WITNESS-Exxon Valdez spill fresh in Alaskan reporter’s life

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, May 19 (BestGrowthStock) – It did not take a major oil
spill in the Gulf of Mexico to jog Alaskans’ memories of our
own Exxon Valdez, the spill more than 20 years ago that would
become a byword for environmental disasters.

Reminders come in unlikely places, like my favorite midtown
Anchorage drive-up coffee stand. One special this month was a
latte with hazelnut and butter rum flavoring, a popular
combination dubbed the “Exxon Valdez.”

For Alaskans, the Exxon Valdez is still around and memories
cross generations. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill takes too long to
say, so we just say EVOS, pronounced “Ee-vose.”

As the Gulf of Mexico beaches brace for the impact of a
vast and spreading slick from the BP oil well, I remember 1989,
when oil from the punctured Exxon Valdez tanker was just
starting to spread over Prince William Sound and adjoining
waters of the Gulf of Alaska.

I interviewed some volunteers working in the animal-rescue
center set up at the Homer High School pool — their young
children were at a nearby sink with a toy boat, playing a game
they called “Oil Spill.”

Last week, I was in the Prince William Sound town of
Cordova, home of the fishing fleet that mustered a “mosquito
fleet” of tiny boats to help contain the oil spill — and saw
one fishery collapse despite their best efforts.

Bookstore owner and former mayor Kelly Weaverling, his long
ponytail of two decades ago shorn to a buzz cut, was looking at
a new site on Facebook, “Alaskan Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Survivors in Solidarity with the Gulf Coast.” A Brown
University graduate student, a third-generation Cordovan who
was a toddler in 1989, created it.

That student, Rory Merritt, recalls a childhood, “watching
fewer and fewer cars park on Main Street and more and more
businesses closed,” he told me by email.

The long-delayed resolution of Exxon Valdez civil
litigation, ironically, has ended up hurting him because
payments finally made to his parents disqualified him from some
student financial aid, he said.

LIFE’S BACKDROP

The spill has permeated my life since it began.

Five years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the sound,
eventually spilling 11 million gallons (41 million litres) of
crude, I spent almost my whole summer at the federal courthouse
in downtown Anchorage reporting on the class-action civil trial
representing about 32,000 plaintiffs, including Merritt’s
parents.

On the 10th anniversary, I was back in Cordova, pregnant
with my first child and queasy as in early days when I endured
rides in bumpy seaplanes to far-flung cleanup sites. Once, I
paused to retch on a downtown sidewalk. Locals, by then old
acquaintances, sized up the situation and inquired about my due
date.

For the 20-year mark, my daughter created an Exxon Valdez
exhibit for her third-grade class “living museum.” My
preschool-aged son by then was fond of a picture book, “Prince
William,” the story of a seal rescued from the Exxon spill.

It’s not just human generations that share a spill legacy.
Some sea otters and ducks probing beach sediments are
encountering Exxon Valdez oil that was deposited there years
before they were born, scientists say.

EVOS has even wormed its way into local art. The most
famous piece of Exxon Valdez-inspired art is the “Shame Pole”
carved by Cordova fisherman and Native artist Mike Webber, who
used his own blood to paint dollar signs that represent the
“spillionaires” who profited from the disaster.

Non-Alaskans may not fully appreciate how the spill changed
the trajectory of history here. Consider: The lucrative Exxon
Valdez cleanup contract was what vaulted Anchorage oil-services
company VECO Corp. into the big leagues of business and power.
VECO was at the center of a huge political corruption scandal
that broke in 2006.

The scandal made national headlines, sent former VECO CEO
Bill Allen and other prominent Alaskans to federal prisons,
ended the career of the U.S. Senate’s longest-serving
Republican, Ted Stevens, and created a throw-the-bums-out
atmosphere in which Alaskans chose as governor a former mayor
with a strong outsider appeal, Sarah Palin.

Palin, who went on to become Republican John McCain’s
running mate in the 2008 presidential election,
enthusiastically embraced the “Drill, Baby, Drill” mantra and a
plan to drill in frontier waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Skeptics respond, as they do to practically every major
development proposal in Alaska, by invoking the Exxon Valdez.

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(Reporting by Yereth Rosen, editing by Peter Henderson and
Frances Kerry)

WITNESS-Exxon Valdez spill fresh in Alaskan reporter’s life