Environmentalism and the Response to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Waking up stiff and sore in the morning after sleeping all night on a hard bed of snow and ice has its disadvantages and would keep most people down. But as I gazed out upon Heather Bay after exiting my tent, I realized that I was not in any ordinary place. While walking along the dark rock beach to finish my daily routine of washing my face I used the reflection of the crystal clear calm ocean surface to catch my reflection like a mirror. I looked like I was in pretty rough shape. I had to avert my eyes when I saw my hair; it was a mess. I didn’t really care. I don’t think that the smile that I woke up with left my face those entire four days. But this was no ordinary sink that I was washing my face in. I scooped some water from the rushing waterfall in front of me and felt the invigorating rush that only fresh ozonated water can provide. I brushed my teeth in the cold flowing creek and was ready for the day to begin. After gathering everyone else up, and hearing grumbling of “I don’t feel like paddling anymore today” we set off in our kayaks. It was a huge silent fleet of sixteen boats, slowly creeping upon our destination. Through a maze of glaciers, past the shrieking songs of sea lion sirens, paddling alongside a curious harbor seal, and watching more than a half dozen bald eagles fly together and play a game of tag in this enormous playground is an amazing sight to see. The climax of our journey was when two behemoths snuck up on us and surprised us. Occasional spouts of water would fountain through the ice field, announcing their arrival, and then they would disappear, back into the murky depths. Their stench hit us like a brick wall, causing many to cover their noses, but not their eyes. A head popped out of the water. Blue and white and covered in barnacles, a humpback whale stared at us from no more than 50 feet away. That was no typo. They were so close that I was afraid that they would capsize us. Once these intelligent creatures weaved their way through the ice to investigate and find out what we were, they said goodbye with a flip of their tail, and we never heard from them again.
What this longwinded tale is trying to illuminate, is that now I understand the appeal of Alaska. I understand why people seem so passionate about saving the land. This is truly the “Last Frontier:” No other place in the United States, or on earth for that matter, displays the unique number of plant, bird, mammal, and total organismal life that is the Prince William Sound area. If it is so beautiful now, I can only imagine what it must have been like before the Exxon Valdez ran aground that fateful spring day, spilling upwards of 11 million gallons of oil into the pristine ecosystem. Many species are only slowly recovering if at all, and through the work of environmentalists, the road to recovery is faster than it would have been otherwise. Only a few hardworking people that put their heart into the cleanup and making things better in the world carry this message of environmental stewardship with them today. Many people that called themselves environmentalists back when the oil spill occurred have forgotten what it takes to fight for what you believe in. They have gone back to the energy wasting days of the past, claiming that many home conveniences are worth trashing our environment a little bit. Using the argument that I’m only one person, I can’t make enough of a difference to help/hurt the environment to be heard. Well, there are some people out there who make it their lives’ work out of helping the environment and being selfless and looking toward our future generations and the world we leave them, not just the style of life that we live today. To them, I tip my hat.
The Rush to Help
Alaska was founded on the ideal of environmentalism. In wanting to move to an area as vast and beautiful as this great state, a lot of the residents in Alaska saw the opportunity in keeping this diverse land pristine and fought for its protection long before the oil spill happened. “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1960, is among the most complete, pristine, and undisturbed ecosystems on earth. Coastal lagoons, barrier islands, arctic tundra, foothills, mountains, and boreal forests provide a combination of habitats, climate, and geography unmatched by any other northern conservation area” (WRI). Many other parks and public lands cover the state of Alaska, giving it the distinction of being the state with the most land set away for preservation in the United States. With so much land to watch over Alaska is one state that doesn’t have to worry about who should take charge and get things done in terms of protecting any and all aspects of the environment. Many groups, over 700, have sprung to safeguard the health and wildness of Alaska’s public lands from the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Chugach and Tongass National Forests, the lush temperate rainforests that stretch from Kodiak to Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska. These conservation, sporting, labor, and religious groups are working together to protect Alaska’s wild public land. Their goal is to make the public aware of many smaller issues involving Alaska that would otherwise go unnoticed. The Department of Fish and Game is another resource that patrols the countryside, enforcing numerous environmental laws.
Bigger national environmentalist groups often used the breathtaking grandeur that is Alaska to promote their efforts and provide proof that their activism and efforts are actually making headway. Groups such as the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, and the National Audubon society have all paid a close attention to the north and most have even had offices located in one of Alaska’s major cities: Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Juneau.
When the Exxon Valdez split open on Bligh Reef, some national groups rushed to the scene, but it turns out that many of them did little to nothing. According to Rick Steiner, the groups that were most engaged were the National Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society. This included bringing in volunteers to help clean off oil-covered animals and get them to rescue stations. Conservation International is another group that established a conservation center and funneled money into a fund, called Ecotrust, to help Rick Steiner and other locals and help settle the lawsuit (Steiner, 2004). Other helpful groups included a New York based group that raised money to help buy the city of Valdez a new boat to be used in the cleanup efforts (Devens, 2004).
Greenpeace’s main efforts were concentrated into getting as much media attention as possible to spread the word of this horrible disaster. They tried to do anything that they could to get on TV. They could be heard yelling on the beaches and colossal burn piles of deceased animals. They could be heard yelling at the offices of Exxon. They could be heard yelling as they set a group of 12 recovering otters free. (Keeble, 1999: 276) They chained themselves to the docks and pipeline and wouldn’t unchain themselves until the news crews arrived with cameras. As soon as the media left, so did Greenpeace. They were heavily criticized for this maneuver since they made no effort in aiding the cleanup procedure. “By the time that September came around, everyone was gone” (Steiner, 2004). Dr. Riki Ott added, “It was just another chance for the big environmental groups to gain support and make money off donations that were flowing in as a result of all the horrific pictures pouring through the television set” (Ott, 2004). Greenpeace is a political entity and its mission statement reflects this. “We have no permanent allies or enemies. We promote open, informed debate about society's environmental choices. We use research, lobbying, and quiet diplomacy to pursue our goals, as well as high profile, non-violent conflict to raise the level and quality of public debate (Greenpeace.org). This is exactly what Greenpeace did during the cleanup and help or not, they still achieved their mission and made the world aware of the problems that oil and huge oil shipping processes cause.
The Sierra Club also assisted in making some media spectacles, although theirs weren’t so drastic. The Sierra Club spent a large amount of money to take out a full page add in the New York Times criticizing Exxon and their getting into this mess and failure to be ready and take care of it properly. This inundated the phones at Sierra Club headquarters with callers trying to make donations to the cause. They really did a great thing by making the sacrifice to take out an advertisement in the time of great need immediately following the spill.
I find it hard to believe that these great environmental groups that should be out saving the world did little to nothing when they had a chance to. Included in their mission statement, Greenpeace adds, “As a global organization, Greenpeace focuses on the most crucial worldwide threats to our planet's biodiversity and environment,” and “Greenpeace exists because this fragile earth deserves a voice. It needs solutions. It needs change. It needs action” (Greenpeace.org). It seems to me that Greenpeace would step up and provide some actions and solutions for Prince William Sound, one of the most biodiverse and crucial environmental spots in the world. These groups were created with one thing in mind, and that is to save the environment. Many people that I talked to are still dumbfounded as to what help these institutions brought to the table. Unfortunately, it was other groups that were setting up animal shelters, helping in recovery facilities and leading cleanup efforts. "When the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned, and the last fish dead, we will discover that we can't eat money" (Greenpeace.org). I find this quote particularly stunning, since it seems the whole purpose of their short time in Alaska after the spill was to try and raise money while leaving countless fish and animals dead and poisoned.
A number of these groups continue to raise awareness of the tragedy that occurred 15 years ago. Each still in its own way. An article on how ExxonMobil should come clean about the state of the sound and accept new research that wildlife is having a hard time recovering is found on the Greenpeace website with some startling facts. Since paying over $1 billion in 1991 and pleading guilty to breaking several environmental laws, the giant ExxonMobil/Esso has used its vast financial power and influence in taking responsibility and dragged out the battle over the remaining $5 billion in punitive damages being awarded against it and won’t stop until it sees it overturned (Exxon Valdez Disaster). The article also accuses the ExxonMobil has an ongoing ‘misinformation campaign’ to skew the views and realities of the spill to shine a positive light on Exxon. They keep denying that oil has any ongoing effects in the sound when research has proven otherwise, and funded its own research in academic journals contradicting everything that honest scientists have strived to achieve, making most of their points useless. “As long as ExxonMobil continues this way, Greenpeace will continue to campaign around the world to expose it,” said once Greenpeace campaigner Anita Goldsmith (Exxon Valdez Disaster). These are some pretty bold statements made by Greenpeace. They are also currently being sued by ExxonMobil along with 36 individuals who “peacefully entered ExxonMobil’s headquarters in Texas to protest against the company’s position on climate change” (Exxon Valdez Disaster). Also on the bottom of the page is a link where you can email an executive at Exxon and tell them to drop its suit against Greenpeace and pick up its own mess. After clicking on the link, you find a pre-written letter that you could customize yourself or just simply add your email address to and send out. There are also links urging people to boycott the ExxonMobil Corporation. It’s going to take a lot of people to hurt the world’s leading oil company. At the end of the page is a note persuading people to become a cyberactivist and join the Greenpeace movement. Greenpeace “depends on your contributions. In order to ensure that we remain an independent voice for the planet, we don't accept corporate or government funds: we rely on the small donations of millions of supporters. Greenpeace exists because this fragile earth deserves a voice. It needs solutions. It needs change. It needs action” (Exxon Valdez Disaster). With such a huge world to cover, constantly looking for funds to raise, and trying to help preserve the world on a limited budget while the enemy has unlimited resources is a tough challenge to make. Greenpeace and other international organizations can’t look everywhere and protect everything; they just are doing whatever they can, which is better than nothing.
Taking it to the Streets with Grassroots Organizations
Instead of large, national environmentalist groups, or even preexisting groups in the Alaska area, many new grassroots organizations were formed in an effort to make some change following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The people felt that no action was being taken. They were tired of watching Exxon stall and do nothing while oil continued to move down the coastline and pound the shores with a thick cake of toxic sludge. The people would band together to form organizations of their own and take matters into their own hands. One such group was the Homer Multi-Agency Task Force formed on April 7, 1989 out of community members of Homer, Alaska. This small band of mainly fishermen took the small step of protecting the shoreline and fish rich areas of Homer and Kachemak Bay, which provide most if not all of the industry for the locals. “The emergent groups that were organized were not formed in opposition to public officials, but simply to address unmet needs.” (Button, 131) So the Homer Multi-Agency Task Force set out, but what exactly were they going to do? Armed with the mission of “the protection of the fisheries resources in the Outer and Southern Districts of Cook Inlet west of Port Dick Bay” (Button, 134) and a relentless attitude, the fishermen were ready to get to work. The only problem was, they were only fishermen and didn’t know the first thing about cleaning up an oil slick. The group contacted Exxon to find out what it could do to lend a helping hand. When they didn’t hear a single word from Exxon for several days the fishermen were angry. When a public relations official arrived to brief them on what was happening with the spill and not to be alarmed, they were furious. Obviously Exxon wasn’t doing much to contain or cleanup the spill and were treating them like ignorant children. They decided to make their own boom. Using materials flown in from around the world, the local people of Homer constructed a 40,000-foot length of log boom. This effort dried out the funds of the people’s entire budget for one year of one of their hatcheries, but if no action was taken, the people felt like they would have lost much more.
Another group that became well-known in the wake of the spill was the Cordova District Fisherman’s United. This included such inspiring individuals as Riki Ott and Rick Steiner. This group of local fishermen decided to make a blockade to stop a British Petroleum ship from coming in to the Valdez port in 1993. They would not stop the blockade of the narrows until scientists could figure out what was wrong with the sound and when it would be better. Although the small band of boats waited and waited for the next ship to try and port, none came. In actuality, the huge tanker stayed out and made circles in the ocean, waiting for the small fishing vessels to go away. The boats never did, so the BP Company was done fighting, and told its tanker that there had been enough waiting and to turn around and come to home port. It was seen as a minor victory in the battle against oil in the sound (Ott, 2004).
Constantly throughout the cleanup were great examples of individual heroism. Many people stood up by themselves and made a huge contribution rather than a large institution or state funded program. Instead of waiting for somebody from higher up to take action, these individuals went ahead and did it themselves. One of these people is Dan Lawn. He was a member of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation who was tired of going virtually unnoticed for doing his job. His job was to look for cracks and imperfections in the contingency plans of Alyeska and reporting violations to his superiors. It was more cost effective to just ignore Dan’s constant critiquing that the plans weren’t good enough and that further training and equipment was needed to be ready should the need arise. Well, there came a time when these plans needed to go into place and Dan knew that they would all fail. He watched as the tankers were allowed to have less and less personnel. He saw that there needed to be more radar coverage so that the Coast Guard could see more of the sound than just the small narrows. In a personal interview with him, he stated, “When you get people that have a lot of money, they get what they want. But when you find someone with their heart in it, you get closer to the truth” (Lawn, 2004). He knew that things were going to go wrong and that it was just a matter of time until they did. Nobody listened to him. So Dan decided to do what he had to do, because frankly, his superiors probably wouldn’t let him do something even if it was the right thing to do. When the spill happened, Dan Lawn was one of the first men out there along with two Coast Guard officers nearly two and a half hours after the Exxon Valdez first made its distress call. His video camera captured everything happen those fateful first moments of the spill, oil rushing out of a ripped hull and filling the sound with its black death.
Dr. Riki Ott was another individual who stood up to big business and didn’t back down. A commercial fisherman for 10 years before the spill, Dr. Ott first visited Cordova on vacation celebrating her graduation from college with her master’s thesis on the effects of oil and biology. She never knew that she would end up loving it so much that she stayed permanently in Cordova, nor that she would ever need to use her elaborate degree in her new life as a commercial fisherman. The first of many flights that Dr. Riki Ott would take over the sound at 7:30 am the day of the spill had reaffirmed her worst fears. Oil was spilling rapidly into the pristine ecosystem that was the sound. Many local fishermen would try and talk to Exxon but no answers were ever given, Just another public relations person to help handle the image of the company and calm down the angry crowd. That is until Dr. Ott spoke up. Exxon had wanted to use dispersants to help push the oil into the water column and be less harm to the local flora and fauna. This sounded like a great plan to the many Alaskan people. Something was finally about to be done. They believed Exxon in their claim that dispersants were safe and the cure all to a larger problem. Being a biologist, and having oil and petroleum interaction her forte, Riki had heard about dispersants before. She knew that oil did in fact enter the water column when dispersants were used and had no real test data to support their use. A strange thing happened. The Coast Guard and Exxon actually listened to a local and stopped their use and ordered further tests of their effectiveness. It was all because of the three letters that precedes her name. “Exxon couldn’t argue around a PhD. They can use their fancy talk to outwit a fisherman, but a scientist changes the game” (Ott, 2004). Although this delayed the cleanup of the spill, it is unknown how much using dispersants would have affected the wildlife and whether it would have worked any better than other method.
Her research now looks again to call out the oil companies. She is leading the charge in bringing up the fact that many spill cleanup workers are now seriously injured because of their exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. She is fighting for the lowly worker citing that Exxon knew of this epidemic and did nothing to help. “One out of every two workers reported having a urinary tract infection, but Exxon didn’t report this so that OSHA didn’t do a long term health follow up and make Exxon foot the bill for countless medical procedures and hospital visits” (Ott, 2004). New studies are coming out that make oil out to be more toxic than we thought and if Exxon knew that people were getting hurt and they neglected them, they could be in serious trouble. Talking with Riki was a delight and seeing the passion that she still shares for this subject is rare. She added, “It’s ordinary people that are fixing problems, not political leaders.”
Good That Came from the Bad
Some environmental groups helped, and new entities were formed, but it was after the sound was already devastated. The EPA lobbied to have the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 passed, and on August 18, 1990, it was. It was designed, among other things, to create a sense of liability for damages and make those persons responsible pay for violating environmental protection laws. Section 2072 states that, “each responsible party for a vessel or a facility from which oil is discharged…into or upon the navigable waters or adjoining shorelines…is liable for the removal costs and damages” (OPA ‘90). Another thing that the act did was to create an entity that could act as the link between the voices and concerns of the common people and make big oil get some action. The Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council was made to be the voice of the people and also to keep watch over the operation of the Alyeska terminal and shipping industries. The RCAC also would make sure that the contingency plans of all the companies working in the Sound were up to par and have sufficient training and materials available. One of the goals of the RCAC is to keep everyone prepared after the mistakes during the last great spill. The RCAC has already helped make the escort of tractor tugs through the sound a requirement, force the upgrade of radar systems in and around the sound, and push companies to use double hulled tankers.
Another group that came to life is the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. This was formed to govern over a large fund that Exxon had paid and see to it that the money is distributed fairly and make sure that the sound gets recovered to the state that it was before the accident. It used some of the money in continuing cleanup efforts, a restoration project, and ecosystem monitoring. The restoration process includes putting pens of salmon near the villages to reintroduce native spawning runs. There are also shellfish hatcheries and fishery managers that monitor how many fish are taken. The Gulf of Alaska Ecosystem Monitoring and Research (GEM) Program is a really innovative program that looks to amass a large amount of data using the GEM system to help today and future hypotheses by creating a baseline data set.
Is complacency setting in again, and are we doing anything to stop it?
I fear that with all this work and in the wake this scale of a disaster, not enough eyes remained open through this ordeal. People had already given up on the rescue effort and deserted the place after in September of 1989. The worst oil spill disaster in the history of the world and many had given up after only six months? This doesn’t sound like the Alaska that claims to be the great protectors of its land. That sounds like people who are accepting the fact that oil is part of our lives and spills happen. They wouldn’t happen if everyone were ready. If Alyeska and Exxon had done the right thing and had a contingency plan in place that was more than just empty promises, most of this could have been avoided. But instead, people got lazy and forgot about getting the rescue tug out of the dry dock. They forgot about what they were supposed to do in case of a leak. People panicked, while they could have just been prepared and handled the situation like they practiced. But they didn’t practice. And yet, people are starting to settle into old ways again. How soon they forget the worst technological disaster in US history! “Complacency in the bottom line factor that existed in 1989 and before. The bottom line comes before the environment. Until we change that, it’s going to be hard to prevent another Exxon Valdez somewhere” (Stephens, 2004) John Devens, the mayor of Valdez at the time of the spill and current Executive Director of the Prince William Sound RCAC echoes Stan Stephens’ message. “I think that a lot of people are settling back into the habit like it was before the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In a poll taken that asked how many were in favor of the oil industry, around three quarters of those who responded said that they were in favor of what the oil companies were trying to do in Alaska and saw them as a positive thing. This percent was in the teens when this same question was asked after the spill in ’89” (Devens, 2004). The fact is, oil industry is the main contributing economic factor in Alaska. It gives so many people their paycheck and puts so much food on the table that the people are not going to combat it. The citizens themselves seem complacent, there has to be some catalyst to get people aware of the situation. How often do you have to have one of these catalysts? And how many do you need to get the majority of our world to take notice of them?
As of right now, the world’s dependency on oil and its non-renewable resource is ridiculous. We constantly complain about skyrocketing gas prices, yet we buy huge gas-eating SUVs and Hummers to make the daily commute to work and pick up the kids from soccer practice. Until we learn to rid of this “necessity,” huge multi billion dollar oil corporations will continue to run our lives and dictate what we do. We are the ones who give them so much power. If we really wanted to, we could find alternate means of energy. The world is running off ease of use and right now it’s just easier to pump oil out of the ground and sell it to the highest bidder, boosting everyone’s economy for now.
The White House is looking to give you all what you want, more oil and lower prices. The only problem is that this brings consequences. An article on the Sierra Club website, details the Bush Administration’s plans on how this is accomplished. “The Bush Administration continues to aggressively push for oil drilling in one of America’s last great wilderness areas – The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge…The Administration’s own Energy Information Advisory stated that oil drilling in the refuge would do next to nothing to actually meet America’s energy needs. According to the report, ‘Assuming that world oil markets continue to work as they do today, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries could countermand any potential price impact of ANWR coastal plain production by reducing its exports by an equal amount” (“Risk of Oil”). So, drilling in the culturally diverse and environmentally crucial refuge would really make no difference. Then why are we pushing to do it? Dr. Mackenzie of the World Resources Institute said that “over the next 20 years, the Department of Energy estimates that U.S. oil demand will increase by 33 percent, and to meet this demand, oil imports will have to increase from today's 55 percent of supply to 70 percent. He added that during this time, oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can only make a marginal contribution to solving the nation's oil security problems” (WRI). George W. Bush has also taken measures to lift a moratorium put in place by his father restricting oil and gas development in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Now, George W. Bush wants to allow full-scale oil development in the bay, almost certainly suffocating the world renown salmon habitat that the bay provides. “The Bush Administration is continuing to press for full-scale development of the Western Arctic region in Alaska. Ignoring sound science and the American public, the Bush Administration is seeking to turn over control of this area to oil companies like ExxonMobil. As development proceeds the Administration should recommend that some areas receive permanent protection” (“Risk of Oil”). The Bush administration's energy policy makes oil and gas drilling the dominant purpose of our public lands. It also exempts oil and gas activities from such landmark environmental safeguards as the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act. In addition, it puts coastlines at risk by weakening individual states ability to manage oil and gas exploration and facilities.
Corporate Average Fuel Economy is the most successful oil-savings law ever passed by Congress. The Bush administration fought attempts to raise federal fuel economy standards and has even proposed regulatory changes that would weaken existing law. Loopholes in the existing law cause the average fuel economy of new vehicles sold last year to fall below 1989 levels (“Risk of Oil”). If we all are true environmentalists, which I fear most people are not, we could never let this happen. When facing large enemies such as huge corporations with endless resources at their disposal and even the highest form of the US Government, we can’t do it alone. We need to come together and put things such as greed and conveniences aside to come together as a whole and make sure that there are resources left for our children and future generations. “Global oil production is likely to peak sometime between 2010 and 2020” (WRI). That’s not too far along, people. After that, the amount of oil available will drastically decline until we have used it all up. There’s no making more. Until we break this dependency on oil products, it’s going to be hard to see any progress.
The message that I’m trying to send all of you is that anyone can be an environmentalist. You don’t have to become a member of a fancy organization or even be a crazy tree-hugging hippie. Every little thing counts, whether it’s helping at a recycling center, helping conserve water and energy by being more conscious around the house, or organizing a ship brigade, it’s all up to you. “We want to elect officials who listen to the people and not to big business that has deep pockets, but will that ever happen?” (Lawn, 2004) I’m here to tell you that we are the generation that needs to make it happen.
Button, Gregory Vedder. 1993. Social Conflict and the Formation of Emergent Groups in a Technological Disaster: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and the Response of Residents in the Area of Homer, Alaska. Ph.D. Dissertation. Brandeis University.
Devens, John. 2004. Personal interview. Valdez, May 12.
Exxon Valdez Disaster - 15 Years of Lies http://www.greenpeace.org/international_en/news/details?item_id=439825
Greenpeace. “About us.”
Keeble, John. , 1999. Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound. Spokane, Washington: Eastern Washington University Press.
Lawn, Dan. 2004. Personal interview. Valdez, May 12.
Ott, Riki. 2004. Personal interview. Cordova, May 4.
Risk of Oil Spill Disasters Still High, Fifteen Years After Exxon Valdez Tragedy http://www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/releases/pr2004-03-24.asp
Steiner, Rick. 2004. Personal interview. Anchorage, May 1.
United States Congress. 1990. Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Washington, DC.
World Resources Institute. http://www.wri.org/wri/press/oil_anwr.html
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