by Charles Wohlforth
What does Louisiana have in common with Alaska? At first glance, the similarities between the Pelican State and the Last Frontier might not be readily apparent. After all, no one would mistake New Orleans for Nome.
However, both states face the everyday challenge of finding the right balance between their extractive, energy-based economies and the preservation of their local environments. As the Mississippi River Delta deals with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, many Alaskans have revisited their memories of the Exxon Valdez spill two decades ago. Some of the state’s residents have even traveled down to the Gulf Coast to offer advice to Louisianans.
In this post, Charles Wohlforth, a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, discusses some of his views on the current disaster, and how lessons learned in Prince William Sound could influence policy decisions in the Gulf.
The response: Suited against the elements, cleanup workers hose down the rocky shores of Prince William Sound shortly after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 (Source: NOAA)
The public anger and disgust fired by BP’s oil lapping up on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico can drive public policy decisions, as did similar emotions felt twenty-one years ago when Exxon’s oil was landing on the beaches of Prince William Sound. In Alaska, the anger drove the clean-up of the oil to ever more destructive methods. I hope that this time, we can aim for bigger and more positive results.
As I describe in my book, The Fate of Nature, it was clear on the scene of the Exxon spill that the cleanup, as rolled out, wouldn’t work. The most knowledgeable scientists said intensive techniques such as high-pressure hot water were not a good idea. But public outrage was strong, and government officials and Exxon were prepared to do anything to get rid of the stain.
The hot water washing killed everything in its path, moved oil below the surface of the ocean, and re-sorted the beach sediments so they became less suitable for burrowing organisms like clams. Two decades later, clam numbers are still depressed on some treated beaches. An expert on beach morphology told me some of the shorelines closest to the spill might not return to their pre-disaster state for 1,000 years.
The result: Photographer Dave Janka shows the lingering evidence of crude oil on the shoreline of Prince William Sound in this image taken on July 1, 2008, days after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling lowered Exxon's punitive damages for the Valdez spill (Source: The Huffington Post)
The strongest public feelings, naturally, related to the birds and marine mammals that were oiled in Prince William Sound, especially the sea otters. The scenes of massive death are seared into my memory. But I wouldn’t repeat the program of trying to clean the animals. They suffered terribly in treatment, and the only follow-up study that was done showed that most of the otters died anyway after they were released.
When we make a mess, we naturally want to clean it up. Many people feel a share of responsibility for the Gulf blowout because they use petroleum products. But we need the sophistication to realize that cleanup is largely impossible. We must prevent oil from landing, and remove it where that can be done with little harm, but it’s immoral to push onward at the detriment of other living things and the ecosystem to assuage our guilt.
Those emotions should be channeled instead toward more fundamental changes in our relationship with the environment, beginning with alternative energy, but also including a reexamination of our materialistic lifestyles. It’s up to opinion leaders to redirect the anger generated by this spill towards purposeful self-examination, so that we can harness the positive actions that are within the power of each of us.
Charles Wohlforth is a prize-winning author and former Anchorage Daily News lead reporter for their coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He has written for The New Republic, Outside, and Discover magazines. His latest book is The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth.