Sound salmon seiners. But the oil devastated spawning grounds, and the effect was seen a few years later, when the hatchlings from 1989 should have ended up in seiners' nets. The yield went from 68 million pounds in 1991 to 17 million in 1992 and just 9.5 million the following year, a decline of 86 percent. The value of a permit fell even more precipitously, according to state data, hitting a low of $13,500 in 2003.
The O'Tooles eventually unloaded their permit for $47,000 but were still on the hook for the original $300,000 debt. They scraped by with earnings from Linden O'Toole's real estate business. Kevin O'Toole returned to being a deckhand. Only last year did he buy back into the seining industry and become his own boss again, albeit with an aging clunker of a boat.
"The future was so bright at that point. The minute that changed was when the oil hit that water," Linden O'Toole said. "There's no question, that's when the world turned upside down for us."
Many local fishers worked on the cleanup, and some profited more than others, spawning the term "spillionaire." Valdez, the doomed tanker's home port, where oil instead of fishing dominates, attracted so many job seekers that hotels overflowed and tent cities sprang up. But in the long run, the money Cordovans made that summer did not cover the losses they suffered in subsequent years. Some, feeling flush, invested in new boats or permits, only to see the fisheries come crashing down.
Some left fishing and started new lives, either in town or elsewhere. Local businesses, dependent on fishing money, failed in droves.
"My heart breaks for you guys. I don't think anyone down there knows what they're in for," said Sylvia Lange, a former fisherwoman who now owns the Reluctant Fisherman Inn. "The only thing you can do is change your life and make it positive for yourself. If you always wanted to go to art school, do it."
John Platt bought a herring seining permit in 1990 for $300,000. He fished for herring in 1991 and 1992, but there has only been one commercial herring season since then, and none since 1998. The market value of a herring permit is now about $10,000.
"I'm still reeling. I've got three boys who want to go to college next year and I can't help them," said Platt, who still fishes for salmon. "We haven't had health insurance in I don't know how long."
Platt's half-brother, Douglas Pettit, invested nearly $400,000 in a salmon seining boat and permit the year after the spill. The fishery has rebounded in recent years, but by then, Pettit was mired in debt and being pursued by creditors. He gave up the boat and recently sold the permit for a huge loss.
Despite income from a heating and plumbing business, Pettit fears losing his house and his remaining boat. He burst into tears and hid his face in his hands when he considered the possibility. Another brother, Daniel Pettit, died in 2005 after the failing fisheries drove him to alcoholism, Pettit said.
>"You can't imagine the change. It just sucked the life right out of this town," Pettit said. "To take away our livelihood and our way of life, that really hurts."
Steven Picou, a University of South Alabama sociologist, has documented the high rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues in Cordova after Exxon Valdez. "Technological disasters" like oil spills are much harder on victims than natural disasters because of the bitterness toward the individuals or companies that caused them, and because the effects tend to be spread out over a longer period of time, Picou has written. Drawn-out litigation adds to the psychological strain.
Picou has also studied Hurricane Katrina survivors. The catastrophic oil spill comes just as the Gulf Coast had started returning to normal, five years after the storm.
"They're vulnerable, and this makes it worse in terms of people who can't cope with this. When is it going to end?" Picou said. "We knew when Katrina ended, we knew when we got water pumped out of city, we knew we could go back and rebuild and raise our homes and protect ourselves from it never happening again. Here we are with this thing. There's very little people can do. They feel helpless, they feel a lot of anger. It's like the whole meaning of life is sucked out of these communities."
Emotions still raw in fishing village
In the old days, a Native Alaskan who felt an authority figure had been unresponsive and needed to be browbeaten into doing the right thing might have commissioned a "shame pole."
Such a totem pole is on display at Cordova's Ilanka Cultural Center, which is devoted to Native Alaskan artifacts. Artist and local fisherman Mike Webber portrays Exxon's former CEO, Lee Raymond, hanging upside down with black oil spilling from his mouth and the quote "We will make you whole." On the 7-foot cedar pole, oil-soaked wildlife and dead herring float near a tombstone commemorating the 6,000 plaintiffs who died before the conclusion of the 20-year litigation against Exxon.
Substitute BP's Tony Hayward for Raymond and pelicans for the sea otter, and many Louisianans would see an exact match with their own situation.
Anger at Exxon, first for causing the disaster and then for playing hardball with compensation claims, is still raw in Cordova. The U.S. Supreme Court caused a new groundswell of bitterness when it drastically reduced a punitive damages award by a lower court. The $20 billion escrow account set up by President Barack Obama and funded by BP could help avoid a repeat of a similar legal battle, but Cordovans warn those affected by the spill not to count on BP or the government.
"Everyone was thinking they'd get a big payoff from Exxon. They get a check 18 years later and it's a fraction of what they thought it would be. There's been divorces, all sorts of things. The town was kind of messed up, but it's kind of come back together again," said Don Bailey, a fisherman for 37 years.
A way of life
For all its struggles, Cordova remains a fishing town. The young people are sometimes advised to find a job with a steady paycheck, but many are determined to follow in their parents' footsteps.
John Platt's three sons all want to fish. Platt has agreed, on one condition: They must finish college so they will have a backup if the ecosystem goes haywire or, God forbid, there is another spill. His oldest, Christopher, plans to fish in the summers while teaching high school in the off-season.
Like Platt, James Burton's father spent the last two decades paying off a worthless herring permit and tried to persuade his son to become something other than a fisherman. The younger Burton worked for several years as a state trooper but disliked sitting at a desk writing reports. The open ocean called.
Though the herring are gone and the Sound just had its first shrimp opener since the spill, the bounty of salmon -- king, chum, coho, pink, sockeye -- still provides a living for Cordova's fishers. The 2008 salmon seining season was epic, with a $52 million yield, though 2009 was not as good.
"I grew up that way," said Burton, 30. "I couldn't stay away."