Witness story on memories of Exxon Valdez oil spill

Yereth Rosen began working as a stringer for Reuters in 1989, reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. She has covered a variety of Alaska news, from oil and gas issues to volcanic eruptions and sled-dog races, and lives with her family in Anchorage. In the following story, she recounts how the disaster cast a decades-long shadow over the region.

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE (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 liters) 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 story on memories of Exxon Valdez oil spill