SEWARD, Alaska –
By Heidi Zemach for Seward City News –
Bob Linville was a commercial fisherman at the time of the March 24 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. He fished various places and setnetted in the bays of Prince William Sound. The oil spill, and its futile cleanup efforts left deep scars that forever changed the marine ecosystem, which as a coastal resident and fisherman he felt intimately connected to. “There’s been an ecosystem change,” Linville said. “Biologically, its not the same place that it was before the spill. The murres were vastly reduced, and the herring have never had a successful spawning since the oil hit the beach. There’s not been any successful commercial herring fishery in Prince William Sound since the spill either.
On the first calm day after a fierce storm at sea had subsided, six days after the tanker had hit Bligh Reef, Linville flew over the spill with a group of concerned Seward residents, and looked down at the black oil slick below running between Knight Island and Bligh Reef, and hitting all the other islands it encountered. It was 35 miles long, and was moving toward the Eshamy district where Bob fished. A couple of boats were attempting to boom off the mouth of Main Bay, the site of his setnet camp and one of the fish hatcheries in Prince William Sound. “The oil was still off-gassing. The closer you came to Bligh Reef, the worse it was because there was still oil coming out of the tanker and so you had to breathe it in the airplane. It was really intense,” Linville said.
There had been three clear, calm days following the spill in which Alyeska Pipeline Service Company responders could have captured a lot of oil, had they been trained and equipped to respond immediately. But the tanker transport safety measures and cleanup capability had been steadily dismantled over the 11 or 12 years since oil had begun to flow through the Alaska pipeline. Those in the plane could see that by then the storm had already spread the oil slick out well beyond the ability to contain it.
With commercial fishing mostly shut down that spring and summer because of the spill, and unable to fish his own setnet site after a foot of crude oil covered Eshamy beaches, Linville joined the thousands of workers in Seward contracted to help with the cleanup effort. He spent the first month searching for and collecting oiled birds. Later in the summer, he got a job in the Eshamy District ferrying cleanup workers from a huge barge to the various oiled beaches that they would attempt to clean. One large crew did hot water cleanup, blasting the beach into an oily mist with hot water pressure washers. The rest just worked with oil absorbent pads and brushes. “I was driving a skiff and we all had our cleanup stuff. We moved from beach to beach and scrubbed rocks which made a lot of white oil pads black but was mostly hopeless. I mean you or I or anybody could sit down there and scrub the same rock all day long and it would be just as black when you got done as when you started,” Linville said. “Once the oil has hit the beach, there’s not much you can do to fix it. “
The workers who scrubbed, and those who sprayed high pressure jets of hot water onto the oily rocks breathed in its vapors, and all returned to the skiff with their raingear and boots covered in oil, he said. Although their gear had been taken and cleaned or treated in some way, it was still as black, and nasty, and smelly the next day as it had been before.” Many of those who participated in the oil spill cleanup became seriously ill in the aftermath of the spill cleanup including Bob. “Unfortunately, it’s difficult to establish the evidence or connection between one’s health issues and the crude oil, or the cleanup chemicals that were used,” Linville said. He knows of no serious efforts to research and document these health cases, or to address them through litigation.
By the following summer, the oil not exposed to direct wave action on the beach at Linville’s setnet camp had coalesced into pavement like mats. The remainder of the oil was spread throughout the substrate and also hardened, only liquefying at the surface on hot sunny days. Cleanup crews removed the hardened mats and also sprayed a bioremediation chemical on the beach that summer as an aid in breaking the remaining oil down faster. Even so, years later a walk across that beach barefoot on a hot day would leave black spots all over your feet.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill was devastating to coastal areas all the way out to Chignik and beyond. It wiped out the traditional PWS herring fisheries, it killed thousands of birds and marine mammals, devastating certain species, and knocking down others. Taking the brunt locally were the murres. Many that didn’t get oiled, later starved to death due to lack of herring. Linville remembers the sorry sight of these starving seabirds stumbling up out of the ocean in the spring of 1992 when they should have been feeding far out to sea. He even discovered one starving murre crawling across Seward’s Eagle Market parking lot in March of that year. As of the 25 year anniversary of the spill, the herring haven’t even begun to recover and several other species remain threatened. Plenty of oil still remains in the Sound and it’s not hard to find.
Following the Exxon oil spill there was an Exxon money spill. Boat contract issuance and some other aspects of the cleanup turned into a corrupt free for all which put a stain on the cleanup effort itself. Seward experienced an economic boom and there are probably some who wouldn’t mind making it an annual event. “I have to say, all of us that worked for a living, we needed to go and get that paying job if we could. I just want to make the point though, that it’s not worth dumping oil all over our world here, killing off species of mammals, birds and fish and making people sick just to try to get a pay day for the summer,” Linville said. Fortunately, in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, an independent watchdog organization was created called the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Action Council or RCAC. This group has done a good job in keeping the heat on the oil industry to use the best available practices both for safely transporting oil out of the Sound, and in maintaining cleanup readiness in case of another spill. Hopefully, that will always be the case as long as there is oil moving through Prince William Sound.
(In Part II of the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Anniversary SCN’s Heidi Zemach talks with Jim Herbert about the SERVS marine cleanup and response program)