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

Natives and the Oil Spill

Air Date: Week of

In the final installment of our special series on the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Susan Kernes visits with residents of the remote native American communities of Prince William Sound to talk about the lasting impact of the spill. She found that ten years later, most of the oil is gone but the people, and the subsistence species on which they depend, still haven't fully recovered.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been more than 10 years since the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, and at first glance much of the region now appears healthy. But the subsistence way of life for native communities who survive off the clams and other sea life found at the shore line has yet to return. As part of our continuing coverage of the legacy of America's worst oil spill, we sent producer Susan Kernes out to visit with the residents of these tiny communities.

(Surf, bird calls)

KERNES: The tiny native communities of Prince William Sound look like modest suburban neighborhoods from the 1960s. The houses are boxy, and are set against the backdrop of jagged, snow-capped mountains that rise dramatically from the sea.


KERNES: Most residents get around on what are called 4-wheelers. They resemble oversized tricycles, but with four fat nubby wheels instead of three. They drive up and down narrow paths that snake through the town, to the community hall, the school, and down to the dock. But not to the grocery store. There are none. They don't need them.

(Splashing water)

WOMAN: I found two of them. Usually they get bigger.

KERNES: Village residents do much of their food shopping on their beaches, digging clams from the dimpled sand, scraping blue mussels and snails from the rocks, and gathering seaweed.

TOTEMOFF: When the tide goes out, the table is set.

(Bird and sea lion calls)

KOMPKOFF: Before, when I was a young man, the herrings were so abundant here, you know. At night time the sea lions would be out there groaning, seals and ducks by the thousands and thousands that come here spawning time.

KEARNES: Mike Totemoff and Pete Kompkoff are Alutiiqs. They've lived most of their lives on Prince William Sound, but on March 24, 1989, the Sound stopped producing its riches. Village residents refer to the day the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef as the day the water died.

KOMPKOFF: Had the TV on, you know, and woke up early in the morning, and the news came over the air, you know, that a tank had hit a reef outside of Bligh Island over here, you know. That's about 5, 7 miles or so along there, you know. After that, running around, you see no birds or nothing; it's just like you see a movie of the desert. The [damage?] was so extensive that, you know, we wouldn't have no more subsistent lifestyle here in this community. And I was afraid, 100 miles, I've got to move out of here.

TOTEMOFF: It's just like you going into a dirty grocery store. If you found grease and stuff all over the packages that you're going to buy, you wouldn't buy those packages, would you? You'd throw them back. Same thing with us out there.

(Paper shuffles)

M. VLASOFF: March 24, 1989. This feeling of helpless, knowing that five miles away a tanker is split open and gushing out one million gallons of oil per hour. (Cries) It's still really fresh in my mind.

KERNES: Martha Vlasoff lived in Tatitlek at the time of the spill, close enough to smell the thick crude as it belched out of the tanker. From almost the moment she heard the news, she began keeping a journal.

(Paper shuffles)

M. VLASOFF: On the news they said it was being contained, but the mail plane pilot said there was no containment equipment at all around the spill, and that oil was just gushing out uncontrollably.

KERNES: By the end of the summer, over a quarter of a million sea birds, sea ducks, otters, and seals, along with countless fish and invertebrates, had been smothered to death by the thick crude. In the first year after the accident, native food gathering and hunting fell by over 50%. Now, 10 years later, many subsistence species still haven't bounced back.

L. VLASOFF: My husband used to be able to support us all winter on his subsistence seal hunting, with the meat and the fur.

KERNES: Laurinda Vlasoff is a non-native health aide who's been living in Tatitlik with her Alutiiq husband for 25 years.

L. VLASOFF: And that's just not possible any more, because they're just not here. And they're not here because they don't have the food source. For peoples that are used to just going out in the ocean and grabbing a fish and taking it home and eating it, it's terrifying.


KERNES: The fish on which local people and seals depend are struggling to recover. The latest research shows that bleeding pockets of gooey oil on beaches and in salmon streams may still be causing harm to pink salmon eggs. Some other subsistence species are doing better, and local residents have been able to make up for the less-abundant species by relying more heavily on the ones that are coming back. Laurinda Vlasoff says her community has adapted, but something important is still missing.

L. VLASOFF: The sound is recovering. I mean, we can see that it's doing its best, you know, as nature does, to live again. But it'll never be the same. Spring time we notice it the most. It's something that you anticipate like a kid waiting for Christmas, because you know that the food is going to be abundant again. And there's an excitement in the air.

KERNES: For Laurinda Vlasoff and other native residents of Prince William Sound, subsistence isn't just about calories. It's also about traditions. And those have been altered as surely as the ecology. Nature isn't alone in its struggle to recover. The region's humans are also having trouble regaining their equilibrium. Mike Totemoff.

TOTEMOFF: I'm no crybaby or no whiner, let me tell you. There's a problem around and I'd like to be right in the middle of it helping to take care of it now. But this one here, it just got me a real downbeat feeling, you know (laughs) when that happens. I'm not the only one that's had that depressed feeling. A lot of people had it, you know.

M. VLASOFF: I actually became suicidal after this spill. After a certain point, everything within my whole world began to crumble.

KERNES: Martha Vlasoff believes that 10 years after this traumatic event, the depression lingers.

M. VLASOFF: A lot of times, when you have a tragedy like this and people stay in denial for a long period of time, there is no outward appearance. But if you look beneath the surface, you would see that people have a hard time dealing with it.

KERNES: Incidents of rage, domestic violence, and suicide, fueled by a profound sense of loss, continue to haunt these native communities. There have been other social problems as well, brought about in part by large infusions of cash following the spill, into what had been largely non-cash economies.

L. VLASOFF: Yes, there was, for a short time, an increase of drugs especially. For the first time, crack came into Tatitlek. It didn't stay, but it was here for a little while.

KERNES: This gradual erosion of the traditional lifestyle didn't start with the oil spill. But the spill may have sped it up. And it also helped weaken many of the social bonds that had been fraying for years, as the modern world seeped into these native communities. Martha Vlasof was so shaken by the spill that she moved away. Laurinda Vlasoff's family is also feeling the impact of outside influence.

L. VLASOFF: My children are moving away, gradually, going to college. And setting goals for their life that means they'll be living in town most of the time.

KERNES: In Alaskan native villages, "in town" means Anchorage or other bigger communities. And some village residents wonder whether these young people will have much to return to even if they want to come back. Nearly half a billion dollars of the money from Exxon's settlement with the state and Federal governments has been used to buy land from the local native corporations to prevent it from being logged or developed. The goal is to protect habitat for important species, and natives will still be able to hunt and fish on much of the land. But some natives, such as Martha Vlasoff, feel that the sales have robbed the natives of their legacy.

M. VLASOFF: It's a very hard one for me to cope with, and it's unfortunate that future generations of native people will not be able to have just free access to those traditional lands.

(Bird calls, surf)

KERNES: In Tatitlek, close to ground zero of the oil spill, it's spring now, and the Arctic terns, sea gulls, and pigeon guillemots seem as abundant as ever. But the wildlife and beauty mask the loss of the natives' centuries-old intimacy with their environment, the social disruption of changing lifestyles, and loss of trust between people, their land, and the sea. For Laurinda Vlasoff and other native residents of Prince William Sound, it's just not the same as it was before the water died.

L. VLASOFF: We look out, and we see that the land looks fine. But we don't feel secure any more. We keep waiting; you know, when is the next one going to happen? And will there be anything left? Once your life has been turned so upside down, it's always in the back of your mind.

KEARNES: For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Kernes in Homer, Alaska.



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