For thousands of Alaskans, the spill was a collective experience, and as such has become one of the defining moments of modern Alaska, second only to the 1964 earthquake. And like any historical event, there are two ways that the story of the spill lives on. First there’s the documented story: the newspaper files, the reams of data from public testimony and court documents, the photographs and audio recordings, and the published research done since the spill. And then there’s the memory of the people who were there, an experience mapped in neurons, recalled as images and emotion.
First, the facts. On the evening of March 23, 1989, theExxon Valdez untied from the Alyeska oil terminal in Valdez, fully loaded with 1.2 million barrels of North Slope crude. A little after midnight, Third Mate Jeffery Cousins, left alone on the bridge by Captain Joseph Hazelwood soon after departing Valdez, and apparently trying to avoid icebergs, steered across the inside corner of a dogleg traffic channel and impaled the ship on Bligh Reef. The momentum of the ship over the reef ripped a gash eighteen feet wide and 60 feet long though the 3/4-inch steel hull. Driven by the head pressure of tanks whose tops were 60 feet above the waterline, oil came up from the bottom of the ship at the rate of 20,000 barrels an hour. The response from officials, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Coast Guard, Exxon Corporation and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, was confusion on a very large scale.
Although Alyeska’s oil spill contingency plan mandated that a vessel loaded with skimmers and booms be at the scene of a spill within five and a half hours, the containment barge was dry-docked with a broken weld, and the skimmers and heavy duty boom that went with it were buried under tons of lightweight harbor boom in a warehouse. In the predawn darkness, workers used a crane and a forklift to sort the boom and get it onto the barge. After hours of this, and just as the equipment was finally loaded, word came that the barge was needed instead to move fenders and other lightering equipment to the grounded tanker. Another ship, theExxon Baton Rouge,was being maneuvered to pump off the oil still onboard theExxon Valdez. An hour went by while workers searched for the fenders under the snow. The boom that had just been loaded on the barge was unloaded and the lightering equipment was craned aboard. It became apparent that the response plan was a fiction.
At 2:30 p.m., fourteen hours after the tanker went aground, the barge with the boom and skimmers finally arrived on scene at theExxon Valdez. By 5:30 p.m., the oil had pretty much stopped pouring from the ruptured hull. Estimates put the amount of oil in the water at 240,000 barrels (11 million gallons), the largest oil spill in U.S history.
For three days, in calm weather, the oil slowly spread from the tanker while confusion reigned in Valdez. Alyeska skimmed up several thousand barrels but found it had nowhere to put it. Fishermen from Cordova scooped oil into buckets and ran into the same problem. Officials and biologists and oil industry experts began what would become a protracted argument over the use of dispersants, essentially dishwashing detergent sprayed from C-130 airplanes. Alyeska’s contingency plan had claimed 100,000 barrels would be recovered within 48 hours of a large spill, but by Sunday, March 26, less than 3,000 barrels had been skimmed off. The only good news was that theExxon Baton Rougehad maneuvered alongside theExxon Valdezand begun pumping off the remaining one million barrels.
For three days the oil lay in a great black mass attended by a few skimmers, some boom and the fishermen from Cordova, armed with their five-gallon buckets. And then the wind began to blow. By the morning of the 27th, 70-mile-an-hour gusts and 20-foot waves had swept the boom away and sent the skimmers scuttling back into Valdez Arm. The fishermen sought shelter in the Cordova small boat harbor. By Tuesday the wind had spread the oil west across 500-square miles of water and onto the beaches of Smith and Naked islands. Pictures of dead otters and bald eagles were on television screens around the planet. Within a week the wind and the prevailing westerly setting ocean current had carried the oil through the islands of the western Sound and out to the open ocean between the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island. By June, oil was washing up in Chignik, 700 miles from the spill.
Those are the facts, easily found in the documentation of the spill, and in the long recitation of history, those facts will last a long time. What will probably be harder to find as time goes on will be what always fades from large historical events –the look and smell and taste of what happened –the emotional landscape that survivors carry with them the rest of their lives. Except for a few oral histories, a few first person accounts, that sense of what the spill felt like – maybe the most important part of any experience – is going away.
So, for the record, here’s a few entirely subjective things I remember as a Kodiak fishermen who didn’t fish that year and instead spent the summer going to meetings and talking to lawyers and wiping rocks in Uganik Bay.
News of the spill came at eight o’clock on a snowy Friday morning, the barest facts on Alaska Public Radio. A tanker had hit a reef outside Valdez. The radio sat on the windowsill of my back porch, next to a cup of coffee. The herring gillnet I was building hung from a hook in the corner, green plastic mesh bundled with the corkline, a plastic needle full of white twine in my hand. The Kodiak herring season would begin in three weeks. According to officials, as of 6 a.m., there were 100,000 barrels of oil in the water. What did that mean? A soft tremor of distant catastrophe reverberated in the room with me. Wet snowflakes slid down the window, obscuring the view of Womens Bay. I went into the kitchen and asked my wife if she’d heard.
Three months later we were on contract with Veco, the company that ran the cleanup operation on Kodiak Island. My wife and daughter and I and three crewmembers were at our setnet fishing cabin in Uganik Bay, but we were not gillnetting salmon. We were wiping rocks and bagging dead birds on a beach across the bay. And in doing that we got a good long look at crude oil, at the thing itself. It was the darkest most beautiful shade of glistening black we had ever seen. The surface of any glove-full was usually so smooth, like liquid glass, that you could see your own curving reflection in it. But beneath the reflection the oil had a spooky blackness, a density of opaqueness and heavy viscosity that was like something from another planet. Even after being washed through 300 miles of ocean, it remained depthless and black and pure, the distilled blood of dinosaurs. I still have a glob in a canning jar that I take out and show people sometimes. It’s dried out and no longer liquid, but it still looks weird, and it still sticks to your finger if you touch it.
In early August, the tenderthat was supposed to be picking up dead birds hadn’t come around in a few days. A friend of mine and his two crewmen were burning oil soaked cormorants on the beach in front of their cabin on the other side of the bay from us. It required nothing but a little newspaper and a match to get them going. While they were staring into the little pyre of burning wings and webbed feet, a helicopter with a Veco “beach-assessment”team landed and a fat Texan with a cowboy hat walked over. He asked how things were going: Did they need any more absorbent towels, any boom? How was their fuel situation? My friend told him they had enough equipment; the problem was the whole thing itself –the oil, the dead birds, the not fishing.
“We’re really not having much fun you know,” my friend said. The Texan, who’d been hearing that kind of thing ever since he’d gotten off the plane from Houston two weeks before, squinted at him. “Y’all have joined the real world now, boy.” We still say that line sometimes and laugh, acutely remembering the smell of burning oily birds, a mixture of coal smoke and rotten meat.
Helicopter at Uganik Bay, 1989 (Toby Sullivan)
Early in the summer we were thrilled with the helicopters. They were everywhere, and they were beautiful. Once when I flew into town in a chartered Cessna to get supplies, a guy in the Veco office told me they’d be happy to fly me back out in a helicopter if one was going that way. The next morning, I waited with a crowd of fishermen, Coast Guard officers, lawyers in suits, and various federal and state officials. It was like a taxi stand. Twenty Bell Jet Ranger helicopters sat at the end of the runway, shiny as new toys. Our pilot explained the procedure if we lost power (who’s he kidding? I thought) and then we strapped in and took off. The ride was like sex, the pilot streaming us tight between mountains, his face exquisitely expressionless behind his wraparounds, the cliffs and vegetation at 150 knots like skin sliding against the window. We landed on the beach in front of my cabin. I stepped out in front of my wife and crewmembers like a god. The high lasted all day.
Every day helicopters landed on the beach where we worked to deliver edicts from the contractor, take the logs and crewmember time sheets back to town and to monitor the progress of the cleanup. One of the pilots told us the Veco guys were using the helicopters to count skiffs on the cleanup beach to make sure we were all working. One day my wife took our daughter back across the bay to our cabin to feed her some lunch. A helicopter hopped over the hill behind the cabin and hovered in the front yard like a giant insect, the pilot and an observer staring in the kitchen windows while my daughter stared back over a spoon full of macaroni and cheese. A few days later another helicopter swooped around the cabin trying to take pictures of my crewmembers while they ran behind the corners of the building, gulping sandwiches and beer. One morning a helicopter landed at a setnet fish camp across the bay and blew a tent with a couple of kids down the beach into the water.
By July, the crewmembers were getting edgy and bored, tired of wiping rocks all day in the rain, tired of watching for helicopters whenever they snuck back to the cabin for lunch. My wife was growing unhappy about keeping our daughter on the beach all day. The mail wasn’t getting through on the Veco boats and driving 80 miles in an open skiff back to town for food was getting old. The helicopters flew down our beach at eye level four or five times a day, the sound of the turbines arriving like tearing metal, the grass flattening as they went by 40 feet from the cabin windows. One night I dreamed about all the Jet Rangers parked rotor to rotor at the end of the runway in Kodiak. I was standing with two five gallons buckets of gasoline and a Bic lighter. There was no fence to stop me. The beautiful machines had become carriers of the plague.
There are days when the spill seemslike a very long time ago, and other times, as if it were last weekend, or even, in some strange way, like it is still happening somewhere, still in the process of arriving from just over the horizon north and east of the Barren Islands or lying outstretched in the forests of our minds where certain dappled moments of the past live brightly forever. Like all great events, the oil spill created its own weather of effect, perception, memory. Even now at this twenty five year remove, I sometimes feel a certain sensuous echo of that lost season.
In writing about the spill a few years ago, when I asked people if there was a thing they considered part of the central experience of the spill for them, they would grow quiet, pause, audibly inhale. In that pause the meaning of whatever story they were about to tell me would always come somehow before they said it, like the sound of a helicopter’s rotor wash rattling a hilltop stand of birch trees before the machine itself rises into sight from the other side. I was struck with the familiarity of that time as they described it. Even when the narrative details of their memory of that summer were different from mine, we orbited the same emotional nexus.
If it is true that the images of the most intensely lived parts of our lives can reverberate and sometimes outlive us in the memory of those who knew us and heard us tell about those things, it is also true that our deepest moments of sharing and understanding come when we share those images. In those moments, when someone tells us something important about themselves, the space between our different stories and lives collapses and we share the same emotional space. When I asked people about 1989, they would pause and then tell me their story, and the underlying reality was always recognizable and familiar.
In August of that summer, our Veco coordinator downgraded Uganik Bay from “moderately oiled” to “lightly oiled.” The cleanup was over. On the last contract day we skiffed back across the bay to the cabin in an evening drizzle. Streaks of sheen lay in great swathes across the water. Oily sticks and kelp and the occasional dead gull lay in the sheen. The bay was quiet, the helicopters were gone. We picked up the birds and put them in a plastic bag. Veco left us lots of those bags after they pulled out. We used them for years afterward to keep our things dry whenever we had to do the long run into town.