Les Palmer: Remember the Exxon Valdez

Author’s note: The Clarion first published this column on Mar. 17, 2009, the 20th anniversary of Alaska’s worst environmental disaster to date. Lest we forget, its message bears repeating, and often. — LP


One thing that hasn’t been said about the Exxon Valdez oil spill is how fortunate it is that the true extent of the damage is hidden from the casual visitor — the boaters, kayakers and passengers aboard day boats and cruise ships.

In March of 1989, when the oil tanker ran into Bligh Reef and began leaking crude oil, I remember thinking that Prince William Sound had been spoiled forever. Seven years later, when I began cruising the sound in a friend’s boat, it seemed to outward appearances as if the spill had never occurred.

Weathered crude had changed the color of rocks along the shoreline in some places, but the scenery was as beautiful as ever. While the oil had killed a lot of wildlife, I saw no dead birds or mammals. Sea birds always seemed to be around. The coves we visited usually contained sea otters. Though we saw few orcas, we saw lots of Dall’s porpoises and humpback whales. The fishing was often good and sometimes excellent.

Of course, my view, from the comfort of a yacht, cruising along the shoreline or anchored in a cove, was a superficial one. I didn’t see the oil that to this day lies just under the surface on many of the sound’s rocky beaches. I didn’t know how much more wildlife I’d be seeing if so many species hadn’t been devastated by the spill. I had no way of knowing if the fishing was worse than it had been before 11 million gallons of crude had leaked into the water.

Neither I nor anyone else will ever fully know the long-term effects of what remains one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history. The hidden toxic brew will poison the bays for a century or more. Decades from now, residents of the sound’s villages will still be afraid to eat clams from their beaches.

If we learned anything on Mar. 24, 1989, we should’ve learned to never again trust big oil, where the corporate “bottom line” trumps all environmental concerns. Another lesson learned was that an outraged public can exert enough political force to ensure that strict and “state of the art” safeguards are implemented, enforced and that these safeguards remain for as long as there is a threat to the environment.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to maintain the necessary level of outrage and horror over time, and that’s why it’s good that the spill is no longer obvious. If the scenery had been permanently smeared with crude, if much of the wildlife hadn’t returned, and if the fisheries had been destroyed, there wouldn’t now be a constituency of boaters, fishermen, tourists and tourism industry to support the present safeguards and to carry the outrage forward to the next generation.

If we forget the danger and lose the outrage, we’re doomed to repeat history. A century from now, long after all the North Slope crude has been pumped through the pipeline and delivered to the West Coast, I’d like to think there will still be a few pickups rattling around Cordova with bumper stickers that say, “Remember the Exxon Valdez!”

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.