15 years later, Exxon Valdez oil spill lingers

Posted: 7 April 2004

Author: J.R. Pegg

In the immediate wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, company representatives made a promise to the communities of Prince William Sound. "If you can show that you have a loss as a result of this spill, we will compensate it," the company's top official in Alaska told residents from the fishing community of Cordova. "We will consider whatever it takes to make you whole. Put it on paper and bring it to the table." Fifteen years later, the town is still waiting, as J.R. Pegg reports.

"Exxon has not fulfilled its promise," Riki Ott of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility told reporters.

Exxon Valdez tanker
Exxon Valdez tanker
Exxon Valdez tanker circled with containment boom.Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

Ott led a delegation of Cordovans - including scientists, commercial fishermen, high school students, Alaska Natives, oil industry experts and injured cleanup workers - to the nation's capital this week to share their stories about the lingering devastation of the oil spill.

On March 24, 1989, a drunken captain ran the massive Valdez oil tanker into a reef in the Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of oil.

"That day the ocean died," said Dune Lankard, founder of the Eyak Preservation Council. "It was a living nightmare."

Wildlife killed

Oiled crow in the hands of a rescue worker
Oiled crow in the hands of a rescue worker
Oiled crow in the hands of a rescue worker.Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

The oil spill fouled 1,500 miles of Alaskan shoreline and killed more wildlife than any prior environmental disaster. It killed more than 250,000 sea birds, 3,000 otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 whales.

The region's commercial and recreational fishing industries were destroyed - and have not fully recovered.

The average value of Cordova commercial fisheries landings is some 60 per cent that of pre-spill averages - much of this is attributable to the collapse of the $16 million herring fishery.

ExxonMobil says the environment in the Sound is now "healthy, robust and thriving." But that statement rings false for local residents of the Sound, who say the oil giant and world's most profitable company has continually underestimated the ecological, financial, social and cultural devastation of the nation's worst oil spill.

Restoration funds

The Alaskans say the federal government and the state of Alaska should reopen their civil suit against Exxon in order to release $100 million in additional restoration fees. The terms of the $900 million settlement included $100 million in additional restoration fees - dubbed the "reopener."

The parties have until 2006 to call for Exxon to turn over these funds, which the company agreed to turn over if Prince William Sound had not completely recovered from the oil spill.

The Cordova delegation says the money should be used to fund educational efforts about the long-term impacts of oil spills and to help provide some relief to local fishing families.

But there seems little chance the state or the federal government will move to assert the $100 million reopener claim. Alaska state officials say the evidence needed is still lacking and the Bush administration has shown little interest in pursuing the matter.

Long-term impacts

Yet there is growing evidence that the Valdez spill - and oil spills in general - have longer and more harmful impacts on coastal marine ecosystems than previous assumptions.

A peer reviewed study published last December in the journal Science found that large quantities of oil remain in the ecosystem and predicted that oiled mussel beds and other tidal shoreline habitats will take an estimated 30 years to recover.

The study determined that "unexpected persistence of toxic subsurface oil and chronic exposures, even at sublethal levels, have continued to affect wildlife."

Ott says the debate over Exxon's responsibility has largely rested on inaccurate assumptions about oil toxicity and a flawed estimate of the oil spill's size, widely reported as 11 million gallons.

Exxon publicised that figure within the first 36 hours, Ott said, but it was the low end of an estimate with a high of some 35 million gallons.

"That is a low estimate that was never independently verified," Ott said. "The spill was actually 30 million to 35 million gallons."

Health problems

A line of clean-up workers hose down a rocky shore with hot water
A line of clean-up workers hose down a rocky shore with hot water
A line of clean-up workers hose down a rocky shore with hot waterPhoto courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

There is also growing evidence that cleanup workers hired by Exxon and its primary contractor VECO are suffering from debilitating illnesses as a result of exposure to the oil and solvent mixtures used to clean the oiled beaches, rocks and waters.

Exxon's cleanup was "an occupational health disaster," Ott said.

More than 11,000 workers helped clean up the Valdez oil - a new survey finds one-third of workers were experiencing health problems consistent with high exposure to oil, solvents and other chemicals present during the cleanup.

Exxon's records - now sealed by a court case - show 6,722 clean up workers filed claims for respiratory problems. The company or its contractor recorded these claims as "colds or flu" and did not report a single case to federal occupational health safety officials.

"Workers were sent out to clean oil without proper training or protective equipment," said Pamela Miller, executive director of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics. "While media and public attention focused on the thousands of oiled and dead seabirds, otters, and other wildlife, little attention was given to the harm done to the cleanup workers."

No federal or state agency has done a comprehensive investigation of long-term health effects to the cleanup workers, said Miller, who urged Congress to investigate the health of the Exxon Valdez oil spill workers.

Sociologist Steve Picou told reporters how economic uncertainty from the spill and prolonged litigation have fueled emotional trauma for many Sound residents.

Picou has completed numerous studies on the economic and social welfare of Cordova's commercial fishers - on average each lost some $55,000 to $60,000 a year from 1990 to 1995.

Some 50 per cent suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorders during that time, Picou said, and many continue to suffer today.

Kory Blake, a third generation Cordova commercial fisherman, said the emotional effects of the spill "wreaked havoc on Prince William Sound families."

Blake was forced to sell his home to make boat payments and move his family from Cordova. For the past 11 years he has had to leave his family for five months of the year to take seasonal work. "We want to find some closure from this disaster," said Blake.

Much of the long term trauma for Sound residents comes from Exxon's use of "adversarial litigation," Picou told reporters.

In 1994 a jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to 32,000 plaintiffs affected by the spill.

Oil dependence

Exxon, which became ExxonMobil in 1999, has battled the award and successfully tied it up in court. The award remains embroiled in the appeals process.

ExxonMobil argues that it has paid some $2.2 billion in clean up and compensation and has fulfilled its responsibility to the Sound residents.

Company statements contend the punitive damage award "is not, in any way, an issue of compensation to the plaintiffs."

The company, which earned some $21.5 billion in 2003, has argued for a punitive award of $25 million - a figure Lankard says is outrageous.

"The $4.5 billion - that number should go up not down," said Lankard, who called on others to use the lessons of the Valdez to help shift the nation away from oil dependence.

"Future generations will inherit our bad decisions," he said. "We must get off our addiction to oil." Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.