US & Canada

Examining the legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill

Exxon Valdez
Image caption The Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef on 24 March, 1989

As experts try to assess the long-term impact of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the BBC World Service asked two people who experienced the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 to look back and consider its impact on Alaska's communities.

"We just hadn't been ready for a spill," said John Devens, who was the mayor of the small port of Valdez in 1989. Exxon Valdez, the giant oil tanker that ran aground, was named after his town.

The town was fond of the oil industry - it received millions of dollars of revenue by taxing the oil companies - but things changed when the massive ship began to spill thousands of barrels of oil in Prince William Sound, poisoning the water and damaging Alaska's spectacular shores.

When John heard about the disaster on 24 March, he chartered a plane to assess the damage.

Image caption Anne was nicknamed 'Madam Godzilla' for pushing for more resources

"We flew over Exxon Valdez, the oil there was probably four feet deep," said Mr Devens, adding that calm waters in the strait had created a "lake of oil", holding the spill in one area. "It's unusual in March for us to have that good weather," he said.

But after several days, it started to spread, damaging over 1,250 miles (2,000km) of coastline.

Anne Castellina was superintendent at the Kenai Fjords National Park, an area that was hit several weeks after the actual disaster.

"We were in such a state of shock, we really couldn't believe it," she said.

When she heard about the oil hitting the park shores, she headed to nearby Pony Cove, a wall of rocks on the coast, to inspect the damage.

"We noticed there was this bathtub ring and I thought it was algae or mussels or something at first. And we got really close to the wall, and we realised it was oil. It was all oil.

"We also noticed there were lots of big black blobs and we started hauling some of those out of the water, and they were dead sea otters and dead sea birds, that were totally unrecognisable because they were just completely coated with this thick emulsified oil."

Anne said in the early stages of the spill, equipment was so scarce that people literally took matters in their own hands, using buckets to collect oil and take it to disposal facilities.

"The oil was so darn thick, they were either having to use their hands or sticks to get the oil and scrape it out of the buckets."

Emotional price

As the clean-up operation gathered pace, the small towns on the Alaskan coast had to deal with a surge of people who arrived to help.

"Exxon would hire virtually anybody that would go on and sit on those islands and clean rocks," said John Devens, "because Exxon threw a lot of money at this to try to get things taken care of."

Image caption Oil residue is still found on the shores of Prince William Sound

But efforts to minimise damage to nature came at a high cost to the inhabitants.

"People who didn't get hired by Exxon were not the kind of people you wanted left over in your community," he said, adding that the unusual influx of people created a crisis of accommodation and increased criminal activities, including violence and drug abuse.

"It tore this community apart," he said.

Most people in the Prince William Sound area paid a heavy emotional price, including Anne, who was then a single mother in her 30s.

"It was hard on my family. At one point my middle daughter turned to me as I said, 'I got to go to another oil spill meeting.' And she looked at me and she said: 'Mommy we are important too.'

"And my heart just about broke."

According to Mr Devens, it was the fishermen who lost most, and they are still suffering.

"You have fishing families that were so devastated that they've never recovered. And some of the species that were destroyed back in 1989 just have not come back.

"They waited all those years and they never really ever received all the compensation that they had been promised."

Pipeline warning

One of the positive outcomes of the Exxon Valdez disaster is thought to be the introduction of federal legislation improving the safety of oil tankers. Mr Devens believes it also brought in more investment in clean-up technology.

"Today we have world class response equipment," he said.

But he also flagged up a warning for the future.

"The big problem that I see coming is that we have 800 miles of pipeline that has not been well maintained over the years.

"And I think the next big spill will come from the pipeline."

The issue of recovery is still contentious. Clean-up efforts officially ended in 1992, but one recent study has shown an estimated 20,000 gallons of oil remaining on the beaches of Prince William Sound.

According to Anne, one can even smell it in some areas. "The oil tends to hide itself especially on these beaches where, you know, we have these huge cobbled rocks.

"It'll go into this and come up to the top. And then the storms will uncover it. And then a hot day comes along, and puff, there it is again.

"It's still there."

You can listen to the Witness programme on BBC World Service for more on Exxon Valdez.

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