Area students participate in prevention and response lectures, workshops

The events come ahead of the 35th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill

Ahead of the 35th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council’s outreach coordinator, Maia Draper-Reich, visited Homer schools last week to provide guest lectures and workshops covering oil spill prevention and response.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred 77 miles outside of Valdez near the community of Tatitlek on March 24, 1989.

Lecture at Homer High School

The first lecture took place on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at Homer High School in Erin Brege’s Alaska History course. The lecture described the formation of the RCAC as a contract organization funded by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company in 1990.

Draper-Reich explained the organization in the same words as the website: to “promote partnership and cooperation among local citizens, industry and government; build trust and provide citizen oversight of environmental compliance by oil terminals and tankers.”

Her talk explained some of the basic details of the historic spill: 11 million gallons of oil were spilled from the tanker after hitting a rock. Oil traveled from the spill site, 470 miles west across the coast of Alaska, Cook Inlet and water near Kodiak.

She referenced a few of the many wildlife species impacted by the spill, particularly those that have not recovered post-spill, such as the pigeon guillemot and Pacific herring. The herring were returning to the Sound right around the time of the spill during the spawning season.

Explained by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council website, “herring populations in the Sound were increasing as documented by record harvests in the late 1980s. However, four years after the spill a dramatic collapse of the fishery occurred, and the herring population has never rebounded.” More information on the current status of various stocks in the Sound can be found at

Draper-Reich asked students to reflect on how people might have been impacted and responses included access to food sources and impacts to job and employment. She also noted the role of activism and anger, specifically citing Cordova resident Riki Ott. Ott has written two books on the spill ‘Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill’ and ‘Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.’

Finally, she noted some of the basic changes that have been made in the way attention is paid toward tanker traffic and the Valdez transfer terminal. She presented these same improved monitoring practices to the students in the workshop settings. These include: development of the Alyeska SERVS (spill escort response vessel system) that now requires two tugs to accompany tankers from the terminal through the Sound, development of a double hull tanker ship and increased contingency plans. The terminal now provides a vapor recovery system, which can collect tanker vapor that can be used to create energy at the terminal, she said. Additional equipment at the terminal includes more tugs and oil skimmers.

Scientific changes include an increase in monitoring for shellfish, birds, fish and mammals as well as the collection of water samples. The RCAC provides more public outreach and communications with the general public including a website, reports and youth programs.

Draper-Reich closed her presentation before asking for student comments and questions by saying, “citizen oversight is important because local residents have a bigger, closer connection to the places where they live than the bigger companies and it’s important to have a way to collaborate and create dialogue and bridge the gaps between the smallest villages and the larger towns and companies.”

Draper-Reich later said that one of the best student questions she heard from the high school presentation was, “How much oil was the ship carrying overall?”

Student workshops: an engineering challenge

In addition to the high school lecture, Draper-Reich provided an after-school workshop with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies on Wednesday, Feb. 21, and workshops for students at Homer Flex, Homer Middle School and Fireweed Academy.

The Homer News joined a Homer Middle School science class with teacher Jennifer Booz and approximately 15 eighth grade students last Thursday.

After a shorter introduction to the general history and conditions of the 1989 spill, students were set up in pairs or trios at classroom stations with baking pans of water and Draper-Reich explained the process of the experiment.

The objective of the experiment was for students to find a way to contain and clean an oil spill.

The oil was a black-colored vegetable oil distributed into the students water pans.

Materials available for clean up included wooden sticks, cotton balls, Qtips, clothes pins, sponges, oil absorbent pad scraps, straws and paper towels. The students were told to choose three items to come up with a plan to clean up the spill in the pan.

After the initial cleanup attempt, students were offered the opportunity to choose additional materials. The experiment lasted approximately 20 minutes.

A more detailed description of the intent of the “Oil Spill in a Pan” lesson plan from the Next Generation Science Standards expresses that students are asked to “evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural and environmental impacts.”

Following the experiment, the students were asked to reflect back on some of the challenges they found.

They noted that the oil separated and made it more difficult to contain, that it was harder to get the oil off the edge of the pan (or, “shoreline”) and that the “oil diapers” worked the best to remove the oil.

Draper-Reich asked the students to consider the importance of working together to get the task done or the “importance of team work.”

“In a real oil spill the aspect of working together where people have specifically assigned roles is really important. When there are a lot of boats driving around together they have to be really well coordinated and tasks and timing have to be clear,” she said.

Her final question to the students was “Did anyone get 100% of their oil removed from the pan?”

Students responded, “no.”

“It’s really hard to get it all cleaned up,” she said. “Our estimate, with all the best technology and all the best weather conditions, is that we can only get about 40% of it.

“When oil spills, there will always be some remaining that will impact the environment and ecosystem. That’s why we need to focus so much on prevention and then on cleanup training.”

PWSRCAC Communication and Outreach

Maia Draper-Reich has been working with the RCAC for about a year and a half. Previously, she worked for the Campbell Creek Science Center in Anchorage with general environmental education. Outreach projects like these presented in Homer could potentially be hosted anywhere in the Southcentral coastal region of Alaska.

The communications team also presents material like this at conference booths such as the Alaska Forum on the Environment, SalmonFest and ComFish in Kodiak. Draper-Reich said she is planning to connect with the Kodiak School District when she’s there for ComFish in April this year. This summer she plans to visit Cordova for an outreach event.

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