An insurance man traveling in Alaska stopped in at the Union
Hall in Cordova recently. He stared at the three large paintings
that depict oil-spill booms and an otter skull on an oil-stained
shoreline, and, realizing that this was a commemoration of the
Exxon Valdez oil spill, said, "You guys still aren't over that?"
This is an article from the Sept. 30, 1996 issue
Dorne Hawxhurst, executive director of Cordova District
Fishermen United (CDFU), the 300-member group that shares the
labor hall with three other associations, tried to explain that
no, Cordova's fishermen aren't over the 1989 spill. The lawsuits
aren't finished. The cleanup isn't done. Many of the fishermen
are depressed and broke. The oil companies are still fighting
stringent safety standards that might prevent a repeat of the
Exxon Valdez accident, in which the supertanker ran aground and
disgorged 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into Prince
William Sound, and would force the oil companies to be better
prepared in the event of a spill. Hawxhurst, who has a
schoolteacher's ability to make a person wither under her glare,
fixed that look upon the insurance salesman. "I wanted to kill
him," she said later.
It's a bad idea to fly into this town on the shore of Prince
William Sound--a town where Exxon officials were hanged in
effigy after the accident and where fishermen talk fondly of the
days when CDFU was a union with muscle--and suggest that it is
time for folks to get on with their lives. Their lives are too
closely linked to the sound and to the troubled fishing industry.
"It's a dead sea out there," says Dan Pettit as he sits in his
24-foot salmon boat in Cordova harbor. Pettit, 41, is a big man
who nearly fills the cabin of the Midnight Sun. Once he starts
talking about the spill, he runs through emotions as quickly as
he will go through the cheap beer stocked on the foredeck.
"It's going to be a dead zone for the next 500 years. This is
the honest to god's truth," Pettit says as he hoists his huge
arms toward the heavens. "I go out there and cry. You can see
the goddam oil stains on the rocks. I used to hate to see all
the damn birds. Now you don't see them so much, and you know
what? I miss them."
Indeed, there are far fewer seabirds, seals and herring--before
the spill herring was the most lucrative harvest. And as the
sound recovered from the spill and fishermen were again allowed
to fish, their financial woes were aggravated by the collapse of
the salmon market under a glut of hatchery-raised fish.
This year Dan became the first Pettit in three generations to
leave Cordova to find work. "Last winter I had to go down to
Georgia to work construction for nine dollars an hour," he says.
"I was embarrassed. My brother Doug said, 'Dan, you've got to
find a job. I can't afford to feed you.' It hurt. It's like,
This is not your life anymore. Sorry, you've got to find
something else to do."
Yet the Pettits and other commercial fishermen in Cordova may
soon haul in a fortune. In 1994 an Anchorage jury ordered Exxon
to pay more than $5 billion to fishermen and other plaintiffs
who could show that they have been financially hurt by the
spill. If that ruling, now under appeal, holds up, Cordova's
fishermen will receive an average of about $800,000 apiece. Some
fishermen in the spill area could collect nearly $2 million.
The prospective windfall has tempered Alaskans' sympathy for the
affected fishermen--The Anchorage Daily News has dubbed them
"spillionaires"--and is a touchy subject in Cordova. "If you're
doing [a story on] the spillionaire thing, I don't think people
are going to be interested in talking to you," Hawxhurst warned
Seven years have passed since captain Joe Hazelwood and his crew
impaled the Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef. Close to $3 billion has
been spent by Exxon alone to mop up the oil, scrub rocks, clean
otters and birds, let loose oil-eating microbes and--when
nothing else worked--ship in bulldozers and perform massive
beach overhauls. If Exxon loses its appeal of the $5 billion
damages claim, it also will have paid out nearly $6 billion in
fines, judgments and settlements. Studies have been done, laws
passed, promises made.
Enough, say Exxon and its supporters. "The fact is, Prince
William Sound is a heart-stoppingly beautiful place, and to say
it's ruined forever is just not true," says David Page, a
chemistry professor from Bowdoin (Maine) College who from 1989
to '96 conducted Exxon-funded research on the toxicity of the
sound. Page testified for the company as an expert witness
during the 1994 civil case brought by the fishermen. "I think at
some point you have to say it's time to get on with things,"
says Page. "It's time to get over the spill."
Alaskan officials agree that the sound is not ruined for all
time. "But that doesn't mean that the ecosystem hasn't been
damaged and that all parts of it are recovering well," says
Ernest Piper, who is the chief of restoration and the damage
assistant with the Alaska Department of Environmental
Conservation and who was in charge of the cleanup after the spill.
And some of the oil is still there. At Sleepy Bay on Latouche
Island, about 50 miles from the site of the accident, oil high
on the beach has turned to asphalt. Turn over a rock along Rua
Cove on nearby Knight Island and you'll find a greasy, brown
emulsion of oil and sand that has the consistency, in Piper's
words, "of the inside of a Twinkie."
Scientists say the oil no longer poses an environmental threat.
It's ugly but not likely to further harm fish or wildlife.
However, residents of the island village of Chenega Bay have
successfully lobbied for a $2 million cleanup around their
island, which sits about 20 miles from the accident site, near
where Prince William Sound empties into the Gulf of Alaska. That
will be the final official step in a task that seemed impossible
from the start, when crews stood on beaches hand-washing rocks
and boulders, sometimes leaving just before the tide washed in a
fresh coat of goo.
With the cleanup all but over, the state and federal governments
are using the nearly $1 billion they collected from Exxon in
out-of-court settlements to find other ways to try to erase the
stain of the spill. After those settlements, government agencies
fought over which of their pet projects would be bankrolled with
the windfall. Environmentalists had a long list of projects that
they wanted the Exxon money to fund. In 1993, the federal
General Accounting Office (GAO) criticized the Exxon Valdez Oil
Spill Trustees Council (formed five years ago to guide the use
of the civil settlement funds) for approving too many government
projects. The Trustees Council comprises the state attorney
general and representatives from Alaska's Department of
Environmental Conservation, the U.S. departments of the Interior
and Agriculture, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the
Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The GAO, for example, felt
that one salmon study promoted by fish and game interests had no
real link to the spill problems. Also, the GAO took the trustees
to task for "spreading bad science," as demonstrated by
"incomplete analyses, overreaching conclusions and imbalanced
The GAO criticism forced the trustees to remain more faithful to
the settlement agreement between Exxon and the federal and state
governments, which requires the bulk of the $1 billion to be
used to "restore, rehabilitate, replace or enhance the natural
resources and services" affected by the spill. And so the
trustees have embarked on a wilderness-land-buying spree. So
far, they have authorized the spending of $215 million to buy
more than 400,000 acres to create or expand national forests,
wildlife refuges, state parks and marine sanctuaries. That's not
likely to bring back any of the species hurt most by the spill,
but the trustees decided that the next best thing was to lessen
other environmental threats in the spill area. In general, the
goal has been to protect the land from logging, development and
an excess of wilderness tourism.
Nearly all the money spent on land so far has gone to Alaska
Native corporations, which were set up 25 years ago to receive
10% of the state's acreage in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims
Settlement Act. Now, paying up to four times the appraised
value, the government is buying back that legacy out of fear
that, in their drive for profits, the Native corporations will
develop the land. Not all Alaskans are happy that the 1971 act
is being turned on its head.
The only project most people in Alaska will ever visit is the
SeaLife Center under construction in Seward, a tourist port
south of Anchorage. The project is being funded with $37.5
million from the Exxon settlement. In Alaska, the center is
called Wally's Water World, in reference to former governor
Walter Hickel. Hickel had originally proposed a theme-park-like
aquarium, but what the trustees agreed on, with Hickel's
blessing, is more of a research center. "It's not a whale
jail," says Molly McCammon, executive director of the trustees,
"but scientists at work for tourists to watch."
Scientists have been studying the Exxon Valdez spill since the
first gurgle of oil. The federal and state governments have
spent more than $200 million on studies, and Exxon has funded a
whole fleet of researchers, including Page. Not surprisingly,
the two sides differ in their views. Exxon declared that Prince
William Sound recovered three years ago. "After that, if you did
good science, it was really hard to find any effect that could
be attributed to the spill," says Page. "There are so many other
factors that were causing change." He says government-funded
scientists won't agree with him because their funding would dry
up if they did. "Once a resource is declared recovered, you
can't spend money to study it anymore," Page says. "So there is
an Arabian Nights thing here--if you stop telling a story,
you're in big trouble."
Nevertheless, the story is disturbing. Today the sound is home
to fewer harbor seals, harlequin ducks, seals and sea otters.
It's too soon to tell the long-term effects of the spill on
common murres, loons, trout, clams and rockfish, but a pod of
killer whales that patrols Prince William Sound has inexplicably
lost several of its members. According to Stan Senner, science
coordinator for the trustees, the pod has also seen an
unprecedented disintegration of its social structure; with many
adults missing, it is like a pack of wolves without a leader.
The biggest blow to commercial fishermen has been the decline in
stock of Pacific herring. Herring--caught for their roe and
before the spill worth up to $300,000 per day to fishermen in
the sound--are so scarce that the Alaska Department of Fish and
Game has not allowed anyone to fish for them since 1993.
Has all this been caused by the Exxon Valdez spill? Few think
so. "We have correlation but not causation," Senner says. "It's
very difficult to prove these things." Even Hawxhurst, perhaps
Exxon's fiercest critic, says, "It's just not as black and white
as some people would like to think."
The effects of the spill on humans is much clearer. Steven
Picou, a sociology professor from the University of South
Alabama, has spent a few months in Cordova each year since the
spill. Picou is a welcome outsider to the men and women of
Cordova, who say they didn't talk much about their feelings
until the professor arrived and started interviewing them. Picou
has documented widespread depression and stress in town.
"Victims of these things hide," Picou says. "We know people are
buying more at the liquor stores and sitting less in the bars."
Just as it is with the killer whales, says Picou, the social
structure among the residents of Cordova seems to be threatened.
Doug Pettit, 44, Dan's big bother, has a larger boat than
Dan--and larger debts that he says are driving him to
bankruptcy. The state, which lent Doug the money to get into, of
all things, the herring business, wants its money back. Doug
does not have it, so the state has decided it will take his and
his wife's "permanent fund dividend" checks for the next dozen
years. The checks, for as much as $1,000 a year, are mailed to
every man, woman and child in Alaska as their direct share of
state oil revenue. Taking a person's check away is like
stripping him of his citizenship.
"Exxon sold themselves as champions of the people, telling us,
'Don't worry, we'll make it right,'" Doug says. "But they have
spent their effort, time and money trying to get out of their
obligations." This is not just the ranting of a desperate
fisherman. U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland, who is
hearing pretrial motions before Exxon's appeal of the $5 billion
payment, said in a June ruling that the company was acting "as a
Jekyll and Hyde, behaving laudably in public and deplorably in
private." The judge was referring to a settlement reached
between Exxon and seven seafood processors, in which the
processors would kick back $745 million to Exxon after they
received their share of the settlement.
Judicial indignation does little for the Pettit men. "It's like
a rat in your storage locker--it just keeps nibbling at you,"
Doug says of his hard luck since the oil spill. "I have fallen
on my ass, a total failure, and that is really hard to take.
People keep telling us, 'Go on with your life.' How can you go
on with your life? This was our life. We fish. What, are they
David Postman, a political reporter for The Seattle Times,
covered the Exxon Valdez spill for TIME.