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Settlement In Oil Spill Doesn’t Wipe Clean Bad Memories of 1989

March 23, 1991

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) _ Just as President Bush declared America’s swift Persian Gulf victory had vanquished the Vietnam syndrome, so Alaska’s Gov. Wally Hickel hails his recent $1 billion settlement with Exxon Corp. as the official end of angst over the nation’s worst oil spill.

″We as a people are ready to put this tragedy behind us,″ Hickel said on statewide television.

But many Alaskans, while praising their governor’s bold negotiations with Exxon, also believe the damage caused by the wreck of the Exxon Valdez two years ago has left lingering scars on the psyche of his beloved Great Land.

Hickel, one of the last of Alaska’s flamboyant pioneers who helped turn this empty territory into the 49th state, is trying to use the settlement, and the anniversary, to break up what he perceives as the malaise left behind by the thick black crude spilled March 24, 1989.

″Disasters are opportunities to learn something,″ the self-made millionaire said in an interview. ″You always get tragedies, but you put tragedies behind you. You go see grandpa in the graveyard, but you don’t camp out there.

″Yes, we’ve learned a lot, and yes, it could happen again,″ he said. ″As long as you have humankind on this planet, you’ll have disasters. But Adam wouldn’t have left the garden if he hadn’t had hope.″

When the huge tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, it soiled a thousand miles of shoreline with nearly 11 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude. Experts guess about 10 percent of the oil has been recovered in a $2.2 billion Exxon- funded effort involving thousands of rock-washers; the rest either evaporated, sank or stained rocks, its lingering toxicity still fiercely debated.

With no hope of ever cleaning up all the oil, Alaska officials say this summer’s cleanup effort will be limited to areas essential to wildlife habitat and human use.

Yet the fragile ecology of Prince William Sound is not the only casualty in need of mending: The delicate social fabric of hamlets dependent on subsistence hunting and fishing for their livelihoods was rent asunder in the catastrophe.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez, the mitigating millions of dollars Exxon spread on troubled waters in cleanup hires and business recompense have turned fisherman against fisherman, natives against bureaucrats, the ″did gets″ against the ″never gots.″

Thousands of lawsuits still are pending against Exxon, its shipping subsidiary, and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the umbrella consortium for the seven oil companies that pump oil from North Slope wells to the port of Valdez.

Those lawsuits represent the hard feelings of hard times since Capt. Joseph Hazelwood’s ship ran hard aground in an iceberg-pocked sapphire sea.

Many Alaskans take issue with Hickel’s straight-up, straight-ahead development attitude, and continue to glance back over their shoulders at the greatest man-made environmental disaster in the state’s history.

″The Exxon Valdez seared our souls in ways it will take a long time for us to realize,″ said Byron Mallot, president and chief executive of Sealaska, one of 13 native-owned regional corporations. ″We won’t ever be the same again. ... After Exxon Valdez, there can’t be business as usual for the oil industry, or any other industry.″

Skip Bilhartz, president of ARCO Alaska, the state’s largest private employer, applauded the peace pact negotiated between Exxon Chairman Lawrence Rawl, U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Hickel.

″Anytime you don’t get on with business, you don’t get on with life,″ Bilhartz said. ″(Hickel) stepped up to the plate, and I don’t say he hit a home run, but he’s playing the game.″

Asked what the oil companies learned from the Exxon Valdez experience, Bilhartz unhesitatingly said, ″Prevention, prevention, prevention. In the future, we need to show diligence and be prepared. My hope now is that Alaska does look, and hope, to the future.″

The merits of the out-of-court agreement, which includes an Exxon guilty plea to four criminal pollution charges and a $100 million fine, are being debated by politicians and the public, with the Alaska Legislature getting the final say. The money will go into a fund to enhance Prince William Sound.

Thornburgh said at the March 14 midnight announcement of the agreement that its size ″and the criminal pleas represent a clear and unmistakable signal that those involved in environmental crimes will not go unnoticed and unpenalized.″

But David Cline, regional vice president of the National Audubon Society in Alaska, said the compensation ″fell far short of what was due from Exxon. I think the settlement let them off the hook.″

Less than a week after the pact’s announcement, Alaska officials essentially declared defeat in the oil recovery effort by saying the 1991 mop- up in Prince William Sound will be confined only to places especially important to fish and wildlife habitat or human use.

″In terms of a really big oil spill, eventually you have to surrender,″ said Ernie Piper of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

In Wally Hickel’s world, the word ″surrender″ is as alien as the meaning of malaise. Forget surrender - forge on to conquest.

Hickel, who arrived in Alaska as a carpenter from Kansas in 1940 with a bologna roll under his arm and a hammer in his hand, became the state’s second governor in 1966. Stunningly re-elected as chief executive No. 8 on a third- party ticket last fall, he rode into the Statehouse by promising boom times to a busted electorate, then pulled off the Exxon settlement in his first 100 days.

Hickel argues the state now should get on with the business of business. And in Alaska, where 85 percent of revenues come from petroleum, that means the oil business.

Now 71, he’s forging ahead with ideas - but so far no funding - for multibillion dollar-development projects, such as a natural gas pipeline down the length of the state, freshwater pipelines to parched California and a railroad to Nome.

In one breath, Hickel is expounding on the potential of harvesting copper- filled asteroids as big as Rhode Island, and in the next, his eye for detail has fallen on the missing tiles of the State Office Building across the street. Fix it, he preaches. Fix it all. Make Alaska, which became a state in 1959, even greater than the way God left it.

″Nothing in Alaska seems impossible,″ he said. ″They (environmentalists) say ‘Keep Alaska like it is,’ but you can’t keep a 5-year-old child from growing up. You have to move, even if you make mistakes.″

Meanwhile, on the shores of Prince William Sound, the crud of old crude still stains rocks, ruins kelp and worries all who live off the bounty of land and sea. Aleut leader Elenore McMullen laments a lost way of life and fears for her people’s future.

There, the wreck of the Exxon Valdez is not just a memory, it is a pervading presence.

″There is no way you can put a dollar figure on the loss the people here have experienced in the last two years,″ said McMullen, the chief of the village of Port Graham, which still has a lawsuit pending against Exxon.

″The traditional subsistence is being lost,″ she said. ″If we can’t gain back a part of it, there’s going to be no one to teach it and share it.″

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