Confronting my Exxon Valdez horror 25 years later

As a researcher, I witnessed the devastating oil spill. My return to Prince William Sound was painful and cathartic

Published March 26, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jack Smith)
(AP/Jack Smith)

This article originally appeared on

The sculptures—figures of polar bears, red knot birds, Eskimo curlew, and the extinct great auk—are covered with tar, lime, and glue. They’re part of an art exhibition named  “Whitewashed” that I stumbled onto recently at the Bainbridge Island Museum near Seattle. The artist, Joseph Rossano, describes whitewashing as “to gloss over, cover up, conceal, or palliate flaws, failures, vices, crimes or scandals; to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or through biased presentation of data; each possibly including aims of political gain.”

Photo: NOAA

In my mind, I couldn’t help but make the connection between Rossano’s art and the Exxon Valdez disaster, which—25 years ago this week—coated the wildlife of Alaska’s Prince William Sound with more than 11 million gallons of crude oil. And I was reminded of another kind of whitewashing, the sort we do internally to protect ourselves from pain, to allow us to survive and move on.

For more than two decades I had whitewashed the horror of living through the Exxon Valdez oil spill, even as I devoted my life and career to studying its impact on the sound’s delicate ecosystem. Even though I was a scientist on the front lines of the spill, I couldn’t bring myself to read or write or talk about all the worst of what I had witnessed: windrows of oil-soaked bird and otter corpses on blackened beaches; armies of clean-up workers blasting hot water at rocks with fire-hoses; orcas rising to breathe through crude oil sheens; bears foraging on slick shorelines; fishermen weeping on camera.

What I could do is throw myself into my job: collecting data, writing reports, and giving presentations about mortalities and the probable physiological effects of oil on orcas. I discussed the facts but couldn’t face the raw data—my own memories—without breaking or numbing down.

During the months after the spill, the North Gulf Oceanic Society, the non-profit I work for, conducted “damage assessment” for the government. The purpose was to shore up the federal legal case against Exxon. But assessing the true consequences of an oil spill of that magnitude can’t be done in a single season, if at all. Body counts—the numbers of oil-soaked and -choked corpses of seabirds, seals, and orcas—tell an incomplete story. Most carcasses sink. Other animals survive the initial aftermath of a spill only to succumb during winter, when they are physiologically stressed. A quarter century after the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, we are still assessing the damage.

Photo: ARLIS Reference

My colleagues and I have been studying orcas in the Prince William Sound since 1983, six years before the disaster. But for most species, no background data exists in order to compare population sizes or properly estimate oil spill-related deaths. What I do know is that during the winter after the spill, we drew X’s across the photos of the missing animals featured in our orca identification catalogue. Entire matrilines eventually became X-ed out. Nearly half of the members of the Chugach transient orca population are now X’s, headed for extinction. One by one, white boxes representing “absence” replaced fin photos on the family trees. Never in the evolution of Orcinus orca did anything prepare the species for the possibility that the liquid medium that feeds and nurtures them would turn deadly. So the orcas swam through oil slicks. So they breathed aromatic hydrocarbons and the frothy mousse of oil whipped up by the wind. So they ate oiled seals. So they died.

Photo: NOAA

The unknown or unacknowledged are another kind of whitewash. Thousands of creatures suffered, succumbed, and vanished, never having been counted or accounted for. Not to mention the unquantifiable losses we experience as humans—the sudden lack of trust in traditional food sources, the fouling of sacred sites, and the intrusive, painful memories.

As a grad student in her twenties, filled with rage at what I witnessed daily, a sense of purpose carried me through that toxic summer 25 years ago—a drive to document the spill’s impact on orcas, a drive to do something meaningful, and a drive to act against Exxon’s attempts to whitewash the incident, already underway. That was my only stay against despair. It felt like madness: oil everywhere, media spectacles of the clean-up, boats and helicopters and planes harassing orcas. And yet all the while, life kept trying to do what it had always done. Nature’s force asserted itself with plankton blooms, salmon runs, and births of seal pups on oiled rocks. And I, too, pushed on mechanically in order to survive.

Twenty-one years later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The date was April 20, 2010, the day the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. For the next 87 days, as I endured surgery and round after round of chemotherapy, I watched the billowing plume of oil erupting from the seafloor and radiating across the Gulf. Memories of the Exxon Valdez disaster rose to the surface, breaking through the whitewash of time and amnesia and self-protection.

Photo: NOAA

It was all too familiar: the faces of stricken residents, the images of birds and dolphins struggling through the crude, the oil company rhetoric and denials, and the casting about for blame. The defenses I built up for over two decades broke down during that summer of oil and chemoThe toxic chemicals infused into my veins—one of them derived from mustard gas—and I all too easily connected them in my mind with oil. Those toxins broke me down. I lost my hair, layers of skin, my immune system. I asked myself, “What would you regret not doing if you only had a year to live?” The answer was clear. I need to tell the story of the Chugach transient orcas. So I finally confronted that summer of 1989. I reread all of the logs and journal entries and data sheets and field notes. And then I wrote. I wrote through the capping of the blowout in the Gulf. I wrote through nausea and reflux, through the BP whitewash and growing media silence. And then I wrote through the sugar-coating: the claims (and hopes) that 210 million gallons of spilled oil had just disappeared, been absorbed, dispersed, flushed—but to where?

If you looked at Prince William Sound today, you would a place as gorgeous as any on earth. But once oil permeates through an ecosystem, its impact is there for good. Prince William Sound is not the same place it was in February of 1989. But you cannot tell, say from the deck of a tour boat, that pigeon guillemots, orcas, Pacific herring, harlequin ducks, clams, black oystercatchers, and Barrow’s goldeneye ducks are still struggling to recover their numbers 25 years later. You need to take a shovel and dig down past the surface layers to find the toxic oil buried under rocks or gravel. On a hot day, that spot would smell like a tarred boat piling.

Photo: Jim Brickett

Thanks to dedicated fishermen, residents and activists, oil tanker safety has improved in Alaska, but the risk of another spill is ever-present—here and everywhere, such in the tanker spill in Galveston Bay just over the weekend. Because the fact is: the Exxon Valdez disaster no longer even makes the list of the world’s top 50 worst oil spills. After March 1989 came the Gulf War spill, the Prestige, the Deepwater Horizon, the Sea Empress, and the MV Braer, to name a few.

Our oceans bear ever-increasing loads of hydrocarbons. We mark this anniversary but the Exxon spill is not over. It is ongoing, day after day. We mark the anniversary to remind ourselves of what’s at stake with the proposed Northern Gateway tanker terminal in British Columbia (see "Canadian Democracy: Death by Pipeline") and with the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, and with offshore oil leasing in Arctic waters.

“We will make you whole,” claimed Exxon representatives to the residents of Cordova, Alaska, in the months after the spill. It was a profound lie and remains so. It’s a lie wherever oil is spilled. After 25 years, those of us who lived through that disaster know there is no effective whitewash or balm. Spiritual wounds heal the way physical ones do: slowly, never completely. Scars remain to remind us of what’s been lost, of all there’s left to lose. The Sound heals continually, though restoration is impossible. The place—and we—change, endure, evolve, find new (and temporary) points of balance. Those who refuse to abandon an injured place (or dying person) acknowledge the force, unquenchable at its core, of rebirth, reenacted every year in the requiem of spring. It’s the center, the heart, the heaven, no cancer or oil spill can touch. It’s a way through. A way in. A way on.

The power of Prince William Sound is felt as a throb of silence, the fall of rain, the flush and filling of tides, the languid bodies of hauled out sea lions, the startling of a flock of harlequin ducks in a cove, the murk of the August plankton bloom, and the blue dome of a church rising above the Alutiiq village of Chenega. When I see these things, I know I am in the presence of survivors.

To love a wild place is to realize it is whole, but it’s a wholeness that no oil company can destroy nor recreate. The place is altered but unbroken. The same is true of a person with cancer. The body is transformed, colonized, and yet the human being, at her core, is complete. And so it is to that damaged place, Prince William Sound, that my husband Craig and I return for healing and solace—to where people have knitted their lives, loving the Sound in sickness and in health, in grace and calamity.

The healing power of this place became clear when I returned here after my latest round of cancer treatments last fall. When I encountered the seven remaining orcas of a pod I studied over the decades and followed others deep into a fjord to catch fish against the shoreline. When I watched brown bears patrol a beach for a meal.  When I myself ate fresh, wild salmon. When I lay my wounded body flat on the earth, pressed it against the trunk of a tree, or crawled on hands and knees beneath the roots of an old growth hemlock to curl up in its hollow. When I felt the ache in my legs carry me over Squire Island, where my twenty-six-year-old-self lived out that summer of death. During bad weather, my husband and I hiked for miles there, picking gallons of blueberries and discovering things we’d never before seen. On top of a ridge one day, panting from the climb, I turned to him and said, “I could die out here tomorrow, and it would be enough. I’ve been given a heaven on earth. In the Sound, I have everything I need.” I am whole.

By Eva Saulitis

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