Frontiers 168: Exxon Valdez – 30 Years Later

Frontiers 168: Exxon Valdez - 30 Years Later

From all appearances today, it’s hard to tell that Bligh Reef near Valdez was the epicenter of the worst disaster in Alaska history, and until the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest oil spill in North America.

It’s where the Exxon Valdez, 30 years ago, rammed into an underwater ridge, which tore open the hull of the oil tanker and sent 11 million gallons of North Slope crude gushing into the water.

You can still find residue from the spill today from that March 24 spill, if you look under the rocks of beaches on various islands around the sound. If you dig down in some places, you can find oil that looks just as thick and tarry as it did on the day of the disaster.

As I prepared for this week’s program, I was overwhelmed by all the information you can find online and reminded of how much I had forgotten.

From recordings of Capt. Joe Hazelwood’s groggy voice reporting the spill — to images of otters and birds, slathered and suffocating in dark goo – it all comes back now.

And while a half-hour show can’t do a story of this magnitude justice, it does offer a look back, to ask the question: is complacency still the enemy?

Here are the highlights from our program:

• Radio traffic: Hear Capt. Joe Hazelwood’s first calls to the Valdez Traffic Center to report the spill.

• Interview with Tom Barrett: Barrett is president of Alyeska Pipeline Service, the company that runs the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and Valdez terminal. Why Barrett believes a spill like the Exxon Valdez would be unlikely to happen today in Prince William Sound – and that we need to look ahead to new threats to the environment.

• ExxonMobil comment: We requested an interview received a statement.

• Voices from Cordova, 30 years later: KTVA’s Joe Vigil and photojournalist Will Mader traveled to Cordova to hear memories of the spill. Why even 30 years later, it’s still a painful subject.

• Interview with Rick Steiner: Steiner is a conservation biologist who was on scene during the spill and has tracked the recovery of Prince William Sound for the last 30 years. He believes complacency is a danger now more than ever.

One book I found very helpful in preparing for this week’s show is a called, “The Spill, Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster,” compiled by Sharon Bushell and Stan Jones.

From Joe Hazelwood’s recollections to accounts from Exxon executives and government officials, to stories from fishermen about the clean-up and how their lives changed ever after, there’s a mosaic of first person experiences that bring you back to 1989 – to the vast panorama of a disaster, the likes of which we hope to never see again in Alaska.

The book is very readable and can be digested in bite-size pieces. As memories fade and people pass on, it brings a multitude of perspectives and insights that might otherwise be lost. Best of all, it’s free. You can pick up a copy at the Prince William Sound Regional Advisory Council’s Office in Spenard at 3709 Spenard Road, Suite 100.

Special thanks to photographer Natalie Fobes for sharing her photographs. She was hired by National Geographic to document the spill. We also want to express our appreciation to Malani Towles, who sang “What Exxon Means” for us. It’s a song she wrote when she was 14 on the 10th anniversary of the spill. In the song, she sees the disaster through her mother’s eyes. It captures the grief and loss that families in Prince William Sound felt, as they saw their livelihoods disappear, along with the devastation around them.

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