This story first appeared in the April 1999 issue of Men's Journal.
Back in the winter of 1963, 26-year-old photographer Ross Mullins decided to drop everything and reenact the signature American experience of lighting out for the frontier. He was living in San Francisco when a friend called from the isolated coastal village of Cordova, Alaska, and spoke of the hard-won rewards of a life spent fishing the deep, island-flecked waters of Prince William Sound and living in a close-knit community amid rugged mountains, vast glaciers, abundant wildlife, and free-flowing rivers.
“I decided to come up for a summer, with the idea of returning to San Francisco in the winter,” Mullins, now 63, recalled one evening this past September as he and I sat in the cramped kitchen of his 70-year-old, two-story wood house perched on the side of Eyak Mountain, the lights of the boats in Cordova’s harbor flickering gently below us like a fallen constellation. “But I found the fishing engrossing, so I ended up getting involved.”
Mullins, who now looks every inch the Alaskan fisherman, with his burly build, a full beard, and denim overalls, bought a secondhand fishing vessel, the boat of a dead man whose wife believed it to be cursed. “The guy had been killed on it,” said Mullins. “I made this woman a ridiculously low offer of $8,000. She said, ‘If you’ll agree never to bring that thing back here, it’s yours.’ ” Mullins fished many good years with the boat and, for a long time after selling it, never had any cause to consider the curse. “I thought I was real lucky,” he said.
He poured us each a sip of bourbon and stared at the tall glass jar he’d just placed on his kitchen table. It contained a mass of what looked like molasses-coated marbles, a sample of small rocks that a friend had collected several months earlier while walking the beaches of Sleepy Bay, a sparkling quarter-moon inlet at the northern tip of Latouche Island, 70 miles southwest of Cordova. The bay had been a favorite spot over the years of the Mullins family — Ross, his wife, Sheelagh, and their four children. But its concave configuration also makes it, like a number of Prince William Sound’s shoreline nooks, a perfect catch basin. Oil that spills into the sound tends to gather in places like this. Oil that makes it onto the beach intact can coat tiny rocks and, over time, harden into asphalt. Oil whipped by waves into the frothy goo known as “mousse” can seep into the spaces between rocks and get trapped. Mullins handed the jar to me so I could read what was written on the tape fixed to its lid: “Sleepy Bay, Latouche Island, PWS 5/26/98, Surface Asphalt and Mousse from Exxon Valdez.”
It was 10 years ago, early on the morning of March 24, 1989, that the 987-foot supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, just 40 miles north of Cordova, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
It has been called the worst ecological disaster in history, and whether that label is even quantifiable, the spill certainly was the stuff of mythic tragedy. Start with the crash site, named as it is for that Bligh — the infamous British naval officer who explored Alaska’s southern coast back in 1778, shortly before taking command of the ill-fated Bounty. Then there was the uncanny timing of the spill: Good Friday, 25 years nearly to the day since the Good Friday Earthquake, one of North America’s most ruinous natural disasters, struck Prince William Sound. There were classic villains, from the so-called “drunken skipper” Captain Joseph Hazelwood to Exxon and Alyeska (the consortium of seven oil companies, including Exxon, that owns and operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and its terminus in Valdez), with their woefully ineffective safeguards and spill-response procedures. There were sympathetic victims: nature-loving Alaskans, working-class fisherman, Native Americans, and birds and animals. There was, finally, the spill’s backdrop — Alaska — one of the last pristine wildernesses on the planet.
The devastation was on a scale usually assigned to God or Mother Nature. The slick spanned 500 miles — the equivalent of the distance from the southern tip of Cape Cod to the coast of North Carolina. More than a thousand miles of shoreline were despoiled; hundreds of thousands of birds, marine mammals, and fish were injured or killed.
The spill’s symbolic stain spread even farther. As satellites beamed the sickening images of oil-soaked animals around the world, there was suddenly a sense that the spill implicated us all. Eleven million gallons of crude had leaked from their daily, dismissible concealment, and suddenly there was no hiding from the role we had played. It was Judgment Day for our technological sins.
Ten years later, the spill has faded into memory. Oil continues to flow through the pipeline and into tankers, and most of us continue to consume it. Even the chorus of voices calling for protective measures, such as double-hulled tankers, has dwindled to the same vigilant few who were pleading for them before the spill happened.
But anniversaries are natural times to reflect, and a decade is long enough for any lasting effects of the spill to have manifested themselves. So this past September, I set out for Prince William Sound, hoping to discern how, if at all, “the worst ecological disaster in history” had scarred both the environment and the least studied of all the species involved: the one that had caused it.
I started in Valdez, the hemisphere’s northernmost ice-free port, as it’s often described, and the nearest thing Prince William Sound has to a hub. But Valdez, I quickly discovered, is not really the place to look for damage left by the spill. The fact that the slick never touched its shores notwithstanding, Valdez is an oil town. As the pipeline terminus, it’s the shipping-out point for the hundreds of millions of barrels of crude piped out of Alaska’s North Slope fields every year. Oil revenues make up some 80 percent of the town’s tax base; the vast majority of its work force is employed by the oil industry. Valdezans, by and large, believe in oil; they profit from its unceasing flow. They don’t want spills, of course, but they’ve accepted a Faustian bargain: The possibility of one is a trade-off for the profits and progress that Big Oil brings. If a spill happens, you clean it up, you do what you can to prevent the next one, and you move on.
Many Valdezans actually benefited from the Exxon accident. In the months that followed, the town received a giant fiscal shot in the arm by serving as the base for the cleanup. Locals made tens of thousands of dollars (in a few cases, hundreds of thousands) by leasing out their boats to Exxon. They became known as “Spillionaires.”
“You know what the joke around town is?” a brash barmaid whispered to me one night. “ ‘It’s time for another spill.’ ”
Cordova, on the other hand — 80 miles southeast, the second-biggest town on Prince William Sound — was repeatedly characterized in press clippings I’d read as the place hit hardest by the spill and by a number of Valdezans I met as a community that, in many ways, has yet to recover from the disaster.
The oil never reached Cordova’s shores, either, thanks to the -prevailing winds and tides and the town’s sequestered locale on the sound’s craggy coastline. But Cordova and Prince William Sound are essentially one in a way that Valdez and the sound are not. Cordovans live off of and, for months at a time, on the water. More than 70 percent of the town’s economy is based upon fishing or related businesses — canning, packing, boat repair, net making, and so on.
Standing on the deck of an Alaska Marine Highway Ferry for the five-hour journey from Valdez to Cordova, I spotted Bligh Reef, the peaks of the snowcapped Chugach Mountains rising in the background; bald eagles drifted above the horizon’s saw-toothed edge of hemlocks as sea otters basked in the emerald waters, their front paws folded on their bellies like overstuffed vacationers on floating chaise longues. I found myself looking everywhere for some sign of the spill — a stain, a stigmata — but I saw none. There was something almost sacrilegious about the surrounding beauty, as though nature itself had conspired in a coverup with the forces of technology.
I had the same feeling when I debarked in Cordova. There was no obvious evidence that anything untoward had happened there. But it wasn’t long before I began to see the cracks in the idyll — the damage Cordova has suffered and the pain that lurks, like the oil on the beaches of Sleepy Bay, just beneath the surface.
Like the Mullinses, a number of people I met in town had jars full of oily rocks or oil — some collected immediately after the spill, others in recent months — which they presented at the slightest prompting. The jars are, in a sense, the townspeople’s testaments — evidence not just of the lasting physical presence of the oil and the harm it did to the environment but of the pain and trauma Cordovans suffered. The pain and trauma that comes from witnessing the sullying of a cherished landscape and the death of thousands of animals; from the economic and social strife that began during the cleanup and worsened with the collapse of the local fishing industry; from the bankruptcies, the divorces, and the suicides; and from the ongoing struggle over Exxon’s refusal to pay the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded by a U.S. district court jury in Anchorage back in 1994 to the fishermen of Cordova and to others the spill affected. The jars of oil, I would come to understand, are the stigmata, the tangible proof of what, in an increasingly technological world, may soon become a tired old maxim: Man-made disasters have their most profound effect upon man.
Cut into the side of Eyak Mountain, overlooking a crowded harbor, Cordova is not quaint or cozy in the way of a New England fishing village. Instead, it has the raw, rough-hewn appearance of the frontier outpost it once was. Life here is hard.
The town’s 2,500 year-round residents are mostly fishermen — purse seiners and gill netters, crabbers and shrimpers — as well as some timber workers and miners, local merchants, and a smattering of employees of the U.S. Forestry Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. About 18 percent of the population is coastal-Alaskan native.
Along the four-block length of First Street, the town’s main “thoroughfare,” you’ll find a bank, a supermarket, a pharmacy, a souvenir-and-card shop, a couple of restaurants and bars, a historical museum and library, a bookshop called Orca Book and Sound, and, right next-door to it, the headquarters of Cordova District Fishermen’s United (CDFU). Many of the buildings and the flat, low, utilitarian homes that line the unpaved side streets date back to the early 1900s, when Cordova, not Valdez, was the bustling boomtown of Prince William Sound. Back then, Cordova was a major outlet for copper, brought in by train from the Kennecott Mines, 200 miles to the northeast.
The mines closed in 1938, but by then Cordova had developed its fishing industry to the point where the town was able to make a relatively smooth transition to quiet waterfront village, cut off from the rest of Alaska by the sound’s jagged coastline and the rugged Chugach Mountains. A highway that would have connected Cordova with the rest of Alaska was begun back in the early ’60s, but the ’64 earthquake obliterated the work in progress and funding was diverted elsewhere. Ever since, Cordova has been, in the local parlance, a “non–road access town.” It can be reached only by ferry or by the small prop plane that leaves Valdez once daily. There’s been a debate about whether to build a road to the outside world in order to open Cordova to tourist dollars and new business opportunities. It’s the debate that, in many ways, defines Alaska — the conflict between the desire for development and increased profits on the one hand and for the preservation of the state’s wild environs on the other; between the dependency on oil dollars that characterizes a town like Valdez and the live-off-the-land self-sufficiency of Cordova. To date, Cordova’s “no road” faction has held sway.
“Cordova is not a place you can be ambivalent about,” Kelley Weaverling, the owner of Orca Book and Sound and the town’s mayor from 1991 to 1993, told me one afternoon as we sat in his shop’s loft cafe. Weaverling, 52, a gaunt figure with deep-set brown eyes, a long beard, and gray-streaked black hair, came to Cordova with his wife, Susan Ogle, in 1987. They had lived and worked together for years as kayak guides on Prince William Sound and decided to settle in Cordova because it is a town whose economy is based on a renewable, natural resource, set apart from the muck and moil of what Weaverling calls “American mainstream monoculture.”
“You either like it here or you’re gone,” Weaverling continued. “It’s not the kind of place where you just drop in, looking for a job. It’s not a roadside attraction, it’s a destination. It’s not an easy one, but it’s an awful good one. What gives it its quality is its difficulty.”
Cordovans are generally well-educated and fiercely independent. “We have a reputation for being real mouthy,” Gerald Masolini said one afternoon as I watched him seal freshly packed cans of Copper River red salmon at his cannery on the east end of town. “It’s a town of grizzle-heads — you know, hardheads.” At the same time, Cordovans are neighborly and giving. The shared rigors of life in such a small, isolated place inspire a sense of community that people in the lower 48 normally associate only with disaster relief. People stop in the streets and stores to talk. House-to-house “progressive” dinners are held. There are impromptu group boat-repair parties. In terms of politics, Cordovans mainly vote for what best serves their livelihoods. In terms of religion, they are -multi-denominational — the town has 10 churches.
Whatever their faith, all Cordovans pray for full fishing nets. Cordova is ruled by the seasonal cycles of the catch: herring and halibut in April; in May, king and sockeye salmon; pink and chum salmon all summer; silver orb coho salmon running through to early October; and, finally, crab and shrimp through the winter. During the height of the fishing season, from June to August, Cordova’s population swells to more than 4,000, with a small shanty-town of transient workers (mostly Mexicans and college kids from the lower 48) springing up on the town’s western edge, in Shelter — a.k.a. “Hippie” — Cove.
“It’s a lively time,” Sheelagh Mullins, a former gill netter herself and a part-time veterinary technician, told me. “All the men are gone and the women basically run the town,” she said, laughing. “Then in October, as the season ends, we have these three-day-long parties in the bars to celebrate. After that, it gets real quiet around here.”
November begins the down phase, when the population dwindles to its hardened core of year-rounders. There are only four hours of daylight, and the street lamps stay on around the clock. The snow that covers Valdez, to the north, falls upon Cordova mostly as rain (200 inches annually) because of the warming Japanese Current. The fishermen — except, perhaps, for the crabbers and shrimpers — hole up in their houses or go off traveling, their nets folded, their boats in dry dock. A good portion of the population lives off stores of hunted game and smoked fish; the only recreation is skiing, when there’s snow, at the ski area on Mount Eyak, adjacent to the center of town, or ice-skating on nearby Lake Eyak.
On the first full weekend in February, Cordova holds its Iceworm Festival, culminating in the procession down First Street of a 40-foot-long stretched-cloth rendition of the tiny annelid that lives just beneath the surface of glaciers. It’s an annual sign of spring. Another harbinger: Gene Rossillini, the “Soul of Cordova,” would emerge from the cabin he’d built back in the late ’60s in the woods above Shelter Cove and once again could be seen strolling down First Street with his ankle-length beard and his knapsack full of rocks, which he always wore to keep himself strong.
Cordova’s fishermen are independent contractors; they risk their own money to pursue their trade. Just getting started involves a substantial investment. In 1989, a seining vessel cost as much as $750,000; a single net, $20,000; yearly insurance and fuel, more than $25,000. Forty percent to 50 percent of the season’s profits typically go to the crew. There is a finite number of fishing permits for Prince William Sound, and they are traded on the open market, their price determined strictly by demand (you own a permit until you decide to sell it). In 1989, a gill-net permit went for about $160,000 and seining permits for more than $300,000. Fishermen in Cordova could make as much as $500,000 a season, but the majority earned a comfortable middle-class living.
The fishing itself is competitive and dangerous, requiring thorough planning and a sophisticated understanding of the sound’s currents, wind patterns, storm systems, and scores of other variables. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game enforces tight regulations, too, determining when, where, and for how long each “opener” — a period of time during which commercial fishing is allowed — will be held, and designating what equipment can be used. Some openers are as brief as 24 hours. A few good or bad sets within that time can make or break a season. Still, fishermen willingly abide by the regulations, as they serve both to guard against overfishing and to create a level playing field.
No single concern has drawn Cordovans together over the years more than the prospect of oil tankers bearing crude through the waters of Prince William Sound. There’s hardly a soul in Cordova who can’t recite the history of the town’s battle to keep Big Oil out. As far back as 1971, when plans for the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline were first gaining momentum, Cordovans fought with the oil companies and the federal and state governments to try to get them to consider alternate routes for the transport of North Slope crude. They battled, as well, to get the oil companies to conduct environmental impact studies and a full ecological profile of Prince William Sound, which could serve as the baseline for measuring any damage done in the event of a spill. And they sought laws requiring the companies to implement spill-prevention and -response measures, such as tanker escorts, improved radar tracking, double-hull tankers, and cleanup contingency plans. Ross Mullins and others lobbied intensely and testified before Congress. But despite their efforts, they failed to stop the pipeline route to Valdez, and most of the proposed safety measures were either lobbied away or sidestepped by the oil companies.
The first tankers began departing from Valdez in 1977; by winter of 1989, nearly 9,000 loads of North Slope crude had been shipped out without a major incident. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline was considered a success. Cordovans, however, remained uneasy. Many went to bed at night thinking about the prediction they’d made in a 1971 lawsuit seeking to block construction of the pipeline — that an “inevitable major” oil spill would one day kill countless fish and the town’s economy.
March 1989 was a promising time in Cordova. There had been a number of good seasons in a row. Salmon was selling at an all-time average high of more than $1 per pound. For a long stretch through the 1970s and ’80s, Ross Mullins had been earning enough to meet his expenses, pay his bills, and even take his family to Hawaii in the winter.
That month, in the last days of the antespillian world, Cordova was still very much the town that Mullins had set out for back in ’63. The iceworm had made its annual pass along First Street. The shops were stocking up with goods. The Soul of Cordova had emerged from his cabin. With the opening of the herring and halibut seasons a month away, the town was beginning to stir.
“You could feel the buzz in the air,” Weaverling told me, looking out his loft window at First Street. “People you hadn’t seen all winter were meeting in the street, and the private spotter pilots were getting ready for the first flyovers to locate herring schools. It was great. It was like harvest time.”
At 12:04 a.m. on March 24, 1989, that world ended for Cordova with something less than a whimper. The Exxon Valdez departed the Alyeska terminal’s loading berth No. 5 some three hours before, at 9:21 p.m., freshly topped off with hot North Slope crude. Reports have it that on that particular night, the aurora borealis was more dazzling than it had been in years — a sign, in the lore of Eyak Indians, that misfortune looms. Having cleared the Valdez Narrows, the tanker then steered left out of its assigned shipping lane to avoid ice floes off the Columbia Glacier and was into clear, calm water.
Captain Hazelwood placed the ship on autopilot (he has never explained why; the National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident called the move “extremely inconsistent with normally accepted practice”). For the Valdez to pass safely through the sound and out into the Gulf of Alaska, two things had to be done: The autopilot had to be disengaged (a matter of pushing one button), and a 10-degree right-rudder turn had to be executed manually, just before Bligh Reef (two other ships had made similar turns that night).
At approximately 11:50 p.m., Hazelwood reviewed the course change with his third mate, Gregory Cousins. According to Cousins’s testimony at Hazelwood’s 1989 criminal trial (one of the many criminal and civil cases related to the accident), the captain twice asked Cousins if he felt comfortable performing the 10-degree right-rudder turn, and Cousins twice said he was. Then, at 11:54 p.m. — according to Cousins’s testimony and by Hazelwood’s own accounts — Hazelwood told the third mate he was going down to his quarters to do some paperwork. He ordered Cousins to phone him when the turn was initiated.
At 11:55 p.m., only a minute after Hazelwood had left the bridge, Cousins ordered his helmsman, Robert Kagan, to execute the 10-degree right-rudder turn. What happened during the next five minutes has never been resolved.
Kagan says he turned the wheel as directed. But, somehow, the ship never responded. Perhaps, as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report speculated, the autopilot had not been disengaged (despite the fact that both Cousins and Kagan said they recalled it was off), thereby disabling manual steering. Or perhaps Kagan did not turn the wheel as directed. Cousins has consistently said that during a minute-and-a-half phone call to Hazelwood (Cousins notified the captain that the turn had been started; Hazelwood acknowledged and said he’d be back on the bridge in a few minutes) and in the three minutes or so afterward, he did not, to his recollection, check that the turn had, in fact, been made. In Hazelwood’s criminal trial, it bears noting, the Valdez’s chief mate, James Kunkel, testified that Kagan had trouble keeping a ship on-course, and that the helmsman had a tendency to oversteer.
Just before midnight, Cousins checked the ship’s radar and realized that the vessel’s course remained unchanged. He ordered a 20-degree right-rudder turn, but it was too late. An oil tanker going 12 to 14 knots takes well over 5 minutes to change course and some 7 miles to come to a full emergency stop. About two minutes later, ship’s lookout Maureen Jones appeared on the bridge, shouting that the vessel appeared headed for Bligh Reef. Twice earlier (once just before the 10-degree–turn order was given and then before the 20-degree order was issued), Jones had matter-of-factly notified Cousins, as part of her routine duties, that the ship was still out of its proper lane. At this point, however, the situation had obviously become serious.
Cousins then gave a hard-right command and called Hazelwood again. “I told him,” he testified at Hazelwood’s criminal trial, “that I thought we were getting into trouble. He said, ‘Where’s the rudder?’ And I said, ‘It’s at hard right . . . .’ At that point we suffered the first shock.”
The Exxon Valdez — 987 feet long, 166 feet wide, 88 feet high, and with a displacement of almost 240,000 long tons (including the weight of its 53 million gallons of oil) — had crashed into Bligh Reef, its single skin of high-strength steel slicing open on the rocks.
With its rudder stuck at hard right, the Valdez pivoted — its stern swinging left toward shore, its bow out toward open water. Cousins, fearing the engine room might get hulled as well, grabbed the wheel from Kagan and turned it hard-left to stabilize the ship.
Now back on the bridge, Hazelwood ordered the engines shut down. Choosing not to sound the general alarm for fear of panicking the sleeping crew, Hazelwood sent Cousins and Jones to alert them quietly instead. At 12:27 a.m., from the bridge of the supertanker, came Hazelwood’s infamously flat, even-keeled transmission to the coast guard’s Valdez Traffic Center: “We’ve fetched up hard aground on Bligh Reef.” He added, almost as an aside, “Evidently, we’re leaking some oil.”
Chief Mate Kunkel’s pronouncement to a crew member was perhaps, in retrospect, more appropriate: “Vessel aground,” he told them. “We’re fucked.”
Eight of the ship’s 11 cargo tanks, extending its full length, were ripped open. Radioman Joel Robertson saw oil shooting 40 to 50 feet into the air from one of them. Oil was still bubbling up nearly two feet above the water’s surface along the tanker’s entire starboard side when the vessel was approached by a coast-guard cutter shortly after 3 a.m. Within five hours after the Valdez went aground, 250,000 barrels of oil — more than 10 million gallons — had already emptied into Prince William Sound.
Unaware of the dark tide gathering to the north, most everyone in Cordova slept. Ross Mullins awoke at 6 a.m. A fan of the newly formed CNN, he turned on the TV as he set about making coffee and heard a report about a potentially major disaster in Alaska — an oil spill in Prince William Sound. Mullins experienced a momentary lapse in comprehension: an Atlanta-based reporter telling him about his worst fears coming true in his own backyard? “I kept saying ‘Jesus Christ, what the hell is this?’ ” he recalled. “Then I felt this incredible anger. It was like you’d been raped.”
Still, no one in Cordova really understood the magnitude of the spill until later in the day, when a group from the town flew to the accident site. “It was devastating,” 43-year-old Michelle O’Leary, a longtime Cordova fisherman who was on that flight, told me as we sat one morning in the modified A-frame house that she and her husband had built along a jetty on the edge of Orca Inlet. “The amazing thing is that a number of our commercial fishing vessels were part of a spill contingency plan [in 1986, the state of Alaska had mandated that Alyeska develop a plan for a spill of up to 200,000 barrels]. After we made the flyover, we spent the whole day at CDFU trying to get through to Exxon on the phone and say ‘Look, we’re sending our boats.’
We called Alyeska and they had no idea we were even in the contingency plan. It was so screwed-up.”
Alyeska was primarily responsible for executing the cleanup operation (the coast guard and the state maintained oversight authority). But the spill was far bigger than the contingency plan had prepared for. For that matter, it was beyond the capacity of any of the containment booms and oil skimmers then in use in the United States. Alyeska’s spill-response equipment amounted to one barge loaded with boom material, and that barge was in dry dock in Valdez under several feet of snow. The relative remoteness of the spill’s location further complicated attempts at an expeditious response effort. The first spill-control equipment didn’t arrive until more than 10 hours after the tanker crashed.
“The thing I’ll never forget on that flyover,” O’Leary said, “is seeing these two commercial fishing boats already out there, trying to do something. They had booms stretched between them and no skimmers. Nothing. Just two small boats trying to stem this massive tide of oil.”
For three days after the accident, the slick remained in a relatively contained area, just south of Bligh Reef. On Saturday, March 25, Exxon asked for and was given authority to direct the cleanup, in concert with the coast guard and state and federal agencies. As much oil as was in the water already, there were 1,001,900 barrels (four-fifths of the original load) still on-board the Valdez and in danger of spilling, should the crippled tanker dislodge from the reef and capsize or break apart.
In one of the rare successes of the spill response, Exxon devised a way to transfer that oil to other tankers using submerged pumps. There was also some limited testing of controlled burning and of chemical dispersant (a controversial option because of the dispersant’s own potential toxicity) to eradicate the slick.
Back in Cordova, calls went out to Exxon, as they did from all over Prince William Sound, offering assistance from the town’s fishing fleet. But the company was rejecting such offers, citing the fear of injury, the lack of workman’s compensation, and the unavailability of the necessary booming equipment. The CDFU finally convinced Exxon to fund a small fleet of Cordova’s fishing vessels to go out and boom off the waters around the sound’s five fish hatcheries. The bulk of the fishermen, however, remained stuck in town.
“There’s an image I’ll never forget,” said Sheelagh Mullins. “It was that first weekend after the spill. I walked out to the end of our road here and looked out over the town, and it was like I -didn’t know the place. There were people everywhere, darting back and forth frantically, all this activity but with no real purpose. It was like some strange, out-of-control windup toy.”
On Sunday evening, a storm hit, and all hope of containing the spill was lost. For three days, winds of up to 70 miles per hour spread the oil full across Prince William Sound and then drove it some 400 miles south and southwest through the sound, into the Gulf of Alaska. All told, the slick spread over approximately 3,000 square miles, enveloping dozens of islands and fouling more than 1,200 miles of coastline, including three national parks and eight other protected areas.
It was early spring, and creatures everywhere were emerging from the long winter into a lethal veil of darkness (crude oil varies, depending on its place of origin; North Slope crude is a particularly noxious blend). Salmon fry and herring swam by the millions into it. Otters matted with oil went off into the rocks to die. Eagles, sick from ingesting oil-soaked prey, dropped from their perches to the forest floor.
Murres, oystercatchers, loons, and ducks dove through the slick, flailed briefly, then foundered. Sea lions, seals, and whales, needing to surface for air, came up breathing and blinking back oil.
Cordovans, meanwhile, were having their own ongoing struggles with Exxon. “The first planeloads of people [they] sent in,” said O’Leary, “were all attorneys and public-relations people. The cleanup people came much later. There was this general attitude when it first happened that, well, it’s up there in this remote place in Alaska where just a bunch of ignorant fishermen and natives live. It’s not going to be a big deal. They thought they could manage it and wound up spending most of their time and effort trying to manage the public’s perception. It wasn’t spill control so much as spin control.”
On Wednesday, March 29, Exxon began hiring fishermen to assist with the cleanup, offering $100 a foot per day for the use of their boats. Those with larger vessels could average $5,000 a day or more for the four to five months the main operation was in effect. One fisherman who had an on-board spray washer, a particularly useful piece of equipment, is said to have made $250,000 a month.
Ultimately, though, the magnitude of the spill would reduce the cleanup operation to absurdist theater. People were wiping rocks with paper towels and being paid by the rock. Until enough skimming equipment was brought in, some of the cleanup workers were using Pampers to soak up the oil. Beaches were scrubbed, many of them steam-cleaned, wiping out all life. Equipment failed to work or broke down. In the attempt to cleanse the beaches, workers actually stomped oil deeper into the ground.
The animal rescue effort was a hollow pantomime, ultimately doing more to assuage people’s helplessness and guilt than to save animals. Experts knew from the start that the cause was largely futile; many have said that the cleanup attempts did more harm than good, scaring unsullied otters and birds into oil, traumatizing others from so much handling, and imparting to them various illnesses that would be transferred to other animals.
“It was hell,” said Kelley Weaverling, who was sought out by a team from the University of California at Berkeley to direct the bird rescue operation because of his extensive knowledge of the sound. “In some places,” he recalled, “the oil was a foot thick on the water. When the tide went out, if the beach had any kind of undulation in it, there’d be pools of oil and we’d frequently find animals by taking little sticks and going in and picking them up and saying ‘I think this little blob is a bird blob.’
“People would break down — fishermen, big, burly, macho dudes, sobbing — and then they’d just shake it off and carry on.”
Ross Mullins showed me a tape the night I visited his home. It was of the town meeting held in the Cordova High School gymnasium on Tuesday evening, March 28, four nights after the spill. Nearly the entire population of Cordova was packed into the gym. Behind a podium set up at the front of the room, someone had hung a large picture of the earth from space — the familiar image of the light-blue orb in a sea of blackness having a whole other resonance in this context.
As the session began, the room buzzed, but things quickly settled down as various officials stepped to the podium to summarize, in somber tones, what was known about the spill, what preliminary plans were being made to monitor its progress, and the inevitable damages.
Eventually, Exxon spokesman Don Cornett took the microphone. This was the first opportunity Cordovans had had since the accident to meet face to face with a representative of the company. Cornett began by giving his own brief, banal rundown of what had transpired to date. There were a few outbursts from the restless crowd, but, on the whole, the infamously mouthy Cordovans were surprisingly subdued. Everyone seemed to know even then that it was too late, that the damage was done. One woman asked why the pipeline hadn’t been shut down and all tanker traffic suspended, thereby subjecting the already-offended citizens of Cordova to the indignity of a lecture from Cornett about the vital importance of Alaska’s oil to the rest of the nation.
The remainder of the session was spent talking mostly about the process of filing claims for losses. One fisherman after the next asked how they’d be compensated, but their voices all trailed off in disgust. Trying to put a dollar figure on the economic impact of the damage — let alone on the value of their lifestyle — was unfathomable to them.
In the end, the citizens of Cordova were forced to draw whatever solace they could from the most consoling words Cornett had to offer them: “We will consider whatever it takes,” he promised, “to make you whole.”
The judge who presided over Joseph Hazelwood’s criminal arraignment likened the Exxon Valdez oil spill to the bombing of Hiroshima. The comparison may seem hyperbolic, but to Cordovans, it’s on the mark. For 10 years, the spill has had all kinds of damaging fallout — on the environment, on the economy, and, most of all, on the people. A decade later, Cordovans are anything but “whole.” And Exxon, they say, has only perpetuated their suffering.
The spill’s final mortality estimates for birds and marine mammals are staggering. Among the fatalities: somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 murres, loons, grebes, cormorants, petrels, and ducks, and 144 bald eagles, as well as approximately 5,000 sea otters, 300 seals, and 22 killer whales. Today, some animals, such as bald eagles and murres, appear to have rebounded substantially. But many others — harbor seals and certain species of duck, for example — are still struggling to come back.
In all, less than 15 percent of the oil that spilled was recovered. Of the rest, most evaporated or biodegraded. But while the beaches and marshes appear clean, oil, having worked its way deep into the earth, still lingers. No one can say how long it will be before all traces of oil are gone.
Cordova’s fishing industry has suffered devastating declines. For a few years, the spill damage wasn’t readily apparent. The salmon runs in 1989, ’90, and ’91 were actually some of the best ever. In fact, 1990 was a record year for pink salmon. It wasn’t until 1992 and ’93 — when the salmon that were fry in the spring of 1989 returned as adults — that the spill’s effects became manifest. The returns those years were some of the lowest on record. Herring, especially sensitive to environmental disruptions, were particularly hard-hit, as the oil contaminated undersea kelp spawning grounds. The winter crab and shrimp fisheries were all but wiped out.
The natural fluctuations in fish populations make it impossible to determine what changes can be attributed directly to the spill. This much is certain: The combination of the oil’s physical effects and the damage the spill did to the reputation of Prince William Sound’s catch sent Cordova into an economic tailspin. The same salmon that had sold at $1.15 a pound before the spill was going for 20 cents in ’92. The price of a seine-fishing permit dropped by 50 percent that year. Two of the town’s five fish-packing plants were closed by ’92. Unemployment reached an all-time high. When a school janitor’s position came open, there were 170 applications the first day it was posted.
Today, most major fish species have rebounded substantially (herring less so than others). But the fishing industry has not bounced back. During the down years, fish buyers turned to other suppliers in the U.S. and abroad, and the fishermen of Prince William Sound have yet to regain their market share. Many people believe they may never. The price of a seining permit has plunged to just $28,000, roughly 9 percent of its worth in 1989. Although Cordova’s economy is better now than it was in the worst years (one of the fish-packing plants has reopened, though in a limited fashion), its health remains tenuous. Few fishermen earn a comfortable middle-class income anymore. Some Cordovans have packed up and left. Others have been forced to take up new lines of work. For several years, there has even been renewed debate about building the controversial access road to bring in tourists. Thus far, the answer is still no, but the town has reluctantly increased its reliance on tourism. Once a week in the summer, a tour boat now pulls into the town’s harbor. Sheelagh Mullins has even started her own walking tour of Cordova’s historical sites for the debarking passengers.
The spill brought other unwelcome changes — rifts within the community began to develop. Those who worked the cleanup operation for Exxon felt they were doing the right thing for the environment. And with herring and halibut fishing closed for the season, a paycheck was critical. Others, however, argued that taking money from the accident’s perpetrator couldn’t be justified. In Cordova, “Spillionaires” had another name: “Exxon whores.” By Ross Mullins’s reckoning, it wasn’t working for Exxon, per se, that caused the worst divisions. That, he believes, was a personal decision. The deeper problem was that some fishermen who worked the spill were then able to afford the newest and best equipment allowed within the state regulations. “A lot of guys felt they were screwed because they didn’t get the same opportunity and it put them at a competitive disadvantage,” Mullins told me (he worked the spill for a few months but says he didn’t make enough money to afford substantial improvements in his fishing setup). “Prior to the spill, it had always kind of been one big happy family. This set fisherman against fisherman.”
All these changes bred a host of social problems. Alcoholism, domestic violence, and divorce increased. Rather than going out and socializing, people became more isolated; instead of stopping on the street or at Davis’ Super Foods to chat, or hanging out at the Club Bar for a beer and some tunes, they’d go to the grocery store or liquor store and then head straight home. The town’s mental-health clinic was overrun. Cases of post-traumatic stress disorder were diagnosed immediately following the disaster and in increasing numbers for several years afterward.
In the spring of 1993, Bob Van Brocklin, the mayor of Cordova during the cleanup, killed himself in bed one night with a pistol shot to the head. Among the woes cited in his suicide note were both his personal economic problems tied to the Valdez accident and the stress it had put upon the town. Ever since the spill, Gene Rossillini had been telling people that the damage to the ecology and to his way of life had been weighing on him. A short time after Van Brocklin’s death, the Soul of Cordova was found in his cabin with a fatal, self-inflicted stab wound to the heart.
When I first arrived in Cordova, I had checked into my room at the Reluctant Fisherman, then walked up the hill to First Street. I’d entered Weaverling’s bookshop and started to introduce myself, but had gotten only as far as “I’m writing . . .” when he’d interrupted: “A story about the tenth anniversary of the oil spill.” He’d promptly handed me his jar of oil — he had it right up front, sitting on a wooden display shelf just opposite his cash register.
After the ’64 earthquake — which destroyed the boat harbor, impaled half-a-million-dollar fishing vessels on exposed dock pilings, and practically wiped out the entire town — Cordovans quickly bounced back. But the spill is different. It has become an abiding obsession. “The spill,” said Ross Mullins, “totally screwed people up, and we’re not out of it yet. It’s an ongoing nightmare that won’t let people get on with their lives.”
Steven Picou, Ph.D., a University of South Alabama sociologist who specializes in technological disasters, has been coming to Cordova regularly since the spill, monitoring its effects on people’s psyches and upon the community as a whole. There are dozens of reasons why Cordovans’ nightmare won’t end, Picou told me. For one, their livelihood has been seriously diminished. The loss of income brought on by the collapse of the fishing industry has eroded people’s sense of stability. Fishermen are accustomed to weathering lean times, but six depressed years have taken a toll.
The trauma caused by the damage to the environment is another source of lingering pain. Strolling the beach isn’t the same when you have to worry about skirting oil mousse. And the images of dead birds and otters still haunt. In general, Cordovans say, the sound feels deflated — a paradise lost.
The fact that oil is toxic, with un-known long-term effects, breeds its own uncertainties. People wonder: Might fish populations plummet again? Is the fish safe to eat? Is the water safe to drink? “That’s precisely the opposite mind-set of what’s needed for people to recover,” Picou said.
“People come back relatively quickly after a natural disaster like an earthquake,” he added. “They stop blaming God and then they get together and start rebuilding. But that doesn’t happen with a technological disaster. There’s this terrible anger because it was preventable.” It’s particularly galling to many Cordovans that they had been predicting such an occurrence and fighting to prevent it since 1971. Every so often in the course of my conversations with Mullins, he’d burst out in Lear-like fury. “It’s like we’d alerted the police,” he told me, “and did everything else we could as responsible citizens, and the rape happened anyway.”
Worse, there is no “rapist” — no single human face — to bring to justice. The litany of blame invariably begins with Captain Hazelwood. But the investigations by the NTSB and the criminal and civil trials of Exxon and Hazelwood show that the captain was just one of many — Cousins and Kagan, foremost among them — who played a part in the crash. Yes, Hazelwood had put the ship on autopilot and left the bridge, but neither of these actions, improper though many experts consider them, directly “caused” the accident. And it is not clear, despite reports to the contrary, that the “two or three” vodkas Hazelwood acknowledges he’d had between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. that day at the Pipeline Club in Valdez meaningfully impaired his ability to captain the ship.
Cordovans have come to realize that myriad others had a hand in the accident, as well — Exxon, Alyeska, the coast guard, the state of Alaska, the federal government, and on. The list goes so far back and points to culprits so big and faceless that it tends to dissolve into abstraction.
The threat of another spill also haunts Cordovans. To be sure, significant changes have been made in the wake of the Valdez disaster. An elaborate spill-prevention-and-response network has been established in Prince William Sound, including a pair of state-of-the-art, 10,000-horse-power tractor tugs to escort tankers through the sound and an open-ocean rescue tug stationed just south of Cordova, where the sound gives way to the Gulf of Alaska. An advanced radar ship--tracking system is in place. There are seven barges with a combined 818,000-barrel storage capacity for recovered oil, stockpiles of oil-containment and skimming equipment and chemical dispersant, and regularly scheduled drills involving a trained fleet of local fishermen.
Still, for all the progress that has been made, Cordovans and others continue to travel to Washington to lobby on such issues as the long-ago–called-for double-hull tankers. Even today, only a few of the ships passing through the sound are double-hulls. What’s more, the oil industry is seeking an extension on a federal regulation passed in 1990 dictating that all tankers transporting oil through U.S. waters be double-hulls by 2015.
“A lot of things have changed since ’89,” Weaverling told me. “But essentially the one thing that caused the oil spill has not been addressed: the container. We’ve still got a wet paper bag with eggs in it. We’re being more careful with it, but it’s still a wet paper bag with eggs.”
A few years ago, Exxon attempted to gain permission from the relevant authorities to bring the Exxon Valdez — now fully repaired and renamed the Sea River Mediterranean — back to Valdez, something akin to the Greeks announcing to the citizens of Troy that the Trojan horse would be making a return visit as Tony the Pony. Cordovans and other residents of Prince William Sound were outraged; the idea was dropped. But the very suggestion of the vessel’s return made Cordovans feel violated all over again.
The subject you are certain to hear about on a visit to Cordova — perhaps the biggest factor keeping people from getting on with their lives — is the continuing legal dispute over the $5 billion in punitive damages (a sum the jury had based upon Exxon’s total profits for 1989) awarded back in 1994, in the class-action suit filed by individuals and groups affected by the spill.
Exxon has paid out $1.2 billion to the federal and state governments and other groups and individuals in connection with lawsuits and claims related to the spill. The money has been used to enhance spill prevention and cleanup preparedness, to purchase wildlands to protect them from development, and even to fund the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova (its primary mission is to compile the profile of the Prince William Sound ecosystem that Ross Mullins and the CDFU called for back in 1971). That $1.2 billion includes $25.6 million in compensatory damages paid directly to Cordovans.
But Exxon is appealing the $5 billion in punitive damages sought by Cordovans and others, and one hears different estimates of when, if ever, the plaintiffs — 60,000 of them — might actually see a payout. Brian O’Neill, the plaintiffs’ lead trial lawyer, said it should happen within the next year. A -fisherman I met in Valdez said his lawyers told him it will be 2010 before any money is paid. In a 1993 essay about the spill in National Wildlife magazine, longtime Cordova fisherman Rick Steiner wrote of a chilling phone call from a friend in the oil industry who told him that “lawyers yet to be born will work on this case.”
Even if Exxon’s appeal fails, the fine will, by some estimates, pose a minimal loss to the company. Five billion dollars is just 17 percent of its 1998 revenues. And while Exxon has been incurring a 5.9 percent annual interest penalty on the settlement (payable if the company loses the appeal), estimates are that it has been earning as much as a 20 percent annual return on the money via investments.
“If they manage to put off paying the settlement until 2001,” said O’Neill, “they’ll be able to pay out the whole $5 billion on money made from the interest alone.”
The lure of the settlement money, combined with the uncertainty of when, or if, they’ll get it, creates a debilitating limbo for the Cordovans. “You’ve got people hanging on by their fingernails,” said Mullins. “Waiting for that settlement distorts their ability to make rational decisions about their future.”
In post-spill Cordova, pathology piles upon pathology. The longer the fight over the settlement drags on, Picou told me, the more Cordovans begin to hear whispers: “Why can’t these people get over it? They’re just a bunch of lazy fishermen waiting for a handout.” At times, Cordovans begin to believe such accusations. Some begin to wonder, in the classic syndrome of the rape victim, if they are somehow responsible for the whole ugly mess. “There are these niggling concerns,” Mullins said. “ ‘Could I have done more to prevent this? Did I do something to deserve this?’ ”
In a sense, Cordovans are at odds with themselves. They seem both angry at the world for not caring more about what’s happened to them and yet impatient with their own inability to move on.
“I think the general feeling is that we’re tired of it all and we’d like to let it go,” said Weaverling. “But to simply try and forget doesn’t work. I mean, you can’t forget the multiplication tables. You can’t forget trauma. Trying to will make you crazier.”
Over the years, it’s been suggested that the town hold some sort of ceremony — a “Bury the Blues” festival, for example, culminating with the dropping of a casket marked “exxon valdez” into the waters of Prince William Sound — to help bring closure.
“What we really need,” Weaverling said sarcastically, “is for someone to introduce Prozac into our water supply, or maybe a SWAT team of professional masseuses to keep our shoulders low, or some extra out-of-town bartenders to talk to.”
I stayed at Ross Mullins’s place well past eleven o’clock the night I left Cordova on the midnight ferry to Valdez. Most of the time we sat in the kitchen, as cramped and cozy as a ship’s galley, Mullins having to turn his chair out sideways from the table to make way for his good-sized belly. He said he’d had a particularly hard season and was now on the verge of filing for bankruptcy, just holding on, reciting the fisherman’s prayer: “If I can just make it through until next year.”
The ’98 salmon runs had been good, but they’d been good elsewhere as well, and the glut in supply kept prices at about 15 cents a pound. As a result, the packing plants had enforced strict limits on what they would buy. Mullins caught 330,000 pounds, but, he said, he could have easily caught a million pounds if he’d had somewhere to sell them. His and Sheelagh’s gillnet and seining permits are valued at about one-fifth of what the couple paid for them. His only other assets are his boat and his house.
Sheelagh has her veterinary work and her walking-tour business to try to help make ends meet. Ross told me that Sheelagh incorporates the jar of oily rocks sitting before us on the table into her tours. It struck me as a true act of courage, using a sample of the very stuff that destroyed the town she and Ross had fallen in love with years ago in order to carry on living there now.
On the wall just behind me hung portraits Mullins had taken of his four children. All were once his deckhands, but none appears destined for the fishing life. Richard, 35, is getting his MBA at the University of Washington; Ben, 28, is a Stanford grad with a degree in political science who works as a recruiter for a high-tech firm in Seattle; Angus, 26, a graduate of the University of Oregon with a psychology and biology degree, works for a computer company; and Meghan, 21, recently moved to New York City to study at the Natural Gourmet Cookery School.
“Ben and Angus were in town this summer helping me on the boat,” Mullins said, proud both of the fact that his sons don’t need to do that anymore and that they still do.
Mullins continues to fight the oil industry for better safeguards. Recently, he formed the Prince William Sound Fisherman Plaintiffs Committee to keep people better informed of what’s going on with the settlement appeals and other developments, and he is working to create a spill-response plan to protect the nearby Copper River Delta, for which no contingency plan currently exists. (Just three years ago a tanker lost its steering in the Valdez Narrows and was 200 yards from shore when a coast-guard crew managed to get it going again.) “But I often find that I can’t get as involved as I once did,” Mullins said. “I can’t deal with these assholes anymore.”
I poured us each another sip of bourbon and asked Mullins if he ever thought back to that cursed boat he’d bought when he’d moved to Cordova. He seemed not to hear me. He just stared into that jar as though trying to divine something.
“You ask yourself,” he said suddenly, “why do you even bother? You bother because you think maybe it will make a difference, that maybe we’ll prevent something from happening somewhere else. But it won’t. It’s not like what happened here is going to make a difference in other places where they tanker oil. It may have made some difference in this small microcosm. But the corporate culture is going to make the same decisions they made here before the spill in order to get the best bang for the buck. To get a better spill-prevention and cleanup system in Prince William Sound, we had to pay the price.”
A short time later, I walked down the hill to the town dock and boarded the ferry back to Valdez. Passing out of Orca Inlet on a clear mid-September night with winter’s chill already in the air, I thought back on what Mullins had just said.
Ten years after one of the worst ecological disasters in history, the dark lesson, it seemed clear, is that the victims of such disasters have to learn to live with the consequences forever, while the perpetrators can afford to learn nothing at all.
Editor’s note: Contacted for this story, Exxon made the following statements. “The oil spill was a tragic accident which we deeply regret.” • The company has apologized to Alaskans and all Americans and has spent $2.2 billion on the cleanup, which the coast guard and the state of Alaska declared complete in 1992. • “A broad consensus is developing among scientists . . .” that “the species damaged by the spill and the environment as a whole are healthy and robust.” • Exxon has paid $900 million in penalties and damages to the state and federal governments and has voluntarily paid out $300 million in compensatory damages “to individuals, communities, and native corporations . . . in the area of the spill.” • The company is “appealing the $5 billion punitive damage verdict because it is unjust and excessive.”