Thursday, February 02, 2006

Big Oil and Death on Resurrection Bay

Update: 2 February, 2006

At this time when Exxon and Shell are reporting windfall profits, and when the American Chief Executive, an alcoholic who has not been through rehab, and a man whom oil has made (in every sense) is pushing the envelope of hypocrisy by telling the USA that it is 'addicted' to oil, it is salutary to remember not only that we are fast approaching the peak beyond which oil will be in increasingly short supply (calculated to occur between 2006-2010), but also to recall something of the human and environmental cost of oil in terms that have a reality beyond statistics.

I was still in the UK when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and before I left for Alaska I arranged to do a spec article for the Guardian in London. I traveled all over Alaska; the impact was not only statewide, it was worldwide. I believe that the world's horror at the cavalier attitude of Exxon over the spill gave Saddam Hussein the idea to dump oil in the Persian Gulf to create shock waves of his own.

But the main impact of the spill was and remains local. Sixteen years later, Exxon still has not paid its fine. Prince William Sound has not recovered; oil is still oozing on beaches where it was washed ashore and lies several feet under the sand. Wildlife, most particularly salmon runs, have not recovered, and the heroic efforts of the fishermen and women of Cordova to protect their stocks seem to have had limited success.

The spill has left a permanent scar on the psyche of Alaska, as well as on its landscape. Fishing families were torn apart due to the stress and whole villages had to be abandoned. But perhaps it was Exxon's arrogance and the government's foot-dragging at every level that left the most bitter taste in the mouths of all of those who cared about the fouling of some of the most pristine coasts left on earth.

In the end, the Guardian did not publish this article, although my editor fought hard for it. Years later I heard it was regarded as too sensitive to national interest (British Petroleum was the major shareholder in Alyeska at the time). Whether this is true or not I do not know. Eventually the Catholic magazine The Tablet published a bit of it. When the lawsuit against Exxon went to trial, it was considered some of the most embarrassing testimony waiting to be presented—but it was horse traded away at the end.

Readers may wish to know what happened to Patrick and Peter John. Both have gone to their ancestors. Patrick the Inuit song-maker died singing, preceding Peter John, the Athabascan Traditional Chief, who lived to be well over 100 years of age and died in 2004. They did their best to tell us how to live; whether we can take to heart what they and other Elders have told us remains to be seen.

In Alaska we deal with the effects of global warming every day. No part of Alaska is untouched. Juneau's soft mists have turned to torrential rains alternating with weeks of unprecedented heat and drought. The vast majority of glaciers are retreating so fast that it is possible to see the effect from summer to summer. Every year we are setting new weather parameters. In the last two years, Alaska has also set new records for wildfires: 5 million acres burned in 2004, and that figure had already been reached again by August of 2006. The fires were not put out by winter; they smoldered under the snow and broke out again in spring before the fire crews were even trained.

The arrival of each season is unpredictable. Fish runs are disrupted. In Juneau, plants that used to bloom at the end of July or in early August now bloom at the end of June. In Denali, the peak of fall color is delayed by at least 10 days.

Farther north, the permafrost is melting, and warm winters make it even more dangerous than usual for subsistence hunters to find food for their families. The river ice is no longer certain; the sea ice is not trustworthy. (In some areas of Siberia the permafrost has melted and is releasing methane in such quantities that the tundra no longer freezes even temporarily in the winter.)

In the summer of 2005 it was estimated that 235 Alaskan villages would have to be moved due to global warming. The effects of global warming in the North are twice as destructive as they are in the contiguous United States or in Great Britain.

Death on Resurrection Bay


The large plywood bin waited on the quay at Resurrection Bay. On its side were stenciled the words, "DEAD ANIMALS ONLY'.

I was standing beside Kenai Fjords National Park headquarters in Seward, Alaska, in a visionary landscape of mountains draped with glaciers and scarves of mist. The fragility of such grandeur was never more apparent.

The aftermath of the Exxon Valdez accident has vanished form the British press, and this is a pity. In Alaska it is still front-page news, for the long-term effects are just beginning to become apparent. There is need for continuing awareness, not simply because British corporations have enormous investments, and therefore enormous responsibilities for the fate of Alaska. According to an international conference on cold-water oil spills held in Fairbanks last July, the toxins dumped in Prince William Sound will eventually affect every ocean in the world.

No part of Alaska is untouched by the spill. Thanks to the generosity of friends, I was able to travel over most of that vast territory, seven times the size of Great Britain, 2.2 times the size of Texas. But Texans and other Americans seem to regard Alaska as a sort of freak appendage to the United States, a cookie jar of resources to be devoured and forgotten.

During the recent crisis, the media have pointed to Alaska's boom or bust history, and its dependence on oil money. What has not been said is that neither the Russians nor the Americans have ever encouraged or helped the diverse peoples of Alaska to build an internal, stable economy in this harsh climate where mere survival, much less economic development, requires commitment, wisdom and fortitude far beyond the norm.

"Haa shuka," the Tlingit people say, "our Ancestors." The wisdom of the past can give us insight for an unknown future. But in this century, several generations have been deprived of their culture and language. Wisdom has been lost, and the spill seems to have driven a wedge of despair into efforts to preserve what little is left. The grim flip side of haa shuka is that the exploitation of the past shadows the future of the entire region.

Today, Native Elders in their 80s and 90s are the last people to have direct contact with the old ways and the wisdom of the land, a wisdom that people everywhere who are addicted to a consumer way of life badly need. One evening at Old Minto, in Alaska's interior, I watched the Athabascan traditional Chief, Peter John, attempt to talk into a tape recorder proffered by his own people.

At 92 he is still a huge man, straight as a spruce. He commands respect among Native and White alike. I saw birds fly about his head, looking for a place to land. But the old ways to not lend themselves to technology.

"There are two ways," he began, pointing each word with silence, "the Indian way and the White way. You must choose. But if you choose the Indian way, you must be prepared to starve...." He broke off, tried haltingly to continue. He shook his head. The taping stopped abruptly.

* * *

A few days later in Point Hope, hundreds of miles to the northwest where the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi Sea converge, I listened to another Elder, an Inuit priest-shaman. This time there was no interfering technology, and in the joy of the moment—that weekend his son was being ordained to follow him—he spoke to us in the old way.

He sat rhythmically nodding his shaggy white head, his nearly blind eyes turned inward, waiting for the vision. He spoke in Inupiat first, then in halting English. He told us of sea ice that had disintegrated under him, and the way he survived in frigid water for nearly an hour—a miracle, a lesson.

He spoke to us as if we were his grandchildren, with respect, because he was communicating matters of life and death. The critical nature of this landscape allows little distinction between a lie and a mistake. If you observe wrongly, if your account is inaccurate, someone may die. Time and space are one in such narrative, and, as we listened, we were carried into its spaciousness, freed from our Occidental notion of time ripped artificially from its context to be devoured like any other commodity.

The ancient song-maker repeated nearly every line in a half-chant. The long pauses between phrases gave us time to listen and remember, communicated to us the deliberation and review vital to survival in a marginal environment. This intent listening, the revisioning of knowledge thousands of years old—the method, he seemed to be telling us, is as important to survival as the story's content.

* * *

The bush plane bounces on the gravel runway at Arctic Village, about seventy-five miles north of the Arctic Circle on the edge of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In spite of the congressional moratorium on oil exploration, the airstrip has been lengthened to handle giant Hercules transports, and Gwich'in people who are not working on spill clean-up or in the canneries are building a lodge.

They build it, knowing that oil exploration will further destroy their heritage and food resources: the fish in the river, the Porcupine caribou herd. There is an air of fatalism: with a president who made his money in Texas oil, what hope do we have?

Gregory Gilbert, the chief's son, takes us two hours north up the east fork of the Chandalar river in his flat-bottomed boat, about 25 miles as the raven flies; double that distance through the ox-bows. He leaves us at Nichenthraw Mountain, the massive, tumbled remains of an exploded volcano that guards the Chandalar's confluence with the Jinjuk.

It is deceptively damp as we clamber out, hoist our packs, and squelch through muskeg and a haze of mosquitoes. The tundra is a fragile desert, something the mining and oil developers wish to ignore. Years ago they promised to leave this area in peace if they could drill the North Slope. Now they are back, biding their time.

We leave them to the mosquitoes as we begin the ascent through willow and spruce on the steep flank of the sprawling peak. Nothing can spoil the magnificence that slowly impresses itself on us. We walk with care and awe, almost apologizing for the damage our clumsy boots inevitably incur. This willow twig I just snapped may have taken fifty years to reach shoulder height; that scraggly spruce may be centuries old. One of us blows a whistle every fifty steps or so to alert bears and moose of our presence, or cries out, as our Native friends have taught us, "It's all right, Grandfather, we're only visiting."

Exhausted, we reach the high shoulder of the mountain at dusk, make camp, and crawl gratefully into our tents, too tired to enjoy the 300 degree view. When my head stops whirling, I realize I have entered a primordial silence, a silence so profound that for a moment I wonder if I have lost my hearing. Here there is no background hum from traffic, electric wires, or microwaves; only the rattle of the rain fly shaken by a vagrant breeze; the quiet "tuk" of ptarmigan that wakes us when full daylight has replaced the eerie, silvery glow of the midnight sun; the whoosh of a gyrfalcon stooping from the heights.

I emerge to gaze over miles of tundra dotted with shallow lakes, home to millions of migratory birds. Far on the southern horizon, tin roofs wink, reminding me that the roar from a Hercules travels a very long way.

* * *

I had just arrived on Kodiak Island in mid-July when Exxon began cutting back its clean-up efforts after "treating" eleven miles of beach. More than a thousand miles of shoreline had been damaged by drifting oil in its various forms.

What people fear most in every place affected by the oil is that the toxins will invade the food chain, poisoning their way upward to kill salmon, deer, eagle, bear. But no one knows what will happen. Salmon fought their way back through the oil to spawn and die this season, but the fate of their eggs is unknown. Oil is so toxic that a third of the clam population in Valdez died from water that was "purified" after cleaning tanker holds and dumped back into the Sound. Yet even today, each tide slips more oil into coves and spawning streams, or draws it to the surface of deeply contaminated beaches.

While I am on Kodiak, the dead bird count reaches 25,000 (as of October it has passed 30,000 and is still rising). Dead whales wash up in unusual numbers, but it is difficult to autopsy such enormous animals, and no one will ever know how many other sea-mammals sank without a trace, or how many land creatures, sick from ingested oil, have hidden themselves in the heavy undergrowth to die.

But the human problems are all too obvious. Filipino immigrants, attracted by work in the canneries, fall through the welfare net. The canneries here laid workers off, while in Southeast they were frantic for labor. Compensation for workers is based on sums earned in previous years, not on the hopes of people who have uprooted their lives to gut fish that will never be caught.

In August, Kodiak mental health facilities report a 700% increase in cases, and elsewhere in Alaska, clinics are looking Outside for additional staff, bracing for winter when outdoors activity is at a minimum, and the lid comes off. What future have battered wives and children in this traditionally macho state?

"EXXON LIES" is the favorite bumper-sticker on Kodiak. Having exercised droit du seigneur on this pristine environment, it continues to act like a feudal lord, trying to keep at bay people wedded to the land and the sea, acting as its own judge and jury. In order to receive compensation, Kodiak set-net fishermen are required by Exxon (demands not made at Cordova just across the Gulf of Alaska) to be on their fishing sites, ready to fish, in a season that will never open.

With one stroke, Exxon compounds the difficulties of people already in shock by removing the possibility of useful work, work that might help grieving and restore self-respect, relieve anxiety and uncertainty. Everywhere people talk of Exxon's attempts to buy them off, meanwhile dividing the community, refusing to take local advice, driving people to the edge. I talk to workers who are given conflicting orders about their assignments every half-hour, and apply for a job with the subcontractor, Veco, to experience the chaos and incompetence firsthand.

* * *

The ferry grinds its way across the Gulf of Alaska from Kodiak toward Prince William Sound through a five-foot swell, roughened by three-foot chop. Fine mist is falling, and the wind is cold, but I am glued to the rail. Every little while, amid the heave and lurch of the sea, I spot significant patches of smooth water. More oil headed for Kodiak. Something catches my eye and I look down. In the waves breaking from the ferry's side, far from their coastal habitat, two oiled Old Squaw ducks struggle away from the churning screws, spared for death by cold and starvation.

* * *

"The studies we've done suggest that the bird body count represents less than 4% of what has actually died--and 4% is a high estimate. The entire murre population of the Barren Islands has died, and we're finding more birds all the time."

I am sitting in biologist Bud Rice's office at Kenai Fjords. The facts tumble out angrily. He makes no apology for his emotion, nor does anyone else on this exhausted staff.

"My personal life is a disaster," he anticipates my question. "I was married just before it happened, and we're trying to adjust to a new home. On stress tests I'm off the scale. But a lot of people are just as stressed as I am. Considering that Exxon has been pushing people with disinformation and all, I'm amazed someone hasn't been shot.

"But it isn't just Exxon. Look at the Haul Road," he continued, referring to the restricted road built to service the pipeline. "Reports have just been published indicating that the road's impact on wildlife is far beyond any biologist's worst nightmares. Yet while the spotlight's on the Sound, they're letting Princess Tours and Westours run buses up there. They promised they'd never allow that."

I fill him in on what a Bureau of Land Management official in Fairbanks had told me. An army of volunteers spent the summer scouting every stream in the vicinity of the Haul Road with an eye to opening the area to "cheap recreation". BLM also announced plans for a $2m access for Beaver Creek, currently classified by federal officials as a "wild and scenic" river.

Ann Castellina is Superintendent of Kenai Fjords. She has been outspoken about devastation in the park. She has received threats. Her children have shown the worrying signs children all over Alaska have been exhibiting since the spill. Her dedication and courage have compromised her own health, beginning with the fumes she inhaled as she over flew the listing tanker on Bligh Reef. She forecasts illness among the clean-up workers.

Horror darkens her voice as she talks of sterile environments, of their silent spring. She speaks of nightmares and dreams. "Everything reminds you of it." She mentions Chernobyl, and, like Chernobyl, "There is no closure on this. It's not like a forest fire that helps new growth the following spring. We haven't begun to see the worst of what a cold-water spill can do. Ironically, the tar balls will hit Prudhoe seven months form now. We'll see how they handle it."

Alcohol, environmental and cultural destruction: the addictive process of denial and the illusory sense of control necessary to support that denial are at work everywhere on our globe, and our drug of choice is corporate, consumer and political greed. The analogy with Chernobyl does not stop here. It is now almost self-evident that we do not know safely how to handle and dispose of oil and its by-products any more than we know safely how to handle and dispose of nuclear energy and its by-products. The wreck of the Exxon Valdez is simply one visible example of the erosion of life in all its forms that continues invisibly in our ordinary lives, day by day.

* * *

In the early light of a misty morning, the ferry churned deeper into Prince William Sound. We were in the Knight Island area that was first, and perhaps hardest hit by heavy North Slope crude. For five hours I stayed by the rail. I had tried to prepare myself for the emptiness of these once-rich waters, which two years ago had given me new life in the time after my father's death.

There was nothing: not one salmon jumped, not one bird cried, not one whale sounded. It was utterly still, not the generative silence of the Brooks Range, but the ghastly silence that surrounds a poisoned well.

"It could have been four times worse if Hazelwood had been able to get that ship off the reef," commented Third Mate Tom Hopkins, who has lived in Alaska most of his thirty-odd years. "Its keel was broken, and there were racking stresses on the hull."

Hopkins alternates working for the Alaska Marine Highway with commercial fishing. Marine Highway jobs commonly have long waiting lists, but "there's always a shortage of licensed officers." Hopkins is not sure, after the spill, if he wants to continue to work as Third Mate with responsibility for navigation and safety. The liabilities are now too great.

He apportions blame equally among Exxon, the Coast Guard, Alyeska, and complacent State government. "The Sound is a sneaky place. It looks open, but it isn't. In spite of what the admiral said about a child being able to bring a tanker in here, it's easy to make a mistake, and in the mist it's often confusing.... And alcohol abuse is common a sea, especially among the older generation. I've been on ships where the Duty Officer was unable..... It's better now, but it's amazing we haven't had an accident before."

As he talked, cautiously at first, pain and pent-up emotion began to pour out under strict control. "It's money, greed, power.... Alaska doesn't stand a chance. I'd willingly give back all my Permanent Fund money if we could turn back the clock. I've never considered myself an environmentalist. I even fooled myself into believing the Valdez oil terminal could work safely...."

He worked on the Aurora, a ferry that acted as control centre in the early days of the spill. He describes hideous sights never seen on the Nine O'clock News. The memories burn in his mind: black ooze inches thick, bins full of dying animals, bins full of dead animals, mounds of animals burning on the beaches. He repeats now-familiar stories of chaos, cupidity, blame and deceit. "When I got off the Aurora I holed up for a few days. Nothing seems to heal the pain. My anger gets worse. Maybe time, years... will help the grief."

He looked me full in the face as if to try to open my understanding for what was coming next. "The honour of Third Mates is at stake, and they want to make the guy on the bridge the scapegoat.... Let me try to explain this. Even thirty seconds is enough to get way off on radar, and this ship was going much too fast. Remember the transmission that said, "I'm slowing to 12 knots?" That's way too fast. Anyhow, it's never a straight line anywhere; your course is always affected by wind and currents." He stops to make sure I am with him.

"You know those five minutes that are unaccounted for, when the ship failed to make the turn.... People BS up on the bridge, and there were two guys up there that night. What people generally don't know is that there was another Third Mate involved, a woman. She was licensed. She had been bumped down to Lookout because of Exxon's insane cuts in manning levels on its ships...." for a moment his control broke " save what??!!"

"Anyway, she told the bridge that the buoy was in the wrong place. She did her job. She reported twice and then ran back to the bridge. I think maybe they didn't make he turn because of one of those men-women things. I think those guys were hassling her because they didn't want a woman to be right."

* * *

It was a bright, hot day when I flew south over the coastal mountains on the first leg of my journey home. Ordinarily I would have rejoiced in their glory, but there had been too many clear, warm days. Only that morning, Nancy Peel, who works daily on Mendenhall Glacier welcoming tourists, told me that no one could ever remember the snowline so high.

To see exposed glaciers pour in frozen motion down slopes is an awesome sight. To see them unnaturally exposed on mountain summits dotted with turquoise lakes was frightening. The long line of coruscated eyes glared up at the jet spewing hydrocarbons in its wake. It was as if the glaciers were drowning in their own tears. Those eyes follow me, now, whenever I pull another plastic bag out of the box, or drive alone in a car, or I'm tempted by a new electric gadget.

Those eyes insist I re-examine my priorities. They remind me that my country, which uses half the world's oil, uses much of it needlessly, trivially, and encourages other countries to do the same.

What will teach us to listen again, in this environment made critical not by nature but by our own folly? What will keep our despoliation of the world's last wilderness from becoming just one more media event in the soap-opera of earth's calamities, momentarily riveting to a television culture, instantly forgotten?

On my return home I was momentarily heartened by the Green Party conference, but my hope collapsed when the press reported a member's complaint: "Can't we stop using words like consumer, that make people sound like some maw that's eating up the world....?"

But that is exactly what we are doing. And if we do not stop, we shall soon find ourselves the skeleton at the feast.


Anonymous fishing game said...

I like your thought process you use in your blogging. Keep up the good work.


fishing game

1:27 pm, March 08, 2006  
Blogger Rev. Carol said...

What a powerful piece. It is no less raw and true today in this moment than when you wrote it. I think if we can save Alaska all will not be lost. The Great Land is blessed by your prayers.

1:14 am, April 17, 2007  
Anonymous dFish said...

The Red Bull especially, I thought i still carry its fire in me because i go over it again and again.
This line i'm still trying to munch:"It was as if the glaciers were drowning in their own tears."

4:28 am, August 11, 2009  

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