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Lessons from the Exxon Valdez

By | March 20, 2014

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Dune Lanakrd, an Eyak fisherman turned activist. Behind him: Gene Karpinkski, president of League of Conservation Voters, and David Grimes.

Twenty-five years ago today, Alaska was about to mark the anniversary of the 1964 Earthquake, and, unknown to all, was less than four days from its next big disaster: the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Today in Washington,  environmentalists who’ve been dealing with the spill and its political effects for all these years met to publicize what they say are the lessons of the Exxon Valdez. 

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It was a media event, but at times it felt like a class reunion, if one were held at a funeral home. David Grimes, a prominent fisherman in Cordova in the early post-spill years, spoke in spiritual terms.

“(It was) incredibly, powerfully symbolic: It took place 25 years ago on Good Friday,” Grimes said, “in the myth, the day of sacrifice.”

Grimes says animals gave up their lives in North Slope crude, and through that, other parts of Alaska were saved. The spill pulled Congress back from the verge of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. It also preserved acres of forest, because the government used settlement money from Exxon to buy land and logging rights.

Marine Biologist Rick Steiner, a fixture of spill news in the 1990s, is now an international oil spill consultant. Steiner says using settlement funds to protect habitat from other industrial damage is a positive lesson from Prince William Sound, one that he says applies to spills everywhere.

“And that’s been one of the sublime silver linings in the whole dark cloud of Exxon Valdez, to be honest with you,” he said.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council labels most of the species it is tracking as recovered, or recovering. Steiner put it another way:  most of the populations are still not fully recovered. Steiner says a big lesson from the Valdez is there’s just no cleaning up from a marine spill.  Once oil hits the ocean, Steiner says, it’s game over. And it’s not a question of money.

“All the guys in the orange suits, and clipboard and hard hats in the world, are not going to clean up a major off shore oil spill,” Steiner said. “It just won’t happen. What we need to do is prevent them.”

He and other environmentalists at the event say the risks of a catastrophic spill are so great that the U.S. shouldn’t allow drilling off sensitive coasts at all, particularly in the Arctic Ocean.

Adrian Herrera, head of the Arctic Power lobby in D.C., says no one wants to prevent a spill more than the oil industry. But the nation still needs oil, and Herrera says it’s better to get it from a well-regulated place like Alaska.

“The answer is mitigation and putting in place responsible the strictest rules possible to allow this to happen safely,” Herrera said.

The environmentalists, on the other hand, say broken promises are another legacy of the Exxon Valdez.

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