Reflections on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and What’s Ahead for the Gulf Coast

Oiled SeagullPat Lavin, NWF’s Conservation Policy Advocate in our Anchorage office, reflects on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and what’s ahead for the Louisiana oil spill cleanup.

I wasn’t in Alaska in 1989, but the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill still had a direct impact on my life, solidifying my desire to go to law school and learn how to help protect the environment through legislation, policy and litigation.

Along with other high-profile events of its day, like hazardous medical waste washing up on beaches in New Jersey and barges of garbage floating off New York City with nowhere to go, the Exxon Valdez tragedy was for me a powerful symbol of our tendency underestimate and inadequately ensure against risk in our pursuit of profits.

I watched the television aghast with everyone else in 1989 as sea otters, harbor seals, cormorants, murres, kittiwakes and a host of other species and their idyllic, pristine home turned black and died. Otters scratched their eyes out from the pain, birds sank and drowned, shellfish were buried in oil.

The horror was more than I, as a distant observer, could bear; I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be there.

A couple of years later I got a chance to find out when I organized a panel discussion featuring a presentation about the Exxon Valdez spill called “Remembering Mars” by Linda Smogor of Homer, Alaska.  Witnessing the spill and the ineffectual response thereto, Linda and some friends decided to take matters into their own hands, at least in one special place called Mars Cove.

Using a home-made oil scrubbing device of their own invention, the group spent week after punishing week camping in the wind and rain on the shoreline and cleaning and removing oil from the cove. They knew that in the big picture their effort was of negligible impact, that as they worked to protect one small cove, millions of gallons of oil were fouling thousands of miles of shoreline around them. But they claimed their sacred place and dedicated themselves to protecting and restoring it.

I cried when I watched Linda’s slideshow then and I’m fighting back tears as I type this, picturing the coves and wetlands of coastal Louisiana invaded by toxic crude oil just like Mars Cove was 21 years ago.

I moved to Alaska in 1993, and remember where I was in 1994 when, over five years after the spill occurred, I heard that a jury had returned a verdict against Exxon for $5 billion, an unprecedented sum that at the time equaled about a year of profit for the oil giant. I felt there was no sum of money anyone could ever pay to compensate for what happened, but hoped it could at least improve some ruined lives in spill zone communities. 

The five years folks had waited, however, proved to be only the beginning, a warm-up for the real litigation, appeals, expense, delay and overall war of attrition that Exxon would wage against the Alaskans it had injured. Courts later slashed the damage award, leaving plaintiffs with about a dime on the dollar, minus their legal fees. For the most part, Exxon won.

I later had the opportunity to work on conservation issues in Prince William Sound and the pleasure of working with local residents who loved their magical home. Buffeted by environmental disaster of sickening proportion and by economic devastation from closed fisheries and disruption of subsistence livelihoods, communities saw hard times.

Prince William Sound’s wildlife has recovered slowly and only partially; some species remain far below historical measures of population and health and Pacific herring, a key forage fish that once also supported a valuable fishery, have yet to return. The Sound’s communities, though resilient, also seem to still be healing, 21 years later.

There isn’t a happy ending to look forward to. Not in Prince William Sound and not, I’m afraid, in coastal Louisiana. There is instead, once again, an opportunity and a reason to ask ourselves anew how much we’re prepared to risk, to lose, in our quest for energy and whether there might be better options.

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