Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council.
Three decades ago on March 24, 1989 the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef at the entrance of Valdez Arm in Prince William Sound, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude oil in critical need of immediate response. On Feb. 20, 2019 Alaska Sea Grant hosted a workshop at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage to revisit various dimensions of how damages of the spill were addressed through a focus on three categories relevant to community and human impacts of the environmental disaster relative to oil spills: public health, social disruption and economic loss.
Presenters and panelists incorporated a broad range of research establishments as well as state and federal organizations, including Sea Grant affiliates from both Alaska and Texas, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, United States Coast Guard, the Prince William Sound Science Center, UAA’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, National Institute of Health, Alaska Ocean Observing System and the Alaska Chaddux Corporation. Most notable about this assortment is that presentations offered feedback and findings to a diverse audience — it was not solely research-structured but included more interactive response venues through local levels in both mid-size communities in the Gulf of Alaska and smaller rural villages in the northwestern coastal and island regions of Alaska. After each presentation, audience members were welcome to express themselves or ask questions.
One notable set of comments came from an elder audience member who grew up on Little Diomede Island located in the center of the Bering Strait and currently living in Wales, Alaska. The individual provided commentary in a casual conversational manner related to a general topic of change and transition over time. He talked about changes he has experienced in transportation from dog sleds to snow machines and how those dimensions influenced the need and opportunities for local collection of dog food. He also talked about transitions related to the role of how ivory collections were utilized in the community and the shift away from a once common resource has created major transitions in community identity. His concluding commentary seemed to imply that “modifications are constant, and we need to accept that changes will happen for various reasons.” This was not necessarily a positive validation of the human-caused dimension of a major oil spill, but that adaptation is inevitable.
Economist Gunnar Knapp, retired from the UAA Institute for Social and Economic Research, provided discussion comments that strongly encouraged a necessity for continually collecting base-line data and clear obligations for advance contingency plans and strategies prior to potential future disaster events. A difficulty of this dimension is acquiring funding to continually update information without required administrative obligations. Established protocols may help with response effectiveness because efforts to gather data on what is impacted once habitat suffers destruction is ineffective. Dealing with this is a political challenge. As Knapp points out, “budget cuts inevitably come from both the state and federal government. Prevention is perceived as burdensome on industry, so prevention is not the focus.”
“Declines in funding decrease response availability and funding is a perpetual challenge,” collected conference notes suggest.
However, as speaker Richard Kwok with the National Institute of Health pointed out in his presentation, “it is critical to consider features of preparedness and response because we need to expect disaster; at some point they are unavoidable and inevitable.”
“Each disaster will present new issues and uncertainties,” he also said.
Concurrently, he discussed some of the challenges of disaster examination.
“There is no formal way to activate and coordinate research. Funding is difficult to find, official IRB protocols are challenging to follow, ethical issues are difficult to address, there is a lack of trained researchers to collect data and inclusion of community stakeholders is difficult,” he said.
That particular list of challenges is a demonstration of the contrast between endorsed, official research with more generalized interaction with impacted stakeholders. Kwok shared a useful website from the National Institute of Health related to disaster response protocols, data collection and training: https://dr2.nlm.nih.gov.
Another dimension of panel discussion that Knapp contributed to was discussion of the diverse communities and regions of western Alaska. As he noted, “what works well in one location may not in another.” Activity, availability and skills vary substantially between communities.
Another feature in Sea Grant’s collected conference notes relative to Alaska’s most rural communities suggest “prevention strategies need to be tailored to changing times. There are complex environmental issues impacting each community and the difficulty of keeping up with and monitoring all of them depends on location.” To address this requires regional communication networks and an awareness of “gatekeepers” in villages and among tribal leaders to relay information in a dependable manner.
As a speaker in one panel mentioned, “Folks in northern regions need to focus 100 percent on prevention. Though the people in those communities are resourceful, there are deficiencies to response availability.” Deficiencies, in this case, relates to what is accessible to communities in in the event of a spill disaster.
Presenter James Nunez with the US Coast Guard discussed some community reaction difficulties related to “colossal documentation” or lengthy publications.
“In these types of papers, verbosity is often too formalized and meaning can get lost in the density of composition,” Nunez explained. “There can be a real benefit to informality when trying to address the unofficial knowledge and awareness of individuals who make up a community.”
Attention to local knowledge and how to further disperse awareness and preparedness provides an opportunistic role for public journalism as an outreach tool.
“It behooves us to engage with community members to learn the most about all the nooks and crannies of identity and potential impacts. It is important to tap into and incorporate local information that can help us understand how impacts will be felt,” Nunez said.
Throughout the event, topics that emerged repetitively among speakers were community engagement and venues for integrating personal experiences and voice for better general communication across user groups and between user groups and agencies responsible for reaction to a spill event. It is important to integrate a certain degree of formality and professionalism while also capturing a spectrum of personal experiences and observations and attending to them in a proficient manner.
Sustainability of human and natural communities are reciprocal: they depend on each other and a variety of expressions. To capture the assorted influences, a diversity of voices is critical. This gathering fittingly shared that scope.
Emilie Springer is a freelance writer living in Homer.