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    Ten Years After ... Reflections on the Exxon Valdez and the limits of forgiveness

    Reprinted from Straight Talk, March 23, 1999.

    “Uh, Valdez here. We’ve come up hard aground and … we’re evidently leaking some oil … and it looks like we’re going to be here a while.”

    Ten years ago, just past midnight on March 24, 1989, the deadpan voice of Captain Joseph Hazelwood crackled across the airwaves to inform the Coast Guard that he had a problem.

    By daylight, it became clear that a simple navigational screw-up had rammed the supertanker onto Bligh Reef, pouring an estimated 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into the achingly-beautiful waters of Prince William Sound near Valdez, Alaska.

    It was an environmental catastrophe of stunning proportions. Oil spread over a 470-mile arc from Prince William Sound southwest to the Kodiak archipelago. More than 1,500 miles of shoreline were oiled. Untold thousands of fish and birds were killed, as were hundreds of otters and seals and nearly two dozen orca whales. Even after a multi-billion-dollar clean-up effort, millions of gallons of toxic hydrocarbon goo remained in the water, on the beaches, along the bottom.

    Today, scientists bicker over how much the ecosystem of Prince William Sound has recovered from the trauma. Some experts — most of them affiliated with the oil industry — say the area is largely recovered. Others — most of them affiliated with environmental groups — say it’s still reeling from the impact. No one claims the Sound is back the way it was; they just say any number of factors other than the spill could be behind the declines in salmon and other species. The oil you can still dig up with your hands by turning over a few stones in some areas, they say, is an inconsequential residue that looks bad but doesn’t have any real negative effect.

    But many of the people who live near the Sound have most definitely not recovered. Their livelihoods have been ruined, their jobs have been lost, their communities have been devastated. The locals haven’t seen a penny of the $5 billion dollars Exxon was ordered to pay in punitive damages, and feelings of anger still run deep. An NPR reporter who was recently in Alaska told me, if he were Joe Hazelwood, he’d wear body armor when he performed his court-ordered community service this summer, picking up trash along Alaskan highways.

    That’s all in the past, though, isn’t it? Fair enough; let it lie.

    But I’m finding it hard not to be bitter about the recent death of tug escort legislation in Olympia. The bills, if passed, would have extended to the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca the requirement that oil tankers be escorted by tug boats. An unusually-broad collection of environmentalists, government officials, Indian tribes and regulatory agencies has been calling for just that kind of protection for the waters of the Northern Straits for several years now. County commissioners — led by ours in the San Juans — want it. Governor Gary Locke wants it. The state Department of Ecology wants it. Heck, even our rock-ribbed Republican congressman Jack Metcalf — not a noted green — wants it. So why then does it seem impossible to get a level of oil spill protection that says we truly value these waters?

    The U.S. Coast Guard teamed up with the shipping industry to assure state lawmakers that extending the tug escort requirement would be too expensive. And besides, they said, we haven’t had any big accidents; we’ve got things under control.

    Of course, they thought they had things under control in Prince William Sound, too. Now, they’ve got tug-escort requirements more stringent that anything contemplated by the State of Washington. They’ve got a raft of other restrictions and regulations, too, all designed to prevent another spill like the one in 1989. But none of that can restore what was lost when the Exxon Valdez fetched up on the rocks.

    Given the heavy freight and tanker traffic that comes through the San Juan Islands, a catastrophic oil spill in these waters is quite possible. We’ve had several close calls over the past few years, you’ll recall, ships that lost power and/or steering and barely avoided going aground.

    A major spill is also quite preventable. The technology to prevent it exists, the resources to prevent it exist. Exxon alone earns more in a day than extended tug escort would cost in a decade. All that stands in the way is greed. And that’s just not a very good reason.

    This is no mere academic exercise for me; I take this very personally. I do a lot of kayak paddling in these waters and I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. I know the currents and I know the cloud formations and I know the eagles and otters and herons and kelp beds … This is my home and I love it. It’s a deep part of who I am.

    And if — despite all our warnings and all our pleadings — faceless bureaucrats and avaricious oil execs allow these waters to be devastated by an oil spill, I honestly don’t know how I’ll deal with it. My grief and rage and frustration, my sense of personal violation, will be, I think, more than I can bear.

    I hope to God it never comes to that. But I wonder how long we can keep depending on dumb luck to protect us from a major spill.

    And if it does happen, through greed and hubris and stupidity, it’ll be a very, very long time before I’ll be able to forgive.

    And, like the people of south-central Alaska, I’ll never forget.

    I’ll see you on the street.

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