I moved to Alaska in the mid 1980’s and I loved it. Rents were dirt cheap as the oil pipeline was done and folks left town in droves. I was in the market for a cat, so I hit the local shelter and picked up a little Bombay named Mona. I also volunteered for their committee they were forming. Alaska Animal Welfare which, considering the size of the state and the state of the domestic animals in it, was quite a large undertaking. We had successes in Anchorage, getting the pet stores to meet certain standards, making sure the dog pound wasn’t maltreating animals etc. We even had success in getting the first animal cruelty law passed in 1988. The Alaskan State Veterinarian, Bert Gore was on our side and willing to go to court with us in cruelty cases. He and I, a paralegal at the time, teamed up to win the first cruelty case to “proof” the law. We were zeroing in on the Iditarod as our “gateway” to get the dog mushers to clean up their act and stop driving dogs to their deaths just to get a trophy. And, well, March 1, 1989, I’d just been elected President of our Board of Directors, though I had no vote unless it was a tie. But my contact info was on our brochures, the baby Internet and in the phone book and so it was my phone that rang at O’dark thirty 25 years ago…
“Um, hi, this is the Valdez Harbormasters office. We’ve got a tanker on the rocks and it’s spilling crude into the sound. Do you know what we need to do?” Me: WTF? Where is the oil companies spill response unit? What do you mean there is nothing in the warehouse?” Yeah, no one ever checked to see if they actually had ANYTHING they were supposed to be storing for just such an occasion. There they were, 180 miles away from Anchorage, the largest city, with 11 million barrels of oil spilling into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, and not a single prepared office, official or organization. Oh, and the herring run was to start that morning. So I did what I do best it seems, I got on the phone and started asking people for things.
Towels and blankets were the number one thing we needed and kept running out of over the course of the rescue efforts. Alaskan crude is the same stuff they want to push through the Keystone XL pipeline, though Canada’s is a bit thicker. Let’s just say, it doesn’t come out in the wash very well. I set everyone I knew to thinning out their linen closets for a run to Seward, AK later that day. I don’t even remember how many cars and vans we stuffed full over time. A lot.
Alaska Wild Bird Sanctuary and Rehab Center gave anyone who wanted a crash course in inserting a feeding tube into a bird. Harder than it sounds, twice as hard when the bird is covered in thick goo and is stressed totally out of its’ head.
The costs of the spill are still being felt 25 years on. If you kick over a rock on any of the beaches that were oiled and “cleaned”, you will find oil pooling. The oil is Still in the water column in Prince William Sound. Fishing has never recovered. That early spring herring run, gone completely. A transient pod of Orcas that lived in the Sound, gone forever. 10’s of thousands of sea and land birds permanently impaired or dead, though most of them died. And the otters…too many died, way too many. But there were a few miracles, too few, but they were amazing things.
The Housewife’s Miracle
Seward, AK is a small fishing village on the opposite side of the Sound from the spill, but it got hit too. They drained their pool and filled it with clean sea water for the animals and birds they were attempting to clean and rehab. Yes, we were cleaning birds in a high school kitchen and Home Ec classroom. It wasn’t going well because Alaskan crude is the filthiest crude on Earth. It’s thick, like pudding thick, and sticky, like glue and toxic beyond belief. Nothing we used that was “approved” was working. Finally, one day after another exhausting shift of bird cleaning, while we were sitting around brainstorming about something else to use that might be more effective, one of the women from town said, “My dishsoap is really good at cutting grease. Can we try that?” The consensus was “yes” as we knew if we didn’t do a better job of cleaning, the birds and otters would die anyway. What could it hurt? She went and got her gigantic (think Costco) bottle of Dawn and we tried it. It worked! In fact, it worked amazingly well. I was tasked with going back up to Anchorage, finding funds and buying out the city supply of Dawn. So I did, and I put in a call to the Dawn customer service line to see how we could get some shipped straight to the spill zones. She took the address of the high school etc. and said she’d get back to us. She didn’t call, but a semi-truck full of Dawn showed up about 2 days later…free. I’ve used it ever since.
Old Man of the Sea’s Miracle
Exxon seemed to have “stupid” as a motto then. Down in Homer, AK, where the spill “was never going to reach”, the State of Alaska set up their “Fisherman’s Claims Office” and Exxon spill management set up their office right across the hall. Not good planning! Fisherman whose lives had been destroyed had to #1 Drive at least 100 miles to get to this office, maybe more and #2 put up with listening to the Exxon BS coming from across the hall right before they took the forms they filled out in our office over to the Exxon office. I tended to go out for a smoke about every 30 minutes as it made me nuts.
I guess it was about 4pm one day, I went downstairs and out for a smoke. There was a very elderly gentleman sitting on the stoop doing the same thing, but he looked like he’d been crying. When I asked if he was alright, he said, “No one will believe me, no one. I’ve fished these waters, man and boy for over 70 years and I’ve never seen anything like it, but everyone thinks I’m crazy.” I had no idea what he was on about, but wth, I was there so I introduced myself to Capt. Jack Johnson and asked why folks thought him crazy. This is his story. He’d gone out the day of the spill, because no matter what Exxon said, he knew the currents and knew his crab pots etc. needed to get out of the water pronto! While he was out on the sea, he’d seen something he’d never seen before, a giant mat of otters floating together. Over 150 by his count, and the ones in the middle of the mat were oiled and the other otters were trying to clean them! This made me perk up as I was adopted as a member of the Otter subclan of the Kenaitse/Aleutiq tribe up there, so we were talking about one of my totems. As before, the oil up there is so loaded with toxins that animals cleaning another animal would die too! Capt. Jack then asked me if I would go out with him in the morning, and I did. The otter mat was even bigger! We counted 237 as well as seeing the same cleaning behaviors, we saw otters feeding the oiled otters and also trying to keep them propped up in the water with their bodies. The next day, I got a State Employee to come out with us. There were over 300 by then! All selflessly feeding, grooming and supporting the damaged ones in their group. That was a true miracle since otters, while they hang out in family groups, don’t clump up with strangers.
The State and Capt. Jack along with fishermen buddies of his worked up a plan to use dip nets to scoop the oiled otters up and get them to cleaning and rehab. That was done, though all but 2 of the otters rescued ANYWHERE in the Sound died within 6 months. And the people of Homer? They were right to think Exxon didn’t know shite. They went and cut down trees, chained them together, and deployed that as oil boom off the coastline leading into Resurrection Bay in Homer. Take a look at the map of the spill reach in this article, you’ll note that the mouth of Resurrection Bay is where it stops. Saved that environment all by themselves.
It was not a job I ever expected to be doing and, while I knew human health care along with domestic/farm animal care, I was just as lost as the rest of the Alaskans were in this terrible situation. The line, I think there was 5-9, of refrigerated semi-truck trailers filled to the top with dead wildlife in plastic bags.
Evidence. In a case that took 5 years to prosecute and for which Exxon has never paid a single dime. Think about that next time you tank up please.
The clean up lasted for months. Things were discovered, like wood booms, booms full of human hair, cleaning the beaches with high pressure was worse than leaving them alone, people get just as sick as the animals from exposure to this type of oil, fishermen became radical environmentalists as did many other Alaskans and, the biggest thing we learned was that things would NEVER be the same again.