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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lessons from the Spill — Learned, and Ignored

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Nancy Lord of Homer, Alaska, recalls the horror of the spill's impact, and the determination of those in its wake never to let it happen again.


CURWOOD: There are certain historical events that sear themselves into our minds so thoroughly that we never forget where we were and how we felt when we heard the news. For many Alaskans, including commentator Nancy Lord, the wreck of the Exxon Valdez was one of them.

LORD: Five years ago, Easter weekend, I was home from an out-of-town job. The weather had turned toward mud-softened spring and all was right with the world. Good Friday morning my radio clicked on, right into the middle of the news. A tanker hemorrhaging oil in Prince William Sound, impaled on a reef I'd never even heard of. That morning I felt only a numbing defeat, that all the promises in the world hadn't kept us safe from the big spill.

Little did I suspect the magnitude of the horrors that would follow: otters scratching out their eyes. Pyres of burning bird carcasses. The incomprehensible activity of thousands of people hand-wiping individual rocks. The corporate lying and bureaucratic dithering. Never, never could I have imagined that that unleashed oil would spread and multiply, and eventually wash up on our own beach in sticky globs, 400 miles from the grounding.

EVOS, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill acronym that became a word, was our wake-up call. Those of us in the oil's path learned very quickly about the vulnerability of the marine life we had so long taken for granted. Clearly, we couldn't depend on the oil industry or the government, nor could we rely on experts: those scientists who insisted the oil would never leave the Sound and couldn't possibly sink. We learned to trust ourselves, our own eyes and experience, to listen to one another and accept the collective knowledge of those who best knew and most valued what was at risk.

No longer was it just conservationists crying the alarms. Commercial fishermen, subsistence users, city mayors, everyone saw the connections between environmental health and economic health. We joined together in common purpose, and continued to work together as never before: educating, advocating, litigating, insisting on habitat and resource protection. And that's good. Because the work still to be done is nearly overwhelming and often painfully discouraging.

Five years after EVOS, open any newspaper. In the one before me, I read that another fully-loaded tanker lost power in Cook Inlet. it's lucky the anchor held, because there still aren't any escort tugs in this part of Alaska. At about the same time, 1,000 gallons of fuel spilled into Port Valdez when barge tanks overflowed during loading. And in the state capitol, lawmakers, under the heady influence of oil industry campaign contributions, were busy undoing protective laws adopted in the EVOS aftermath. That's right; that's happening as I speak. Apparently, not everyone woke up. Some just rolled over and went back to sleep.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord is a writer who lives in Homer, Alaska.



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