Blog post by LABB staff member Benjamin Leger based on interviews with Iris Brown Carter
When Louisiana Bucket Brigade board member Iris Brown Carter went to Alaska in the beginning of August, she got to try a plate of Alaskan shrimp. Not the most exciting thing on the menu for someone from South Louisiana, but this was among the first batches of shrimp caught in Alaska after more than 20 years of an almost non-existent fishing industry.
The Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989 left a huge impact on the state – one that continues today. A team of 17 South Louisiana residents, including Iris, coastal parish officials, academics and press, traveled to the Prince William Sound area of Alaska to find out about the long-term effects of such a catastrophic spill.
“We went to Valdez to learn a lesson,” Brown Carter said. “The lesson learned is don’t trust the oil companies.”
Researchers are still finding areas of oil under rocks and sand along the Alaskan coastline. A study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed more than 26,000 gallons still remained under beach sand as of 2007.
Herring fishing, one of Prince William Sound’s biggest industries, suffered a blow that’s still contested. Some claim the fish died from disease, others blame global warming, and ExxonMobil has fought off legal compensation ever since. After 1993, herring fishing has been closed all but one year.
Naturally, this had a huge effect on residents, many of whom suffered from depression and financial struggles related to the spill. During Iris’ trip, she learned about fishermen who found lucrative work cleaning up the oil spill, later termed “spillionaires” because of the quick money made off the oil company. Some of those same residents would face financial hardships later when cleanup work ran out and there was no fishing industry to return to. Others were never even able to make a living during cleanup because they didn’t have the proper vessels.
“A lot of people got rich. A lot of people didn’t get rich,” Brown Carter said. “Some people got into debt because they weren’t planning for the loss of livelihood.”
The similarities to the BP spill are striking, mainly because poorly executed safety protocols led to what could have been a preventable disaster. Investigations into the Exxon-Valdez spill – which occurred when the ship hit Bligh Reef late at night – found the ship’s sonar equipment hadn’t been functioning in more than a year. The Coast Guard hadn’t properly inspected the ship before it left the Valdez port, and had never alerted crew members that the practice of tracking ships through the dangerous waters had been terminated. Add to this that the ship was using the outbound lane because of numerous icebergs in the area, that there was no safety protocol for such a circumstance, and that the ship’s captain had left the crew in charge while he slept off a drinking binge, and it was an accident waiting to happen.
Fortunately, community activism has led the charge for greater safety protocol for ships traveling through Prince William Sound. The Regional Citizens Advisory Council created after the spill forced the oil industry to change its shipping procedures so tugboats would accompany every ship navigating the icy waters. The council also created monitoring programs and helped develop oil spill response stations in Cordova, Alaska.
Elsewhere, the local Native American tribe developed sobriety programs and yearly events to counter alcoholism and depression that resulted from the spill. The Prince William Sound Science Center is making efforts to preserve the area’s pristine environment.
What’s discouraging is how long-term effects seem to creep in on residents and the region years later. The spill altered spawning patterns for much of the marine life, stunted growth in pink salmon and the local orca population decreases each year. It wasn’t until last year that a huge, drawn-out class-action lawsuit against ExxonMobil finally paid off, though the original $5 billion in punitive damages promised to 32,000 fishermen and residents decreased to $507 million.
Still, among the many lessons brought back, Brown Carter said she was impressed by the people and their determination to improve quality of life along the sound. “They are resilient, forgiving. They wanted to make things work,” she said. “They are trying to figure out, ‘What can we do to keep going?’ and finding ways to prevent this from happening again.”
To see some coverage of Brown Carter’s trip, check out CNN’s extensive feature with some great video and photos.