After the spill: Sound ‘recovering’

BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG

STAFF WRITER

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound on March 29, 1989, some have commemorated Alaska’s biggest human-made, technological disaster with a look at how oil spill response has improved — more skimmers, more booms and better response plans.

A harder thing to look at has been the human effect, and how the people and communities affected by the spill still cope a quarter century later. As can be seen in stories of people who went through the spill, the memories are still strong (see related story, this page).

One effect: A lot of people don’t want to talk about it. That was reflected in a light turnout last Thursday at the Pratt Museum when Lisa Matlock, outreach coordinator for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, PWSRCAC, spoke about improvements in oil spill response and prevention.

Matlock said when the PWSRCAC talked to people about how to commemorate the spill, “A lot of them said ‘It’s hard for us to relive this,’” she said. “It’s not surprising we don’t have the largest audiences.”

The council formed after the spill when a group of citizens created the group. They had been inspired by a model established in Sollum Voe, Shetland Islands, Scotland, when an oil terminal was built there. Later, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 established the RCAC into law along with a similar organization, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, or CIRCAC, a group advising oil policy on Cook Inlet. 

Alyeska Pipeline funds PWSRCAC at about $3.4 million (for 2013), but under contract the council works as an independent advisory group. Nick Garay is Homer’s representative on the Prince William Sound council.

“We were created because there were already citizens concerned who want to have a voice on oil going through our waters,” Matlock said “We are a citizen group. We’re as egalitarian as it gets.”

The social effect of the spill differs from another historical event also commemorated this month, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, Matlock said.

“Natural disasters tend to bring a community together,” she said. “Technological or man-made disasters tend to split a community apart.”

Along with scientific studies, PWSRCAC developed several projects to assess the human impact of the spill. Starting in 1994, it contracted with University of South Alabama professor Steven Picou to do sociological studies of how the spill affected communities. Published in 2004, “Coping With Technological Disaster” has become a manual for helping others respond to human-made disasters, such as the 2005 Deep Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The study also looked at mental health impacts that persist 10 years later or longer, such as increases in domestic violence and suicide.

“That’s one of the keys in being a man-made disaster. There’s really a difference in how the community responds,” Matlock said.

Communities also can be affected in different ways. A subsistence community like Port Graham or Nanwalek might have a higher risk for elevated levels of stress.

“It’s more than just money,” Matlock said. “It’s the whole world around them that falls apart, including their food and the regular things they would do culturally.”

PWSRCAC also created a peer listening program, training people to listen to others having problems and help them work through it. A more recent program is affiliated with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Project Jukebox, a web accessible collection of oral histories. Homer whale researcher Craig Matkin, for example, was interviewed. Twenty oral histories have been done, complete with video tapes and written transcriptions. PWSRCAC hopes to add at least five oral histories a year and welcomes suggestions of potential interviewees.

“This is our big project for the 25th, to save as many voices as possible,” Matlock said.

One big question is if Prince William Sound and the other spill-affected areas have recovered.

“We like to say ‘It’s recovering,’” Matlock said. “Biologists will say, ‘It’s a complex ecosystem.’”

Boating through the sound, the beaches and waters look clean and pristine. Some species have not recovered, like herring and pigeon guillemots, a species of bird. The herring fishery crashed in 1993. 

In backwater bays and beaches, the oil remains, such as on Eleanor Island. Dig down 6 inches, and there are volatile oils. Wave action doesn’t disperse that oil, but sea otters and sea stars digging in the beach can move it around. Matlock said in some areas, dried asphalt can be found from tanks spilled during the 1964 earthquake.

Oil spill prevention and response has changed dramatically since 1989, Matlock noted. Some of the big changes are:

•Double-hull tanker requirements, including ballast zones that do not receive oil;

•Better ice detection;

•Required tug escorts for tankers, with two tugs, including one tethered to the tanker;

•Vapor controls at the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal to capture polluting volatiles from loading tankers — and using it to run a power plant;

• Better oil spill
response contingency plans;

• More oil-skimmers and booms, an increase from 13 skimmers in 1989 to 108 today and from 5 miles of boom in 1989 to 49 miles, 

•An increase in recovered oil and oily water storage, from 220,000 gallons in 1989 to 38 million gallons today, and

•Bligh Reef is marked by a buoy.

Spill drills keep workers sharp and equipment tested, but sometimes show the deficiencies in the best planned responses. 

In one “real world” drill held last October, Polar Tankers, the Conoco Phillips shipping company, ran a drill involving more than 700 people. The scenario had a tanker collide with two barges near Montague Island in lower Prince William Sound. The location of the simulated spill wasn’t announced, and it was held in actual weather. The command post was moved from
Valdez to Anchorage, and weather kept staff from flying. Spill response
equipment went to the simulated spill area.

“They got out there. It was October. They couldn’t respond at all,” Matlock said.

The result: no simulated, spilled oil was recovered at all.

One of the biggest lessons of the spill goes back to that human element.

“Prevention is forever,” Matlock said. “It’s not perfect. Human error was the problem from the beginning. Human error will always exist.”

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