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

March 5, 1999

Air Date: March 5, 1999


Hard Aground

On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. It spilled 11 million gallons of oil, the largest spill ever in the U.S. To millions of Americans, Exxon’s cleanup attempts seemed bungled, and its actions before the spill seemed reckless. The event became one of the most infamous chapters in American environmental history. This retrospective report includes archive tape of Captain Joseph Hazelwood's original radio call to the Coast Guard to report his ship was "hard aground." (06:30)

Wave of Death

The ecology and economy of Prince William Sound were drastically affected by the spill. A wave of death washed up on 1500 miles of pristine beach. Thousands of fish, birds and marine mammals were killed. Local fishing communities and subsistence native villages were devastated. Exxon contends the ecosystem is "essentially recovered," but many scientists and local fishers disagree. (09:15)

Lasting Lessons

The impact of the Exxon spill reached beyond Alaska. Five authors, analysts, and activists offer poignant essays about their memories of the spill, and the significance for the nation of the tenth anniversary. (05:35)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, an update on where the Exxon Valdez and the captain who ran it aground--Joseph Hazelwood--are today. The ship was salvaged and renamed, and now carries oil from the Middle East to Europe. Capt. Hazelwood was acquitted on charges of being intoxicated on duty, but was convicted of a misdemeanor. This summer, he begins serving his sentence: 1000 hours on litter patrol along Alaska highways. (01:30)

Supertanker Saftey Today

Congress passed sweeping laws after the Exxon spill, which forced the oil industry to invest in spill prevention and clean-up preparedness. These efforts have paid off: the number of tanker spills is dramatically lower today. We climb aboard a tanker and head to sea to examine how alcohol testing and updated navigation technology make these ships safer. However, some of the new tanker regulations do not apply to ports outside Alaska. And scientists are worried about a growing threat -- oil spills from freighters, barges, and vessels other than tankers. (10:25)

Exxon Speaks

Exxon Vice President for Safety and Environment explains why the company claims that Alaska’s Prince William Sound is "essentially" recovered. The company says some species have rebounded and others are on the road to recovery. Exxon also explains why it is appealing the $5 billion punitive award a jury has ordered the company to pay to thousands of Alaskans who sued for damages. (05:10)

Silver Lining

Exxon did pay $900 million in an out-of-court settlement with the state and federal governments. This money is being used to conduct groundbreaking science on the effects of oil in the environment, and to purchase thousands of acres of shoreline and protect it as wilderness. Also, a wide range of Alaskans offer their perspective on the lessons the spill has taught the state about its dependence on extractive industries like oil. (09:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript


HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Peter Thomson, Terry FitzPatrick
GUEST: Frank Sprow
COMMENTATORS: John Strohmeyer, Cecilia Hunter, Joan Bavaria, Richard Stroup, Steven Trimble, John Ryan

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Ten years ago the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground, fouling Alaska's pristine beaches with oil. Exxon claims the environment has recovered, but scientists aren't so sure, and people who fish say they're still suffering.

HOPKINS: Well, you know, an anniversary is a time of celebration. This is more like a wake. You just shake your head, you're just wondering when you're going to come out of this nightmare.

CURWOOD: Also this week, could it happen again? Environmental activists worry that another oil spill disaster is inevitable.

LENTZ: There's going to be another spill. The only question is where and how much and which ship.

CURWOOD: The legacy of America's worst oil spill and the safety of tankers today on this special Living on Earth broadcast from Prince William Sound, Alaska. But first, this round-up of the news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

(Surf and bird calls)

Hard Aground

On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons of oil. (Photo: Alaska State Archives)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, coming to you this week from Prince William Sound in Alaska.

(Surf and birds continue)

CURWOOD: Alaska has some of the world's most dramatic landscapes. Here in the town of Valdez I'm surrounded by snow-covered mountains which drop thousands of feet straight into the sea. But 10 years ago the scene here was anything but beautiful. In March of 1989 Prince William Sound suffered one of history's most infamous environmental disasters.

(Horns blaring)

HAZELWOOD: Valdez traffic, Exxon Valdez, port.

COAST GUARD: This is Valdez traffic, over.

CURWOOD: It began with a midnight message to the Coast Guard from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez. The voice on ship to shore radio was Captain Joseph Hazelwood.

HAZELWOOD: Valdez back. We've fetched up hard aground.

CURWOOD: "We've fetched up hard aground," the captain said. His supertanker was stranded, bleeding oil into the sea.

HAZELWOOD: We're leaking some oil, and we're going to be here for a while.

CURWOOD: On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez veered outside normal shipping lanes to avoid icebergs. It was night. But the tanker continued at full speed ahead. The ship hit a reef, ripping a half dozen holes in the hull.

LAWN: It's hard to describe the wall of death that came out from underneath the ship and spread across the Sound, and killed almost every living creature that it touched.

CURWOOD: Dan Lawn of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation was among the first to respond. He videotaped the ship from a small boat, describing what he saw.

(Boat motor runs)

LAWN: We're approaching the Exxon Valdez; she's hard aground.

When we got next to the ship, our boat was floating in oil. There was a wave of oil coming out from underneath the ship, that was approximately 2 or 3 feet higher than the surface of the liquid around it.

(Motor continues)

LAWN: We're looking at the hull of the ship. You can see a black oil line, right here.

The smells were, it was kind of like having your nose in the gas tank of your car.

(News music up and under)

REPORTER: The port of Valdez has been closed as the result of a massive oil spill by an Exxon tanker.

CURWOOD: News of the accident broke on local radio. It was the biggest spill ever in American waters. The official estimate: 11 million gallons of oil.

EXXON SPOKESMAN: I want to assure everyone that Exxon is mobilizing all available resources to mitigate the impact from this incident. Exxon has assumed full financial responsibility for the incident.

CURWOOD: Exxon quickly stabilized the ship, saying the crew had prevented another 40 million gallons of oil from escaping. But work was slow and disorganized when it came to cleaning up the oil that had already spilled. Containment booms and oil skimmers were broken or buried in snow. There wasn't enough equipment to handle the job. Three days of perfect weather were squandered as people argued about what to do. By the time adequate gear was flown to Alaska, it was too late.

EXXON SPOKESMAN: A problem right now is that most of the skimming equipment in the world is ineffective because we're now into the very heavy oil phase. As this sad incident has progressed, the oil has gathered a greater water content, and it's now something like the consistency of black mayonnaise.

(Surf; birds)

Photo: Antarctica

A glint of sun highlights Bligh Reef, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground. (Photo: Terry FitzPatrick)

CURWOOD: A storm began to blow this curtain of oil ashore, killing thousands of otters, birds, and seals, and untold numbers of fish. As 1,500 miles of pristine beaches turned black, a tide of anger swept Alaska and the nation.

MAN: I want to know what is the priority of Exxon? Are you really more concerned about money or the environment.

(Several people begin to shout)

MAN 2: One question at a time.

CURWOOD: Exxon officials were shouted down at a public briefing by people in the path of the growing oil slick.

WOMAN: We have a desperate plea that we'd like to put forth to the world. We need ocean standard, high seas barrier boom material to protect our fish hatcheries. We can't seem to get it through Exxon. Exxon can't deliver.

CURWOOD: These scenes played for weeks on the national news, along with heartbreaking pictured of oiled animals struggling to survive. To millions of Americans, Exxon's cleanup seemed bungled; its actions before the spill seemed reckless. Especially after this disclosure about the tanker's captain.

MAN: Exxon shipping company announced today that it has terminated the employment of Captain Joseph J. Hazelwood. The termination followed the announcement by government investigators that this employee had failed a blood alcohol test administered on the Exxon Valdez last Friday morning.

CURWOOD: Captain Hazelwood was quickly dubbed the most hated man in America. Drivers began to boycott Exxon products. The spill became a symbol of an environment under assault. Even for school children who wrote letters to students in Valdez.

CHILD: Dear Valdez friends, I really feel sorry for the animals. If only that captain wasn't drinking and he didn't put it on high speed.

CHILD 2: Dear Valdez third grader, I am sorry about the oil spill. Is your father a fisherman? If he is, it is too bad 'cause the fish are done.

CHILD 3: Dear Valdez third graders, we are sorry that the oil spilled in the sea. The man that did it made me so mad that I think he should stay in jail for the rest of his life.

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(Surf and birds)

Wave of Death

Many small communities in Prince William Sound rely on commercial fishing. Local residents and oil industry representatives disagree on how well fish stocks have recovered. (Photo: Terry FitzPatrick)

CURWOOD: It's been 10 years since the spill. And this week we're devoting our program to the lasting legacy of the Exxon Valdez. We begin with a look at the fishing communities of Prince William Sound. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson recently traveled to the heart of the spill zone to bring us this report.

(Boat engine and chewing sounds up and under)

THOMSON: Cordova Harbor is as smooth as glass this winter morning. The town's 250 or so fishing boats are tucked into their berths, resting under a blanket of snow. The only ripples are made by a pair of sea otters munching on mussels.

(Motor and munching continues; fade to footfalls in snow up and under)

HOPKINS: This is the old gal here. Raven's child.

THOMSON: Jack Hopkins climbs aboard his boat. It's months till the next salmon season, but he wants to see how she's weathering the cold.

HOPKINS: Watch your step there, she's pretty slippery.

THOMSON: Jack Hopkins has been fishing here for 30 years. He and his Tlingit Indian
ancestors have seen a lot of changes in their time, but nothing like the shock of March of 1989.

HOPKINS: There's so much that happens in a catastrophe like that. You know, loss of income, the loss of your ecosystem that sustains your way of life, and pretty much shatters everything.

THOMSON: Exxon's poisonous cargo never actually touched Cordova's shores. But as the home of Prince William Sound's largest fishing fleet, Cordova has been called Ground Zero of the spill. And Jack Hopkins says that as the tenth anniversary approaches, his town is still feeling its effects.

HOPKINS: Well, you know, an anniversary is a time of celebration. This is more like a wake. You know, I mean, it's the time that you sit down and you kind of ponder, you know, what has happened. You just shake your head, you're just wondering when you're going to come out of this nightmare.

THOMSON: Outside the boat, jagged mountains lose themselves in the smoky gray sky, and the silver fingers of the harbor reach out around islands toward the open water of Prince William Sound. For generations of fishing families and native communities, this was the landscape of dreams. To outsiders it's still stunning, but to many Cordovans it's no longer the same.

(People milling)

Volunteer handles oil-soaked bird. (Photo: Alaska State Archives)

LANGE: It's forever changed.

THOMSON: At a cafe on Main Street, Sylvia Lange and Michelle Hahn O'Leary have shed their parkas and sat down to stay a while.

LANGE: Some tourists came to town this summer and they'd been on a cruise ship. And they said, "Well, looked clean to me," you know, we've been told it's beautiful and it's clean, and my husband just said, "Well, I guess it is, if you never go ashore and you've never been here before." It's not an event that took place 10 years ago but an event that's been going on for 10 years.

THOMSON: In their years of fishing these women learned every nuance of life in the sound before the spill. And they know the official story of the Sound today. Scientists say most of the oil is gone. Two key species, bald eagles and river otters, are considered to be fully recovered. A number of others are showing signs of improvement, including pink and red salmon, herring, clams, and murres. Researchers say still others, like loons, harbor seals, and killer whales, haven't bounced back at all. But these women say they don't need scientists to tell them what's going on. They just have to get on their boats.

LANGE: The last time I tried fishing herring, we worked for over 22 days straight and we lost money. But that wasn't the sad part. What was sad was returning to these bays that used to be so full of life. And instead of seeing maybe 50, 60 pods of sea lions I would be seeing maybe 1. Instead of seeing whales everywhere I would see none. Instead of seeing the bay boil with herring, I'd see a few herring here and there, and because the herring weren't there, the birds weren't there.

THOMSON: You can see the wounds of the spill in these women's eyes, and you can hear different versions of the same story all around town.

(Coffee pours)

THOMSON: At the offices of a local native organization, Patience Faulkner sips her coffee and looks out over the harbor. Isolated native villages were probably hardest hit by the spill, which wiped out much of their subsistence food supply and disrupted their traditional culture. Patience Faulkner says that natives who are firmly planted in the modern world have also felt the loss of old traditions built around the exchange of food from the sea.

FAULKNER: Last year our gillnet fleet didn't get any silver salmon. A friend of mine went out subsistence fishing. All he could share with me were 2 silvers. It really frightens me. When we don't have it, you know, we don't have the gatherings and we don't have the sharing. And we miss out. It's an important part of our life.

THOMSON: And Patience Faulkner says that even when commercial fishermen can catch salmon, they've had a hard time selling them.

FAULKNER: Because the market isn't there. Farm fish came in and took our little niche in the '89-'90-'91 era, and we haven't been able to capture it again.

S. MULLINS: In '88 the price of fish was what, 85 cents?

R. MULLINS: We were getting as high as $1.10 for pinks.

S. MULLINS: In '88?

R. MULLINS: In '88, yeah.

THOMSON: Sheelagh and Ross Mullins sit at their kitchen table in the warmth of an old oil heater.

S. MULLINS: Last year, oh no, it was '97, they had offered us 5 cents a pound.

R. MULLINS: Unbelievable.

S. MULLINS: Things have just been spoiled.

THOMSON: The Mullins haven't been able to knit back together the life that came unraveled 10 years ago. Ross still fishes, but says he makes less than half of what he used to. Sheelagh's still got a fishing permit but she doesn't use it.

S. MULLINS: My permit was worth $150,000. I couldn't sell it today. You know, where does that leave me? And that was my pension, my retirement.

R. MULLINS: The people that are here, a lot of them, you know, have seen some real serious economic consequences. Can't say it's 100% entirely devoted as a result of the spill, but I would say at least 50% to 75% of it is. So, there's a lot of angry people in this community still.

Peter Thomson onboard a new tugboat that escorts tankers in Prince William Sound. (Photo: Steve Curwood)

THOMSON: Some studies have suggested that the region's fishing economy would have been headed for harder times even without the oil spill. But for many here, that's academic speculation, while the fact of the spill is indisputable. Meanwhile, other studies have shown that the spill's lingering psychological impact is also very real, including high rates of severe depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sheelagh Mullins says stress from the spill has broken up families and friends.

S. MULLINS: The social set-up here in this town, which was very supportive, just seems to be collapsing around us.

R. MULLINS: The mayor, who was the mayor shortly after the oil spill, committed suicide. A lot of people attribute it to that distress caused by the spill.

THOMSON: Sheelagh sits for a minute, then gets up and comes back with a mason jar.

(Jar being opened.)

S. MULLINS: Well, this is gravel and oil from a beach that was picked up last May. May 26, 1998. Want to smell that.

(Sniffing sounds)


R. MULLINS: That's the day that Exxon made extra attempts to clean up. They went in there with a backhoe and they dug the beach up and they took it away, and this is still out there. You cannot get rid of this.

THOMSON: The gravel smells like hot asphalt from a paving crew.

S. MULLINS: That's over 9 years later, and after 3 cleanings. And I was talking to someone who had a picnic on that beach last summer. They were burning driftwood, and all of a sudden the fire took off. It had hit a pocket of oil.

THOMSON: Sheelagh puts away the jar of gravel. It's not just the lingering oil and the slow recovery of the Sound that make people feel that the spill still isn't over. In 1994, a court ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to thousands of area residents. But Exxon appealed and the issue still isn't settled. The Mullins say the settlement wouldn't make up for what they've lost, but it would help.

R. MULLINS: I think it'll do a lot to get people back on their feet and give them, you know, at least the opportunity to move on with their lives.

(A dog comes in)

S. MULLINS: That's a good dog.

(Clanking, patting sounds)

THOMSON: Sheelagh and Ross's dalmatian trots in from the other room. Ross gets up and brings over another jar.

R. MULLINS: This is one of the products that's made here locally, smoked Alaskan silver salmon.

(Scraping sounds)

THOMSON: A jar of despair and a jar of hope, perhaps.

R. MULLINS: Yeah, it is good. I think that's probably one of the reasons we're still here (laughs).

THOMSON: There are fish to be had out there. Cordovans hope that over time they can rebuild a market for them, too. Already, the Mullins say, people in town are experimenting with things like specialty marketing of salmon, and they're debating ways to bring in more tourists. Despite everything they've been through, Cordovans want to stay here. But Sheelagh Mullins says sometimes it just gets to be too much.

S. MULLINS: Well, I'm leaving on Tuesday. I need to go away. I don't want to be here for this tenth anniversary. It's much too emotional. I don't know. I'll be back, because I don't seem to be able to stay away from Cordova.

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in Cordova, Alaska.

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(Music up and under)

Lasting Lessons

Many small communities in Prince William Sound rely on commercial fishing. Local residents and oil industry representatives disagree on how well fish stocks have recovered. (Photo: Terry FitzPatrick)

STROHMEYER: What lessons did Alaskans learn from the oil spill? Not the ones they deserved to learn. I'm John Strohmeyer, author of Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska. The oil companies of course learned that spills are expensive in dollars and PR. The oil companies did upgrade their response teams and they did pledge to replace 18 ships with double-hulled tankers. But low oil prices and rampant cost cutting placed these commitments in jeopardy. The state, including its 3 powerful Congressmen, exert no visible pressure to enforce those promises, Alaska's attitude seems to be, "God did this to us once, but he wouldn't be so unfair as to do it to us again."

HUNTER: My name is Cecilia Hunter. I helped found the Alaska Conservation Society 40 years ago. A lingering effect of the Exxon oil spill is the loss of innocence. Many Alaskans believed the oil industry's promises, to use the utmost care to protect our environment. We've learned to our sorrow that oil promises are good only if they don't interfere with profits. The problem continues today. Since the spill we have seen the industry harass and fire whistle blowers who have pointed out serious maintenance and safety problems. And instead of working toward real safety, the oil companies are conducting public relation campaigns.

BAVARIA: I'm Joan Bavaria, President of Franklin Research and Development Corporation. Ten years ago my colleagues and I were drafting a set of principles which asked companies to value the health of the environment as highly as profits. Then the Exxon Valdez ran aground. That accident gave our idea greater urgency and its first name, the Valdez Principles, which was later changed to the CERES Principles. Companies which agreed to that ethic redesigned a wide range of their operating and management practices. In the decade since we've learned that this kind of corporate commitment makes a very positive difference. Over time an environmental ethic should be deeply embedded in corporate cultures. That would help ensure that disastrous shortcuts like the one taken by the Valdez crew are much less likely.

STROUP: I'm Richard Stroup, an economist at PERC, the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. The Exxon Valdez spill came soon after the catastrophic fires here in Yellowstone Park. Nature is recovering nicely in both places. But back then, scary close-ups of the spilled oil quickly changed to furious cleanup efforts, people blasting oiled rocks with hot water and scrubbing oily goo off sea birds. The cleanup efforts helped us feel better, but the hot water killed microorganisms that eat oil. And many scrubbed birds just died more slowly than others. Prince William Sound was already moving naturally toward a new equilibrium, equally beautiful it appears to me, but with a different balance of animals and plants. Research funded by the Exxon settlement will help us better understand nature's resilience, cause fewer such spills, and be much less destructive in reacting to future alarms.

TRIMBLE: This is Steven Trimble. I'm a writer and photographer. My home is Salt Lake City. Nearly 30 years ago I attended a hearing in Denver on a bill to preserve Alaska wilderness. As I rose to speak, a commissioner challenged me, "Have you been to Alaska?" No, I have not been there. Like Wallace Stegner, I believe that we need never see a wilderness to know it's worth saving. That the idea of such a refuge creates our geography of hope. Twenty years later, when oil and stupidity and greed soiled my dream of wildness, I was sick at heart. Feeling helpless but wanting to act, I sold my few shares of Exxon inherited and half-forgotten, and felt cleansed. Today I still write letters urging Congress to save Alaska wild lands. I still believe in acting, even if it may not make any real difference. I still think of Alaska as my shrine of wildness, and I still haven't been there.

RYAN: This is John Ryan, with Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle. I'm author of Over Our Heads: A Local Look at Global Climate. I remember the Greenpeace ad after the Exxon Valdez, with Captain Hazelwood's mug shot and the tag line, "It wasn't his driving that caused the Exxon Valdez oil spill, it was yours." Well, what was true then is truer today. We're driving more miles in vehicles that often resemble tanks. We're causing oil spills every day in our driveways, streams, and oceans. And we're spilling record amounts of petroleum byproducts, like carbon dioxide, into the air. This nonstop spill is changing our whole planet's climate. So I'd like to mark the Valdez anniversary with new campaigns to drive less. The new tag line: "Step away from the car and no one gets hurt."

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(Music and surf up and under)

CURWOOD: If you have a poignant memory or an important lesson for the Exxon Valdez, give us a call at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or share your thoughts with others on our special Exxon Valdez Web page at www.livingonearth.org.

(Music and surf continue up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

(Music and surf up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. (Surf and birds)

CURWOOD: Are today's supertankers any safer than the Exxon Valdez. Climb aboard and find out. That's just ahead here on Living on Earth.

(Surf and birds, fade to music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Johnny's Selected Seeds, supporting organic gardening since 1973. For a free catalogue, 207-437-4301, or www.johnnyseeds.com.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: The Exxon Valdez spill continues to resonate in the world's consciousness, but the ship itself and its notorious captain have fallen back into obscurity. The ship was repaired after the spill but was banned from Alaskan waters by an act of Congress. Last year Exxon tried but failed to overturn that ban in the courts. Today the ship carries oil from the Middle East to Europe, and since the accident it hasn't spilled a single drop. The ship is no longer called the Exxon Valdez, though. Exxon removed its name from all its tankers following the Alaska spill. The Exxon Valdez is now known as the Sea River Mediterranean. As for Captain Hazelwood, he stood trial on several criminal counts. He admitted drinking before boarding the ship but argued he was not drunk, and an Alaska jury agreed. The captain's only conviction in the case was for negligently discharging oil. He was fined $50,000 and this summer will begin performing 1,000 hours of community service, picking up litter along Alaska highways. After his trial Captain Hazelwood became a teacher at a maritime academy. Recently, he's been working as a consultant for a law firm in New York. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)


Supertanker Saftey Today

Oil Spill at Valdez Terminal: Crews respond to a recent spill from the Overseas Boston, a British Petroleum ship. A skimmer boat and crews with oil-absorbent fabric, clean-up the spill. (Photo: Terry FitzPatrick)

CURWOOD: Every month 50 supertankers sail from Prince William Sound to bring oil to the rest of the United States and overseas. In the wake of the Exxon Valdez, Congress passed sweeping reforms to make tankers safer and forced the industry to prepare for spills in the future. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick has been investigating how well these reforms have worked. The number of US oil spills is down, but critics say the industry has a long way to go to make oil transport safe.

(Alarm and fog horns)

MAN: This is traffic, ARCO Alaska, preparing to get underway from Berth 3.

FITZPATRICK: A light snow is falling as the supertanker ARCO Alaska gets ready to sail from the Valdez oil terminal.


FITZPATRICK: On deck the crew is topping off the tanks containing 38 million gallons of oil, while in the captain's cabin a unique procedure is underway.

(Whirring sounds)

MAN: Have you consumed any alcohol in the last 4 hours?


FITZPATRICK: Valdez is the only port in America where a security guard gives the captain a Breathalyzer test. The ship cannot depart if the machine detects any trace of alcohol.

MAN: All right.

(Breathing sounds; beeps)

MAN: Thank you.


FITZPATRICK: What's the number?

MAN: Point zero zero zero. Bon voyage.

FITZPATRICK: Breath tests are part of a strict new world for tanker crews. ARCO Captain Karen Devine is part of this changing culture.

DEVINE: Today's oil industry really demands a person that wants to do more than just be the salty dog. We're no longer out at sea where nobody knows us and where we do a job that nobody understands.


DEVINE: Rudder midship.

WOMAN: Midship, the rudder.

FITZPATRICK: As the voyage begins it's easy to spot other safety improvements.

DEVINE: Engine slow ahead.

FITZPATRICK: Tug boats now escort tankers through their entire 8-hour passage in Prince William Sound.

MAN: Steady, three zero zero.

MAN 2: Okay, thank you.

FITZPATRICK: On the bridge, there's a veritable video arcade of new navigation devices, including a computer that constantly plots the ship's location and heading on electronic maps.


FITZPATRICK: A transponder automatically relays the information to a Coast Guard traffic control center.


DEVINE: Let's come right to one five three.

MAN: One five three.

(Crashing waves)

FITZPATRICK: As darkness falls and the weather worsens, the importance of improved instrumentation is clear. The wind is howling and the snow is so heavy the crew can't see past the bow.

(Howling winds)

FITZPATRICK: Captain Devine peers at the glowing screen of the collision avoidance radar, as she passes the shoals where the Exxon Valdez made history.

DEVINE: Let's come right to one five zero.

MAN: Right. One five zero.

FITZPATRICK: The equipment and procedures on this ship are a direct result of Congressional action that followed the Exxon accident. According to Jim Polson, who edits a trade newsletter called the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, tanker regulations now include a powerful incentive that has forced industry to invest in spill prevention.

POLSON: The Oil Spill Act basically made it clear that if you spilled oil, you're responsible for what happens. It doesn't matter whether somebody else hit you or whether it was an act of God. It's your responsibility to deal with it.

Photo: Deck of the ARCO Alska

The ARCO Alaska enters Puget Sound in Washington state dawn. At 952 feet long, and 166 feet wide, its deck is large enough to hold three football fields. (Photo: Terry FitzPatrick)

FITZPATRICK: So far this approach seems to be working. There's been a steep drop in tanker accidents in US waters. This contrasts with only a moderate decline in other countries. However, environmentalists are concerned that some of the new safety regulations apply only to Alaska's Prince William Sound and haven't been adopted elsewhere in the United States.

(Crashing waves)

FITZPATRICK: In Puget Sound, where tankers deliver crude oil to refineries near Seattle, tug escorts aren't required for the entire trip. Local officials have been trying to develop a full escort system, but industry has resisted, claiming it isn't needed. The situation infuriates Kathy Fletcher of the environmental group People for Puget Sound.

FLETCHER: After the Exxon Valdez spill occurred, the protection system that was built in Prince William Sound exceeds the protection levels anywhere in this country and possibly anywhere in the world. The message to us is, we aren't going to be taken seriously until we have that catastrophe, and that's exactly the wrong order for these things to be done.

FITZPATRICK: The continuing struggle also involves a fight that many thought had been settled, the battle over double hulls.

(Waves crashing on hulls)

FITZPATRICK: In the bowels of a supertanker at sea, you can hear why environmentalists are concerned. Waves crashing into the bow sound like a thunderstorm.

(Crashing continues)

FITZPATRICK: Tanker hulls can bend like paper clips in heavy seas, creating hull fractures that allow oil to escape. The second skin of a double-hulled ship prevents these cracks from leaking and provides extra protection if a ship runs aground. However, 80% of the world's tankers still have single hulls. Shippers have been ordered to retire these vessels when they reach a certain age and replace them with double-hulled boats. But some companies have used loopholes to avoid the law. Right now, only one double-hulled ship is under construction in the US. Sally Lentz of the environmental group Ocean Advocates monitors the shipping industry.

LENTZ: I think they're coming up against the deadline, and they haven't necessarily prepared for it. So they're looking for ways to extend the life of their existing fleet. This is despite the fact that we have plenty of shipbuilding capacity in this country to build those double hulls. In fact, it would be a boon to the shipbuilding industry.

Photo: Terry Fitzpatrick aboard ARCO Alaska

Reporter Terry FitzPatrick aboard the deck of the ARCO Alaska in Prince William Sound in Alaska.

FITZPATRICK: Although the oil industry recently set record annual profits of $32 billion, currently oil prices are depressed. And some shippers think the US should allow engineers to develop less costly alternatives than a double-hulled vessel. Attorney Jonathan Benner represents the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners.

BENNER: At the end of the day, safety has to be something that's achievable. We could legislate that you have quintuple hulls, and if nobody can afford to do it we aren't going to get them.

FITZPATRICK: There's widespread acceptance that eventually all tankers will be double-hulled. But the deadline for converting all ships is still more than 15 years away. Meantime, scientists have been focusing their attention away from tankers and toward other kinds of oil spills.

(Several voices speak at once)

FITZPATRICK: This is the War Room at the Seattle office of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here a scientific strike team provides technical support for spill response crews nationwide. Marine biologist Alan Mearns says tankers are no longer the biggest culprit.

MEARNS: Just this week we have 1 pipeline spill, 2 blowouts from oil platforms in the Gulf, 1 freighter on a beach in Oregon. We've got 6 spills and ain't none of them are tankers. They're all something else.

FITZPATRICK: This team has studied the aftermath of the Exxon spill, and strives to avoid the mistakes which allowed that oil slick to wash ashore. Scientists have developed a new set of technology and tactics to keep oil off the beach. The key is to have equipment at the ready and act without delay.

(Bells and surf)

FITZPATRICK: One of the biggest tests for this aggressive approach occurred early this year in Oregon, where a storm blew the freighter New Carissa onto the beach. The freighter carried 400,000 gallons of oil in its fuel tanks. As pounding surf began to crack the hull, fuel began to leak. So, officials blew holes in the tanks and dropped napalm to burn the fuel before any more could escape. Mike Szerloch is with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

SZERLOCH: What would most likely go to the beach is now being transferred to the air. It is a tradeoff; we do have pollutants now in the air. However, we feel that they are less of a hazard to human health and the environment.

FITZPATRICK: About 70,000 gallons of fuel did leak, but officials considered that amount to be manageable. It was about one half of one percent of the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

(Surf and horns)

FITZPATRICK: Back on the tanker ARCO Alaska, the crew gets the command to drop anchor.

(Large chains)

FITZPATRICK: It's the end of another perfect run. In fact, this ship has spilled less than a barrel of oil in 20 years of service. Captain Devine thinks the memory of the Exxon Valdez will avert future problems.

DEVINE: I think the spill affected everyone everywhere, and I would like to believe that all companies are working to prevent that kind of disaster again.

FITZPATRICK: But not everyone is so sure. Recently, there have been a couple close calls, where large tankers actually collided. To environmentalist Sally Lentz, it comes down to a question of luck. And when the industry's luck will run out.

LENTZ: There's going to be another spill. The only question is, where and how much and which ship.

(Ship horns)

FITZPATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick on board the supertanker ARCO Alaska.

Back to top

(Birds, fading to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Exxon talks about the state of the environmental recovery in Prince William Sound. The semantics of science, just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Exxon Speaks

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Valdez oil spill's tenth anniversary is an occasion for deep reflection in Alaska, and it's revived bitter feelings that many have toward Exxon. Dr. Frank Sprow is Exxon's Vice President for Environment and Safety and joins us from Dallas, Texas. Tell me about March 24, 1989. Is that a date that haunts you folks at Exxon? I think in Alaska they use this phrase, "the day that the water died." How did you feel that your company was responsible for this?

SPROW: Well, I think you used a key word and that's responsible. I heard about the spill on the radio, and when I got home and saw some of the video on television, I think it was a shocking sight. And when you realize that it was our oil and that we spilled it, that's a tough thing to stomach. You certainly knew that not only the environment but people's lives were going to be strongly affected by this. And so I think if anything, you get a real resolve to do what you can to try to make it better.

CURWOOD: What do your experts say about when or if the region will be back to normal?

SPROW: By and large we see Prince William Sound as a healthy, robust, thriving biological community. The majority of species there are in good shape. Those that were affected by the spill. You can have acute, short-term effects, as we did in this spill. But the environment has remarkable powers of recovery, and rather straightforwardly and quickly re-establishes itself and the biological communities that are there.

CURWOOD: What about the Trustee Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration? They have looked at this and they say that only 2 out of 11 key species, in their view, are fully recovered. How do you respond to those comments from the Trustee Council and NOAA?

SPROW: The problem, Steve, if you want to call it that, relates to the use of the phrase "recovery." The definition of recovery that some use is a return to 1989 conditions. Unfortunately, for most species, we don't know what their 1989 populations were. And perhaps even more importantly, the natural variability of changes in the Sound is such that you can't take a snapshot and expect at some future date for things to be as they were then. Our definition tends to be more in line with thinking biologically. Do we have a healthy biological system? Are the species that should be in the Sound there? Are they reproducing effectively? Do they have an adequate food supply? And on that measure we see the Sound as having essentially recovered.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about money for a moment. So far Exxon spent about 2-and-a-half billion dollars in cleanup costs and another billion dollars with your out of court settlement with the state and Federal governments. You've also been ordered to pay another $5 billion in punitive damages to thousands of Alaskans, but your company is appealing this verdict. Can you tell me why, please?

SPROW: Before I do that, Steve, I might mention that there's one element of cost which you left out, and that's the over $300 million which we immediately paid to those damaged by the spill. We worked with people to find out who were going to lose their fishing incomes, for example, and immediately paid those people for their loss of income, and in many cases also paid them for the use of their fishing boats and their own time and services to assist in the cleanup. So it was a lot of money paid to compensate for damages suffered in the spill. The punitive damages that you mention we think are totally inappropriate.

CURWOOD: So, Exxon should not be punished for this.

SPROW: I think that what we have done is the responsible thing, in terms of the cleanup, the largest cleanup operation that's ever been taken on in the US. And the concept of punitive damages is just something that we think is wholly inappropriate for this situation.

CURWOOD: We've been hearing from people about the enduring lessons of the Valdez spill. And I'm wondering Dr. Sprow, if you'd just take a moment to tell us what you think is the lesson that has been learned by Exxon.

SPROW: That an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That's an old phrase, but if there were any disbelievers that that's a very accurate statement, they disappeared 10 years ago.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for joining us. Dr. Frank Sprow is Vice President for Environment and Safety at the Exxon Corporation.

SPROW: Thanks very much for the opportunity to talk to you, Steve.

Back to top

(Music up and under)


Silver Lining

Trans-Alaska Pipeline: The 800-mile pipeline carries approximately 50 million gallons of oil per day from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, to the Valdez oil tanker terminal in Prince William Sound. (Photo: Terry FitzPatrick)

CASTELINI: This is just part of the quarantine ... oh, she just flipped out of the way over there...

CURWOOD: At the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, Science Director Mike Castelini points out an injured sea bird that's in for rehab.

CASTELINI: You can see her over there right now.

CURWOOD: The brand new Sea Life Center has labs, surgical suites, and special holding tanks for the rehab and study of marine animals. It's on the shore of Resurrection Bay. The center was built with money from Exxon's settlement with the state and the Federal Government.


CASTELINI: The Sea Life Center is one of the legacies of the settlement of the oil spill. It's an investment in the future, in terms of having a good facility to do science in. And it's also an educational facility.

CURWOOD: The center is part of a massive research effort to study the destruction and recovery from the oil spill. Kim Sundberg is its director.

SUNDBERG: A number of the studies that we're doing at the Sea Life Center are directly related to the recovery of animals that were impacted by the oil spill. For example, the river otter study, the harbor seal study, the pigeon gillemot study, the fish genetics. These are projects that couldn't be done anywhere else before the Sea Life Center was built.

CURWOOD: Altogether, since 1991, more than $200 million has been spent on studies in the spill area. So far, it appears, a few species have recovered, but many more haven't. And buried oil still haunts some beaches and stream beds.

(Growling sounds; a woman comforting)

CURWOOD: In one of the Sea Life Center's outdoor pens, biologist Merav Ben-David reassures a colony of river otters dining on fish in a plywood den.

(Various growling and other animal sounds)

CURWOOD: Dr. Ben-David fed her otters small doses of North Slope crude oil, similar to what still remains in parts of Prince William Sound. She says she ate some herself, just to be fair. The oil gave the otters anemia, limiting their blood's ability to carry oxygen, and, she says, making it harder for them to dive for food.

BEN-DAVID: Many of them, even though they were hungry, did not want to dive. Or if they dove, they dove very little and gave up very quickly.

CURWOOD: River otters are among the species that have recovered best from the spill. Still, Dr. Ben-David was alarmed by some of her findings.

BEN-DAVID: Once the animals have consumed oil, it doesn't matter if it was 10 grams or 50 grams. The anemia at least occurred no matter what. Which means that really small quantities of oil still out there can still affect the animals. Which is scary (laughs). That's not what I expected.

CURWOOD: Dr. Ben-David's findings echo the results of other new research on the effects of oil still in the ecosystem. Last year biologists found evidence that tiny traces of buried oil can harm pink salmon eggs, and affect their ability to survive as adults. Pink salmon still haven't recovered from the spill.

McCAMMON: The thing that has been most surprising is that we still are seeing injury to such an extent. I mean, 10 years is a long time.

CURWOOD: Molly McCammon oversees the research on the health of the spill area that's funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. Ten years later she says the region is still suffering from something like a chronic illness.

McCAMMON: To see full recovery is just going to take a lot longer, I think, than anyone had ever anticipated. We don't even know if there will be complete recovery achieved in the next 10 years.

CURWOOD: Early on the Trustee Council decided that the best way to help the region recover was by protecting as much habitat as possible for species hurt by the spill. Large tracts of land around the spill have been threatened by development. Losing it would add insult to injury. So, Molly McCammon says the Council has spent more than $400 million to acquire and preserve habitat.

McCAMMON: About 650,000 acres of land, and that's about the size of Yosemite National Park, this is the major restoration tool.

CURWOOD: Ms. McCammon calls the land preservation and the groundbreaking science the silver lining of the Exxon Valdez spill. But the programs have their critics, too. Some say the Council could have saved money by buying just development rights instead of full title to the land. Others say the expensive science just belabors the obvious, proving over and over that oil and water don't mix. Others say that if there's a silver lining, it's not about science or conservation. It's whether or not people have applied any lasting lessons from the spill.

(Alarm bells)

CURWOOD: Recently, Alieska, an industry consortium which owns the tanker terminal in the port of Valdez, dedicated a special, high-powered tug boat.

WOMAN: In preserving and protecting these waters for all Alaskans.

(A bottle breaks against the hull; a crowd cheers)

CURWOOD: This tug is the first of an expensive new fleet which will be able to move even the largest disabled supertanker away from danger. Alieska President Bob Malone says these rescue craft show that the industry has learned its lessons about spill prevention.

MALONE: We've eliminated the risk into the high 90 percentile of the risk that was here 10 years ago.

CURWOOD: But Mr. Malone says the industry has learned another, more humbling, lesson as well.

MALONE: I can't promise anyone that I have eliminated all the risk. Human beings, Mother Nature, all are factors in this.

CURWOOD: The balance between the risk of another spill and the cost of avoiding one has shifted dramatically here in the last 10 years, but for many it still isn't right.

STEPHENS: I don't think we are there. I think we're a long ways from there.

CURWOOD: Stan Stephens is president of an oil industry watchdog group based in Valdez, and he pushed Alieska to buy these $20 million tug boats. He says industry is doing better, but he thinks that Alaska has yet to learn a bigger lesson.

STEPHENS: I think we are heavily weighted on the side of oil, what oil wants for the state of Alaska. I think we have a problem there.

Photo: Steve Curwood at Prince William Sound

Steve Curwood: Prince William Sound (Photo: Peter Thompson)

CURWOOD: The oil industry is a powerful force here. Until the recent oil price crash, oil royalties provided 80% or more of the state's revenue. Some people here say that one lesson of the Valdez spill is that Alaska needs to wean itself away from oil and other extractive industries. Others say the biggest lesson of the spill is that we should all start to wean ourselves off oil. In the fishing village of Cordova, people are still angry at Exxon, but Cordova author and marine scientist Riki Ott is mad at the rest of us, too.

OTT: When there's a spill, and there will continue to be a risk of a spill, who ends up paying for the spill? It's the victims. So essentially, people in Washington State and Oregon and California, by buying SUVs, are committing me to subsidize Exxon's or ARCO's or BP's next oil spill.


CURWOOD: Back at the Sea Life Center in Seward, 3 junior high school students haul a plastic container out of Resurrection Bay.

(Several voices)

BOY: Pour it over there.

(Water pours)

CURWOOD: The students pour the water into jars and stick in a thermometer.

GIRL: The surface, it was 4 degrees Celsius, and at 10 meters it is warmer.

CURWOOD: The students are collecting water samples as part of a special science project funded by the Oil Spill Trustee Council. They're collecting data for a scientist who's studying local shellfish and helping build a baseline of knowledge about the ecosystem. Inside the students analyze the samples.

GIRL: So we're taking the salinity of this water.

CURWOOD: If Alaska avoids another major oil spill, activists, industry, and government officials will all share the credit. But credit may well also be due to kids like these, who grew up in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez.

GIRL: Sometimes this takes a while.

CURWOOD: For these kids at least, there is a silver lining to the spill. The Exxon settlement provided money for them to study and explore Prince William Sound. But they also understand the irony of their opportunity. Erin, who's 14, doesn't remember the area before the oil hit its shores. But she's glad there's at least now a commitment to take better care of it.

ERIN: Prince William Sound, it's an awesome place, but no one had really explored it. There was no reason to get funding for it. There was no one that was interested in going out in the cold. But because of the oil spill, they saw a reason like, well, this could possibly happen again, we should have the numbers to, you know, compare in case something happens again. And to find ways that we could prevent it.

CURWOOD: Too young to remember March of 1989, these students can hope without grief. Their teacher, Mark Swanson, has fostered that hope and his students' love for the area. But he can't see the world through their eyes. He's seen too much with his own.

SWANSON: I was actually teaching in a village that was 3 miles from the tanker when it ran aground. And it still is probably the most horrible tragedy that I've ever witnessed. It's difficult to actually benefit with a program like this. Given half a chance I'd give it all back, if we could get Prince William Sound back to the way it was.

Back to top

(Music and surf up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. This week's program on the legacy of the Exxon Valdez was produced by Terry FitzPatrick and Peter Thomson, with help from Kim Motylewski. Our thanks to KCHU in Valdez and Alaska Public Radio. Thanks, too, to Susan Kearnes and Steve Heimel. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, and Bree Horwitz. Our interns are Alexandra Davidson, Stephanie Pindyck, and Aly Constine. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening, and so long from Prince William Sound, Alaska.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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