25 years after Exxon Valdez, the full extent of harm is still being discovered

Oil is shown seeping from underground in water in a hole dug on a beach on Eleanor Island, Alaska May 5, 2010.

I guess it was 15 years ago, pretty much on the dot, that a group of Twin Cities environmentalists came to see me at the Strib editorial board bearing a fruit jar of water, pebbles and —  they said — crude oil from the Exxon Valdez.

You couldn’t see the oil, exactly. But you sure could smell it.

The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the tanker’s catastrophic grounding and the news that March was dominated by coverage of the decade’ s massive cleanup efforts, with a focus on how much better things were all over Prince William Sound, generally speaking, although some problems persisted, etc., etc.

My visitors had come to make the counterpoint — underscored by the jar that sat uncapped and fragrant on the conference table — that the successes were all superficial. The real problems, they insisted, continued just below the tidied surfaces. Sometimes just inches below, where this particular sample had recently been gathered.

Being new to environmental subjects, and inclined by newspaper service toward a certain alertness for gimmicks, I silently wondered: How do I know this really came from Cordova? How, for that matter, do they?

Now we are at the 25th anniversary of what was then the largest oil spill in U.S. history, although it holds that rank no longer. Further experience has unburdened this journalist and many others of much skepticism about the persistent impacts and possibly permanent harm that flowed from the Valdez’s ruptured hull on March 24, 1989.

Oil persists everywhere

And the fruit-jar demonstration for reporters remains popular. From a National Public Radio feature about Cordova’s 25-year struggle to survive the loss of its fisheries, its economic base and very nearly, at times, its will to endure:

Dave Janka captains the Auklet, a 58-foot wooden boat he uses for private charters. Most of his clients are scientists studying the oil spill’s impact. Along the way, Janka has collected his own samples.

He opens a jar labeled “February 19, 2014.” Janka collected the dark black oily-water mixture from Eleanor Island in Prince William Sound, digging down about 6 inches beneath the rocky shoreline. It smells like your hand after pumping gas at a service station.

“Looks like oil, smells like oil. It’s oil,” Janka says. “If you or I, in our backyard or at our mom and pop gas station, had a fuel tank leak, we would be held to the point of bankruptcy to clean that up.”

Bankruptcy is a fate that has been visited on more than a few Cordova households and businesses afflicted by the disaster but not, of course, on the company responsible for their misery. Exxon Mobil is mostly off the hook, though continuing cleanup needs are such that, according to the Anchorage Daily News,

The federal and state governments are still weighing the science of the spill’s effects and deciding whether to seek more money from Exxon Mobil for cleaning up remaining oil.

If there is evidence the spill is causing unexpected, continuing damage, the company could be forced to pay up to $100 million on top of the $900 million civil settlement that Exxon paid in 1991. The case lives on in the courts.

For perspective and fairness, I will point out this billion bucks is only a portion of Exxon Mobil’s total outlays for cleanup, out-of-court settlements and various other fines and penalties, which add to well over $4 billion.

Also, that Exxon Mobil spokesmen say the company learned valuable lessons from the Valdez disaster (which may be true), and that “The sound is thriving environmentally and we’ve had a very solid, complete recovery” (which is sheer snake oil).

Some species recover, others don’t

Here’s a summary of pluses and minuses for some of the marquee species in Prince William Sound:

Pink salmon and sockeye salmon are considered to have recovered, as have black cod. Herring, however, remain in bad shape, and this is bad news for the commercial fishing sector that was Cordova’s economic mainstay, because the spring herring catch filled in between the other important seasons.

The herring problem is also bad news for the overall ecosystem of Prince William Sound, because herring were an important food source for birds, other fish, and killer whales. One group of orcas is struggling back toward stability, another is expected to go extinct.

Sea otters have struggled to hold on, their greatly diminished numbers bumping along with little change until fairly recently, and though the recent populations have shown both ups and downs, federal officials announced a few weeks ago that their numbers had reached pre-spill numbers for the first time in 25 years. Cross your fingers.

For scientists studying the Valdez’s impacts, writes Elizabeth Shogren, also at NPR, there have been major revelations below the surface, from endeavors she likens to an autopsy that takes a quarter-century to complete:

When the tanker leaked millions of gallons of the Alaskan coast, scientists predicted major environmental damage, but they expected those effects to be short lived. Instead, they’ve stretched out for many years.

What researchers learned as they puzzled through the reasons for the delayed recovery fundamentally changed the way scientists view oil spills. One of their most surprising discoveries was that long-lasting components of oil thought to be benign turned out to cause chronic damage to fish hearts when fish were exposed to tiny concentrations of the compounds as embryos. …

Scientists had traditionally believed that oil basically had to cover an animal or embryo to hurt it. But the evidence they saw in Alaska suggested it didn’t take much oil to do a lot of damage. And that damage could manifest in different ways.

For example, oil under rocks and in sediments contaminated clams that sea otters ate. It didn’t kill the otters outright: Wildlife biologist Dan Esler of the U.S. Geological Survey says it shortened otters’ lives and suppressed the population for 20 years.

Social costs of destruction

Many who have followed the Valdez story will remember the early human misery, including the divisions between residents who got payouts from Exxon Mobil and those who did not; the mysterious illnesses that seemed to be related to chemical exposure from the spilled oil or the dispersants used to break it up; the suicide of a Cordova mayor.

That suffering continues, too, in different forms and at different levels. An interesting piece at phys.org focused on research by the University of Colorado’s Liesel Ritchie, who has been part of a 24-year-long (and counting) longitudinal study of “serious community conflict and mental health issues” in Cordova.

“What has fostered so much stress and anxiety in the community as a whole is different science says different things,” she said. “For example, Exxon scientists say everything is fine, that the impacts were minimal to begin with and that they subsided very quickly. Then other scientists who are not being paid by Exxon have other findings. What we’re talking about here at that level then is contested science which tends to cause uncertainty and stress in populations that are receiving this information and not knowing entirely how to interpret that.”

Even with a smaller than expected settlement, Ritchie says the people of Cordova appear to be moving on and doing their best to revive their fishing economy. However, she says, they have a long way to go. Before the spill Cordova consistently ranked in the top 10 most profitable U.S. seafood ports. A quarter century later, it’s not even in the top 25.

The most recent data, she said, show the first decline in community stress levels since the spill.

As a result of the Valdez grounding, Congress finally required tankers operating in U.S. waters to be of double-hull design, and federal and state regulations on tanker traffic in Prince William Sound and some other places were tightened, especially in regard to emergency preparedness.

A good look at some significant gains and serious continuing deficits can be found in the Homer Tribune, which noted that whatever preparations are made, ” the best plans can be challenged by weather. A drill last fall proved that when spill response efforts were entirely thwarted by a storm.”

“They couldn’t respond at all,” said Lisa Matlock, the council’s outreach coordinator. “It was one of those real-world experiences. From doing those real-world drills, we get better planning put in place.”

While the regional citizens advisory council set up in Prince William Sound has helped protect that 15,000 square mile body of water, other areas of the state, such as the Aleutian Islands, the Arctic and even Cook Inlet, which has an advisory council, are significantly less protected, many say. In those regions, if a tanker runs aground, rescue equipment can be hours or days away, and limited to what is available regionally.

Not all people who live Outside would necessarily know that Cook Inlet’s shoreline includes Anchorage.

Broken faith in justice

As I read about Alaskans’ broken faith with Big Oil, government regulation and especially the American court system, I was struck particularly by this comment from Jim Kallander, a fisherman and former Cordova mayor who watched Exxon Mobil fight successfully to have its penalties reduced in a 19-year series of appeals that reached finally to victory before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“All my life, I’d been brought up to think that, you know, you get to the Supreme Court and everything is made right. People are made whole. Issues are corrected. And I’m still disappointed. I’ll never get over it.”

Also, by the comments of Rick Steiner, an Alaskan professor of marine conservation who has studied the spill’s impacts for 25 years and does his own version of the fruit-jar trick with a pocket-size jar of oily stones he carries around. From Al-Jazeera America:

“This is beach gravel from Eleanor Island,” Steiner said, pointing out to Prince William Sound. “It’s covered in oil from the Exxon Valdez, 25 years on, and I didn’t have to dig very deep to find it. I dug it up earlier this year.

… “We can do better at reducing the risk. But once oil has spilled, you cannot clean it up, you cannot restore an oil-injured ecosystem and you can’t adequately rebuild human communities that are unravelled by these big industrial disasters.

“Some of these injuries persist. And industry rhetoric aside, we know these disasters do cause long-term, permanent environmental damage. And that’s one of the take-home lessons from Exxon Valdez a quarter of a century later: Once it happens, it’s never over.”

I suppose Minnesotans reading about Cordova’s plight and the hobbled ecosystem of Prince William Sound can be glad once again that we’re not an oil-producing state.

But we have our share of pipelines, and our share of risk in their probable future expansion, and in the expansion of terminals in the port of Superior, just across the bay from Duluth, to handle the rising flow of Canadian tar-sands oil.

Then there are the copper-nickel mines proposed at the edge of the Boundary Waters, whose champions assure us that new technologies guarantee that mining can be done right, that state regulation can ensure the natural environment is protected, that regulators and courts would insist that any accidental damage is mitigated and the responsible parties brought to account, that some kind of bond or insurance or trust fund will pay for whatever could possibly go wrong for centuries into the future.

Surely we can trust those official assurances. Can’t we?

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 03/25/2014 - 01:31 pm.

    When it comes to big oil, the law is a joke

    What’s clear from the Valdez and many other spills is that the oil companies will try to get away with whatever they can. Public health and environmental protection are often afterthoughts and window dressing. These corporate giants have little incentive to operate safely. Fines are minuscule compared to profits, and lavishly paid suits are typically legally unaccountable for the disasters they create through incompetence or negligence.

    Remember BP, the reckless company responsible for the massive Gulf spill? According to the following report they really haven’t learned anything. More importantly, we don’t have a political system able to make them learn:

    “Even more frustrating is how BP hasn’t felt prompted to step up its safety standards after causing one of the worst environmental crisis in US history. Only nine months ago, the Petroleum Safety Authority in Norway said that the lack of maintenance and management of BP’s oil platform in the North Sea lead to a leak of about 125 barrels of oil. This after the same agency had already discovered that the platform had inadequate fire and explosion protection which could have caused another major accident.”

    The accompanying video interview goes on to discuss how BP and its sleazy PR firm have allegedly hired personnel to harass and threaten critics.

    How many more oil spill disasters do Americans want? How many more people and communities have to get screwed and lied to by these corporate operators? How many more beaches, rivers, oceans, lakes, forests and fields do we want to see slathered in toxic chemicals and oil?

    How many needed regulations have been scuttled by the moron-ocracy of ‘drill baby drill’ and ‘limited government’? How can the CEOs and executives of these companies not be held personally accountable?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/25/2014 - 07:15 pm.

    Competing science

    This isn’t the first time that the possibility of science and scientists being corrupted has seemed fairly obvious. It’s no wonder that people trying to live with environmental disaster are more than a little stressed. Beyond that, two points come immediately to mind.

    First, I know of no instance of a large, multinational corporation actually being held accountable. Much like the investment banks responsible for the recent economic collapse, resource-based multinational companies are generally regarded as either too big to fail, or too important to the national economy to be held accountable for their actions (or in some cases, their inaction). Being held accountable should, in severe cases like this one, mean corporate death, particularly if the SCOTUS is going to insist that in politics Exxon-Mobil is a “person.” Persons don’t just pay fines when they screw up in some major way. Persons go to prison. Often, they pay restitution that is, for individuals, frequently ruinous. Exxon-Mobil remains hugely profitable, and the billion-dollar payout won’t come close to covering the cost(s) associated with long-term damage to that coastal fishery environment. The same could (and should) be said about BP and the Gulf oil disaster.

    All by itself, this is reason to put a figurative gun to PolyMet’s head and make it clear that if their promises about the cleanliness of mining in the Arrowhead turn out to be nothing more than promises, the trigger will be pulled in the form of breaking up the corporation, sending executives (and underlings who are similarly responsible, but especially executives) to prison, and requiring massive payments for environmental damage that the parent corporation can neither escape, nor expect to pay off in a human lifetime.

    The second point is simply a matter of curiosity. During World War II, dozens, probably hundreds, of tanker ships filled with oil and other petroleum products were sunk, along with hundreds of other partially or fully-fueled merchant ships of other types. What happened to that oil and its associated products in the years during and after the war ended? We’ve now had more than half a century to look at/for environmental aftereffects from the sinking of those ships. Has any study been made in connection with those fairly obvious examples of earlier pollution?

    • Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 03/25/2014 - 10:34 pm.


      Rather than hold a figurative gun to their head, let’s just stop them before they get started.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/26/2014 - 08:19 am.

      WWII sunken ships

      Here is an interesting report, “The Global Risk of Marine Pollution from WWII Shipwrecks” in which some metrics are developed, and some explanations are stated when data cannot be determined. http://www.seaaustralia.com/documents/The%20Global%20Risk%20of%20Marine%20Pollution%20from%20WWII%20Shipwrecks-final.pdf

      “Heavy fuel oil is often seen as the most environmentally significant oil spill threat because of its persistence even after weathering at sea and very slow biodegradation rates.” Then, narrowing its comment to 79 specific tankers, “The 79 tankers together contained a total of over 939 million litres (>248 million gallons) of fuel oil.” There were a lot more tankers, but many could not be included in the metrics of oil volume, for reasons given in the report.

      The report notes, in addition, the simple dumping – deliberate disposal at sea – of bombs, ordnance, and chemical warfare agents based upon the belief that the oceans are an infinitely absorptive dumping ground. Another commenter here puts it this way: “It dilutes…in the vast ocean.”, or as the report puts it: “The sea was seen by the military and governments to have unlimited absorptive capacity.”

      This delusion, that the oceans are an infinite dumping ground, is one of our fundamental fallacies, along with the notions of infinite, endless growth and magical future science which will overcome all the effects of any unwise decisions of today.

      Thanks to Ron for this and his many other interesting columns !!

  3. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/26/2014 - 06:18 am.

    Sustaining my image with Ron

    I’m not sure of the point of this article and comments. Occasional spills in the thousands of oil shipments d happen. Do the authors want to return to bicycles; close water treatment plants that depend on fossil fuels, return to horse drawn plows, etc.
    All the world’s oil came from ocean algae which cooked into oil in shale, and most of it now lies in layers of limestone and sandstone beneath the ocean floor. Much more of it naturally seeps up than leaked from the BP spill or all of tankers sunk in WWII. It then dilutes in the vast ocean.
    I suppose we could have had our troops attack Hitler’s armies on horse drawn chariots instead of Sherman tanks, and avoided some of those torpedoed ships.
    Of course, all care should be taken with transport, and adequate compensation for damage. But until we can expand nuclear and renewables, it’s those fossil fuels. Let’s hear it for carbon taxes.

  4. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/26/2014 - 08:46 am.

    Big business and the US supreme court

    A disgraceful partnership

  5. Submitted by mark wallek on 03/27/2014 - 09:50 am.

    Right on.

    The real problems…continued just below the tidied surfaces.” Now there is a statement describing the process by which we approach ALL our major issues. We like our tidied surfaces.

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