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Sunday, March 21, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Spill Is Gone -- 10 Years Later, Debate Still Rages Over Effects Of The Exxon Valdez Disaster In Alaska

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND, Alaska - Bathed in slanted sunlight, our floatplane skirts the southern tip of the submerged mountain range that is Knight Island, banks left and glides to the surface of Hogan Bay. The pilot taxis toward the shore, cuts his engine and deftly rudders the plane to the narrow beach where we step onto the cobbled shores of a wilderness paradise.

The deep, green fjord mirrors serrated peaks glistening with fresh snow. The water is so clear you can see the bottom 20 feet below. An eagle, unperturbed by our intrusion, hovers high on an invisible updraft. The only sound is the hiss of a soft southerly across the spruce-clad ridge.

Ten years later, it is an intellectual stretch to imagine this place as the scene of an environmental catastrophe.

Yet this sub-Arctic wilderness remains enveloped in controversy - lawyers, politicians and journalists who insist Prince William Sound still suffers from the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

Whether the poison persists is a question for scientists. But there are other things to be learned here. Lessons about natural disasters and man-made disasters and how people and communities cope with them. Lessons about man's inclination to hammer nature, and about nature's extraordinary ability to bounce back.

Ten years ago, March 24, 1989, the disaster was real. After years of promises it would never happen, the oil-laden tanker strayed off course and plowed into a rocky reef well-charted for 200 years.

While government and industry squabbled over what to do, 11 million gallons of oil crept down the west side of Prince William Sound, inundating the rocky shores of Knight and other wilderness islands seemingly unspoiled since Creation. The spill, broadcast around the world, soon became one of the most reported and studied environmental events in history.

I arrived a few days later, following on the heels of my colleague, Bill Dietrich. He based himself in Valdez, the oil port; I stayed in Cordova, the fishing port some 50 miles to the south.

In those frantic first days, I landed in Hogan Bay to find a scene from Dante. The stench hit us before we landed; the beaches were saturated with thick, brown Alaska crude. Hardly an inch of Knight's intricate shoreline had escaped the goop.

A weary fisherman, his rain gear dripping with oil, came ashore with several oiled seabirds in a cardboard box held together with duct tape, and a plastic pet carrier heavy with a very sick sea otter. My friendly pilot agreed to ferry the creatures to the wildlife rescue center in Valdez - though word was circulating over the radio that the center was full.

We lifted our strange cargo into the plane, taxied through the slick and took off, tracing the eastern shoreline, peering up into one fouled bay after another. The wheezing of the oiled otter was audible even over the engine.

In the distance, the grounded tanker was a tiny speck on the northeast horizon. It was astonishing that just one-fifth of the contents of that speck had wreaked devastation for hundreds of miles.

We delivered the otter and birds. For us, the rescue was vaguely cathartic, but it is doubtful any of the creatures survived.

March 24, 1999

As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, the images return. TV networks rebroadcast the film clips; newspapers and magazines dig out the photographs of oiled seabirds, of cleanup workers scrubbing rocks.

In recent weeks, journalists have flocked to Sleepy Bay, known locally as "Media Bay," the easiest place to find remnants of the oil. Last Sunday, millions watched Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes" scoop a handful of black crud from Media Bay and declare Exxon's oil "as toxic today as it was 10 years ago."

Most scientists say Sleepy Bay is the worst case; it caught the brunt of the slick, and shallow bedrock has prevented the goop from seeping back into the ground.

Sleepy Bay's oily sediments do remain a nightmare for Cordova, home to the local fishing fleet. Exxon's oil never came close to Cordova, but it fouled the town's fishing grounds and threatened its hatcheries across the sound. Still, a decade later, Cordova's troubles likely have less to do with oil and biology than with more distant economics.

Winter in Cordova is like living in a 7-Eleven Slurpee cup. Just offshore, the Alaska Gyre churns up one wintery storm after another, each dumping some combination of snow, rain and wind on this long-suffering coastal village.

Many of the area's fishermen spend winter elsewhere. The 2,000 hardy souls who live here year-round do so hunkered down in the bars or with a stack of novels, watching cable TV, complaining about whatever is available to complain about.

Usually, there's no lack of material.

The town was founded in 1911 as the terminus for the Copper River Railroad, built by the Guggenheim Trust to ship copper ore from the Kennecott Mine 150 miles north across the Chugach Mountains. In 1938, copper prices plummeted, the mines and railroad closed, and Cordova might have as well.

It was saved by clams, dug from the vast mud flats just offshore and canned by the millions on the Cordova waterfront. But the clams were victims of an even greater calamity - the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964, a massive quake that raised the sea floor off Cordova by six feet, drying up the shellfish beds.

Gradually, the town shifted its attention to salmon - those unpredictable runs of pink salmon and, in the spring, the highly prized kings and sockeyes pulled from the Copper River Delta east of town.

Then came the spill.

"We now know that oil is many times more toxic to fish than we thought," says environmentalist Riki Ott. "And that's the same oil that remains on the beaches."

For Ott, oil and Exxon have become an obsession. After several years working Prince William Sound and the Copper River Flats, the Ph.D. biologist-turned-fisherman sold her permit in 1991 and became a full-time critic of the Alaska oil industry.

On a drizzly Sunday night, she sits in the Alaskan Bar in Cordova, nursing a soda and walking me through her view of Oil-Spill Biology 101: How oil continues to poison the pink salmon and herring.

Oil from the spill, she says, explains the collapse of the pink salmon fishery in 1992 and 1993, and of the herring fishery in 1993 and 1994. Those biological failures, in turn, have caused economic hardship, she says. Cordova's fishing income has been cut almost in half, from $46 million in 1988 to $26 million in 1997.

Why did that income dip? It's a complex puzzle science can't solve, though scientists have tried to address every other biological question left in the wake of the spill.

Living biology lab

Since the Exxon Valdez, Prince William Sound has become the most-researched corner of the North Pacific, a virtual full employment act for marine biologists and oceanographers. Most of that research has been bankrolled either by oil companies, environmental groups or state agencies, each of which has a powerful interest in one conclusion or another.

Even now, long after the lawsuits have been tried, the scientific duel continues. The dominant message at a recent Seattle spill conference sponsored by the oil industry and federal agencies: Prince William Sound has recovered. The message expected at a meeting between state officials and environmentalists this coming week in Anchorage is likely to be far less optimistic.

"In a way, science was a huge victim of the spill," observes Margy Johnson, an innkeeper and former mayor of Cordova. She has rented rooms and served dinner to many of the visiting scientists and concluded: "For the right amount of money, you can hire a scientist to tell you anything you want to hear."

The most quoted authority on oil-spill science is the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, an Alaskan agency that oversees the spending of some $900 million Exxon paid in an out-of-court settlement with the state.

In a January assessment, council staff said only bald eagles, river otters and pink salmon have "recovered" from the spill. More than 20 other species - ranging from mussels and seabirds to harbor seals and killer whales - are listed as "recovering" or "not recovered."

Outside scientists are troubled by this approach.

"It all depends on how you define `recovered,' " explains Gary Shigenaka, a biologist and oil-spill specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle. Using pre-spill populations as a standard presents two problems, Shigenaka says. First, it assumes you know what those levels were. And, even if you know that, it assumes those population levels were "normal."

"Prince William Sound is a dynamic environment," he explains. "The ecosystem changes dramatically year to year."

In addition to the spill, wildlife populations were almost certainly affected by the unusually cold winter of 1988-89, which included ice in the salmon-spawning areas.

"How do you separate the spill from all of those other factors?" Shigenaka asks.

Take harbor seals, for example. Several hundred died in the oil, but seal populations had been declining in Alaska waters for some 10 years before the spill - a near-collapse that scientists believe may be linked to food supply. To list seals as "not recovered" is accurate; but to attribute that collapse to the spill probably is not.

In its own research, NOAA has focused on long-term monitoring of intertidal plants and animals on beaches that were oiled and beaches that were not. They have learned that wildlife fluctuated wildly from year to year at both kinds of sites.

Based on that work, NOAA concluded damage from the oil lasted up to two years. By 1993, there was no measurable difference between oiled and pristine beaches.

Pink salmon, Cordova's bread and butter, present a tougher problem - ample statistical evidence supports either side of the debate.

A team of biologists on contract with Exxon concluded salmon were only briefly exposed to toxic levels of oil. And biologist John Wiens from Colorado State University pointed out that only 30 of 210 salmon streams were oiled.

Ott, however, cites the laboratory work of federal researchers in Juneau, concluding oil is toxic to juvenile salmon at levels of one part per billion - 100 times lower than previously believed.

The actual return of the salmon perpetuate the puzzle: record-high salmon runs in '90 and '91, a virtual collapse in '92 and '93, another record high in '94, and so forth.

But that's the history of Prince William Sound's salmon runs - huge runs of pink salmon, followed by near disasters. For this, scientists blame geography - steep mountains that do not accommodate salmon streams. Most pink salmon spawn at or near the mouths of streams, where they are far more prone to wind, waves and ice.

The vagaries of Mother Nature, in fact, were the reason Cordova fishermen pooled their resources and turned to hatcheries 20 years ago. They converted an old cannery at Sawmill Bay and started producing hundreds of millions of juvenile salmon. Under controlled conditions, 90 percent of salmon eggs became viable fry, compared to 20 percent in the wild.

It worked so well they built another hatchery - the world's largest - at Esther Island. Meanwhile, world salmon prices zoomed upward. In 1987, two years before the spill, fishermen caught 26 million pink salmon in Prince William Sound and sold them to canneries for prices as high as 80 cents per pound. Thanks to hatcheries, a once-marginal fishery became a gold mine.

Many of the same fishermen also were making thousands in the spring herring fishery, selling herring roe at phenomenal prices. The clientele were the Japanese, who reserve herring roe for special occasions.

Cordova boomed. Fishermen bought bigger boats, new homes and condos in Hawaii.

But the boom was brief.

The spill didn't help, some scientists say, because the oil poisoned substantial numbers of fish - both salmon and herring. But the spill had no effect on the hatchery fish that fishermen depend on most.

The real collapse was in the price. By 1989, Japanese buyers were turning their attention to salmon farms in Norway, Scotland, Canada and Chile - fresh fish, available year-round at a reasonable price.

Canned pink salmon couldn't compete. Pink salmon prices fell to 15 cents per pound in 1990. Processing plants were jammed with millions of cases of unsold salmon. Fishermen found themselves scooping up netloads of pinks and dumping them in the ocean.

So who was responsible for Cordova's bust - Exxon or economics? There is powerful evidence in the fisheries data. Other Alaska towns that depend on salmon - Ketchikan, for example - have taken similar hits in recent years, and they never had an oil spill.

Boom and bust and boom again

Booms and busts are a fact of life in all small towns that depend on natural resources, says Johnson, Cordova's former mayor. She takes a break in the darkened lounge of her hotel, which overlooks the idled fishing fleet.

"Farming towns and timber towns are having the same kind of troubles. It's awfully tempting to point at Exxon and say: It's your fault, so pay up or else.

"It's not about the oil anymore; it's the anger," she adds. "And I just can't hold onto anger. It gives some stranger too much control over my life."

It's also about the difference between an earthquake and an oil spill.

"After the natural disaster, you get the Red Cross. After a technical disaster, like an oil spill, you get lawyers and politicians and TV cameras, each of them grabbing for a piece of the action."

Within hours, this sleepy village was subjected to a chain reaction: media, then lawyers, marine biologists, social workers, entrepreneurs. . .

And money. Cordova changed when Exxon started chartering fishing boats at $1,000 a day for the cleanup, and workers at $18 an hour and up. While some fishermen and businesses went hungry, others got rich. Either way, the spill disrupted the small town's fragile equilibrium.

Now Cordova's challenge is to forget the spill and re-invent itself, Johnson says.

It is still home to the Copper River salmon runs, considered by some the world's finest salmon. The city is trying to attract summertime cruise ships and their passengers - potentially as valuable as clams or salmon.

And it's too soon to give up on those pink salmon.

Saving the salmon

Across the sound, not far from Hogan Bay, the hatchery at Sawmill Bay teems with 146 million newborn pink salmon yearning to be free.

Ten years ago, Sawmill Bay was the scene of one of the most dramatic events I have ever witnessed. As the oil oozed down the islands, Cordova fishermen leapt to their boats and sped to the hatchery many of them had helped build in the late 1970s. Their mission: Keep the oil out of their hatchery.

It was a daunting task. The bay is virtually bottomless, the shores steep and undeveloped. A makeshift alliance of oil-spill experts, an innovative Coast Guard commander and dozens of fishermen and boats jury-rigged three walls of oil boom across the entrance.

It worked. No oil reached the hatchery.

Soon, those 146 million silvery salmon fry, all eyes and spindly fins, will begin to migrate into the sound and ultimately to the Pacific, joining some 400 million released from other hatcheries around the sound.

In the spring, the survivors - hopefully about 5 or 6 percent - will return, many of them to the nets of those same Cordova fishermen.

But scientists also warn that hatcheries have a downside, that those millions of reared fish overwhelm the wild fish, gobbling up the food supply.

Twenty years of fisheries data lend circumstantial evidence to the theory. As hatchery runs increased, natural runs declined. The statistical relationship appears more persuasive than anything linked to the spill.

Life rebounds

Back on the beach at Hogan Bay, I perch on a driftwood log, drink in the silence and scribble some notes. Part of me wants to lean over and dig through the rocks in search of tarballs.

The other half says: So what?

For years, journalists have referred to these beaches as "pristine" and "fragile." But 10 years of science, and my own eyes, say something else.

People have been hacking away at this place for a century. Miners, loggers, developers, fishermen. One NOAA scientist claims the amount of oil pollution from fishing boats in local marinas exceeds Sleepy Bay by a factor of 100.

Mistakes are made, lessons are learned. And life rebounds, time and time again proving itself resilient.

Ross Anderson's phone message number is 206-464-2061.

---------------- Winners & losers ----------------

Here are some of the most dramatic examples of who paid the price - and who benefitted - when the Exxon Valdez spilled its oil in Alaska's Prince William Sound 10 years ago on March 24, 1989.

Winners:

Lawyers: Whomever they represented, lawyers seized an opportunity to sue Exxon. If and when the oil company coughs up the $5 billion awarded by an Alaska jury in 1994, the lawyers' share alone will be well over $1 billion.

Marine biologists: Exxon, federal and state agencies, fishermen and others spent millions hiring scientists to conduct research to reinforce their legal arguments. Prince William Sound, long ignored by science, suddenly became the best-studied corner of the North Pacific.

Alaska economy: Exxon's $3 billion for cleanup and compensation, plus millions more from other oil companies, contractors, federal agencies, visiting media, etc., helped ease the pain of declining oil from Alaska's North Slope. If the spill was an environmental disaster, it was an economic godsend to Alaska.

Exxon: Sure, its name was sullied, but its profits and stock were ultimately unaffected. Now it is appealing a $5 billion court ruling against the company that is earning interest at the rate of almost $300 million a year.

Environmentalists: The 1989 spill has become the poster child for environmental activists. One activist in particular has been proven right: The night before the spill, environmentalist Rikki Ott told a Valdez town meeting an oil spill was "when, not if."

Losers:

Wildlife: The slick decimated birds, fish and marine mammals. Some species, such as eagles, recovered quickly. Some experts differ on the fish, but salmon statistics suggest full recovery. The big losers were seabirds - especially murres - thousands of which died in the oil.

Fishermen: Many became "spillionaires" by chartering their boats for use in Exxon's cleanup. Still, fishing income has plummeted since the spill. In 1988, the Cordova fish harvest was worth $46 million; in 1997, it was $26 million. Was this caused by the oil? Fisherman think so.

Tourism: Within months, many of the same business people who had cried "disaster" and sued Exxon were pleading with travel agents to spread the word that Prince William Sound was not a disaster. It took years to lure tourists back to the sound's glaciers and fjords.

Alyeska: The consortium that runs the 800-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez took much of the fallout from the failed cleanup response.

Joseph Hazelwood: The skipper of the Exxon Valdez tanker will return to Alaska soon to pick up trash as part of a community-service sentence for the spill. He also has to pay a fine. Hazelwood is again licensed to sail but has been unable to find work at sea. He currently works in a New York law firm.

Lloyds of London: Even the insurance heavyweight gulped when Exxon filed a $2 billion claim for the cleanup. Lloyds and other insurance companies argued they shouldn't have to pay because Exxon was negligent. They eventually settled on $650 million.

The Exxon Valdez: The ship has a new, greener-sounding name - Sea River Mediterranean - but it is the only U.S.-flagged ship banned by law from American harbors. Exxon is using the ship overseas, where it is expensive to operate because of its high-paid American crew. Exxon has called the ban unconstitutional and is suing to overturn it.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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