25 years after Exxon Valdez, the full extent of harm is still being discovered

March 25, 2014 by admin  
Filed under Toxic Spills

I guess it was 15 years ago, pretty much on the dot, that a group of Twin Cities environmentalists came to see me at the Strib editorial board bearing a fruit jar of water, pebbles and —  they said — crude oil from the Exxon Valdez.

You couldn’t see the oil, exactly. But you sure could smell it.

The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the tanker’s catastrophic grounding and the news that March was dominated by coverage of the decade’ s massive cleanup efforts, with a focus on how much better things were all over Prince William Sound, generally speaking, although some problems persisted, etc., etc.

My visitors had come to make the counterpoint — underscored by the jar that sat uncapped and fragrant on the conference table — that the successes were all superficial. The real problems, they insisted, continued just below the tidied surfaces. Sometimes just inches below, where this particular sample had recently been gathered.

Being new to environmental subjects, and inclined by newspaper service toward a certain alertness for gimmicks, I silently wondered: How do I know this really came from Cordova? How, for that matter, do they?

Now we are at the 25th anniversary of what was then the largest oil spill in U.S. history, although it holds that rank no longer. Further experience has unburdened this journalist and many others of much skepticism about the persistent impacts and possibly permanent harm that flowed from the Valdez’s ruptured hull on March 24, 1989.

Oil persists everywhere

And the fruit-jar demonstration for reporters remains popular. From a National Public Radio feature about Cordova’s 25-year struggle to survive the loss of its fisheries, its economic base and very nearly, at times, its will to endure:

Dave Janka captains the Auklet, a 58-foot wooden boat he uses for private charters. Most of his clients are scientists studying the oil spill’s impact. Along the way, Janka has collected his own samples.

He opens a jar labeled “February 19, 2014.” Janka collected the dark black oily-water mixture from Eleanor Island in Prince William Sound, digging down about 6 inches beneath the rocky shoreline. It smells like your hand after pumping gas at a service station.

“Looks like oil, smells like oil. It’s oil,” Janka says. “If you or I, in our backyard or at our mom and pop gas station, had a fuel tank leak, we would be held to the point of bankruptcy to clean that up.”

Bankruptcy is a fate that has been visited on more than a few Cordova households and businesses afflicted by the disaster but not, of course, on the company responsible for their misery. Exxon Mobil is mostly off the hook, though continuing cleanup needs are such that, according to the Anchorage Daily News,

The federal and state governments are still weighing the science of the spill’s effects and deciding whether to seek more money from Exxon Mobil for cleaning up remaining oil.

If there is evidence the spill is causing unexpected, continuing damage, the company could be forced to pay up to $100 million on top of the $900 million civil settlement that Exxon paid in 1991. The case lives on in the courts.

For perspective and fairness, I will point out this billion bucks is only a portion of Exxon Mobil’s total outlays for cleanup, out-of-court settlements and various other fines and penalties, which add to well over $4 billion.

Also, that Exxon Mobil spokesmen say the company learned valuable lessons from the Valdez disaster (which may be true), and that “The sound is thriving environmentally and we’ve had a very solid, complete recovery” (which is sheer snake oil).

Some species recover, others don’t

Here’s a summary of pluses and minuses for some of the marquee species in Prince William Sound:

Pink salmon and sockeye salmon are considered to have recovered, as have black cod. Herring, however, remain in bad shape, and this is bad news for the commercial fishing sector that was Cordova’s economic mainstay, because the spring herring catch filled in between the other important seasons.

The herring problem is also bad news for the overall ecosystem of Prince William Sound, because herring were an important food source for birds, other fish, and killer whales. One group of orcas is struggling back toward stability, another is expected to go extinct.

Sea otters have struggled to hold on, their greatly diminished numbers bumping along with little change until fairly recently, and though the recent populations have shown both ups and downs, federal officials announced a few weeks ago that their numbers had reached pre-spill numbers for the first time in 25 years. Cross your fingers.

For scientists studying the Valdez’s impacts, writes Elizabeth Shogren, also at NPR, there have been major revelations below the surface, from endeavors she likens to an autopsy that takes a quarter-century to complete:

When the tanker leaked millions of gallons of the Alaskan coast, scientists predicted major environmental damage, but they expected those effects to be short lived. Instead, they’ve stretched out for many years.

What researchers learned as they puzzled through the reasons for the delayed recovery fundamentally changed the way scientists view oil spills. One of their most surprising discoveries was that long-lasting components of oil thought to be benign turned out to cause chronic damage to fish hearts when fish were exposed to tiny concentrations of the compounds as embryos. …

Scientists had traditionally believed that oil basically had to cover an animal or embryo to hurt it. But the evidence they saw in Alaska suggested it didn’t take much oil to do a lot of damage. And that damage could manifest in different ways.

For example, oil under rocks and in sediments contaminated clams that sea otters ate. It didn’t kill the otters outright: Wildlife biologist Dan Esler of the U.S. Geological Survey says it shortened otters’ lives and suppressed the population for 20 years.

Social costs of destruction

Many who have followed the Valdez story will remember the early human misery, including the divisions between residents who got payouts from Exxon Mobil and those who did not; the mysterious illnesses that seemed to be related to chemical exposure from the spilled oil or the dispersants used to break it up; the suicide of a Cordova mayor.

That suffering continues, too, in different forms and at different levels. An interesting piece at phys.org focused on research by the University of Colorado’s Liesel Ritchie, who has been part of a 24-year-long (and counting) longitudinal study of “serious community conflict and mental health issues” in Cordova.

“What has fostered so much stress and anxiety in the community as a whole is different science says different things,” she said. “For example, Exxon scientists say everything is fine, that the impacts were minimal to begin with and that they subsided very quickly. Then other scientists who are not being paid by Exxon have other findings. What we’re talking about here at that level then is contested science which tends to cause uncertainty and stress in populations that are receiving this information and not knowing entirely how to interpret that.”

Even with a smaller than expected settlement, Ritchie says the people of Cordova appear to be moving on and doing their best to revive their fishing economy. However, she says, they have a long way to go. Before the spill Cordova consistently ranked in the top 10 most profitable U.S. seafood ports. A quarter century later, it’s not even in the top 25.

The most recent data, she said, show the first decline in community stress levels since the spill.

As a result of the Valdez grounding, Congress finally required tankers operating in U.S. waters to be of double-hull design, and federal and state regulations on tanker traffic in Prince William Sound and some other places were tightened, especially in regard to emergency preparedness.

A good look at some significant gains and serious continuing deficits can be found in the Homer Tribune, which noted that whatever preparations are made, ” the best plans can be challenged by weather. A drill last fall proved that when spill response efforts were entirely thwarted by a storm.”

“They couldn’t respond at all,” said Lisa Matlock, the council’s outreach coordinator. “It was one of those real-world experiences. From doing those real-world drills, we get better planning put in place.”

While the regional citizens advisory council set up in Prince William Sound has helped protect that 15,000 square mile body of water, other areas of the state, such as the Aleutian Islands, the Arctic and even Cook Inlet, which has an advisory council, are significantly less protected, many say. In those regions, if a tanker runs aground, rescue equipment can be hours or days away, and limited to what is available regionally.

Not all people who live Outside would necessarily know that Cook Inlet’s shoreline includes Anchorage.

Broken faith in justice

As I read about Alaskans’ broken faith with Big Oil, government regulation and especially the American court system, I was struck particularly by this comment from Jim Kallander, a fisherman and former Cordova mayor who watched Exxon Mobil fight successfully to have its penalties reduced in a 19-year series of appeals that reached finally to victory before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“All my life, I’d been brought up to think that, you know, you get to the Supreme Court and everything is made right. People are made whole. Issues are corrected. And I’m still disappointed. I’ll never get over it.”

Also, by the comments of Rick Steiner, an Alaskan professor of marine conservation who has studied the spill’s impacts for 25 years and does his own version of the fruit-jar trick with a pocket-size jar of oily stones he carries around. From Al-Jazeera America:

“This is beach gravel from Eleanor Island,” Steiner said, pointing out to Prince William Sound. ”It’s covered in oil from the Exxon Valdez, 25 years on, and I didn’t have to dig very deep to find it. I dug it up earlier this year.

… ”We can do better at reducing the risk. But once oil has spilled, you cannot clean it up, you cannot restore an oil-injured ecosystem and you can’t adequately rebuild human communities that are unravelled by these big industrial disasters.

“Some of these injuries persist. And industry rhetoric aside, we know these disasters do cause long-term, permanent environmental damage. And that’s one of the take-home lessons from Exxon Valdez a quarter of a century later: Once it happens, it’s never over.”

I suppose Minnesotans reading about Cordova’s plight and the hobbled ecosystem of Prince William Sound can be glad once again that we’re not an oil-producing state.

But we have our share of pipelines, and our share of risk in their probable future expansion, and in the expansion of terminals in the port of Superior, just across the bay from Duluth, to handle the rising flow of Canadian tar-sands oil.

Then there are the copper-nickel mines proposed at the edge of the Boundary Waters, whose champions assure us that new technologies guarantee that mining can be done right, that state regulation can ensure the natural environment is protected, that regulators and courts would insist that any accidental damage is mitigated and the responsible parties brought to account, that some kind of bond or insurance or trust fund will pay for whatever could possibly go wrong for centuries into the future.

Surely we can trust those official assurances. Can’t we?

Article source: http://www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2014/03/25-years-after-exxon-valdez-full-extent-harm-still-being-discovered

Yellowstone River Damaged by Exxon Pipeline Oil Spill - Exxon’s History in …

July 5, 2011 by admin  
Filed under Toxic Spills

Oil in Montana's Yellowstone River  Photo by NWF's Alexis Bonogofsky

While everyone is holding their collective breath, hoping that future developments do not worsen regarding the news that an Exxon pipeline carrying oil crude broke in the middle of the Yellowstone River outside of Billings Montana releasing thousands of gallons of crude into the river, industry’s record for safeguarding oil and gas pipelines in the state of Montana – and Exxon specifically – is dismal.

While we cannot predict what will happen in the near future, if other Big Oil disasters are any evidence, we can probably foresee in the next few hours and days that Exxon will pull out an all too familiar public relations playbook to avoid further scrutiny of their actions in order to avoid full culpability:

One, Exxon will claim that the immediate disaster is over and the natural resource damage and impacts to human health are minimal. They will also likely underreport, or deemphasize the amount of oil actually spilled. A day into the disaster, Exxon has already begun to do this.  Exxon spokesman have said that the spill has been fairly well contained and that there is “very little soiling” of stream banks beyond 10-miles.  Given that no one has been able to actually inspect the ruptured pipeline, since its submerged at the bottom of a raging free-flowing river that is two-feet above flood stage, one wonders how Exxon can claim so soon that everything is now abated and the damage is negligible.

Two, Exxon will pledge that they will fully clean and repair the damaged resources. Again, Exxon is saying as much in a statement today, “We will stay with the cleanup until it is complete…” Even if this is the case and Exxon is fully committed to cleanup, we know that their version of what is cleaned is not the same as others – see Prince William Sound.  Exposure to oil, especially to aquatic life, is devastating and long-lasting (see NRDC’s Matthew Skoglund and his recent posting on the importance of the Yellowstone River’s fishery for the region and beyond).

Three, Exxon will claim that safety is their number one priority. Predictably, Exxon has said as much in the last 24-hours, that the pipeline was inspected six months ago and met “all regulatory requirements.” Given their emphasis on oversized profits, I would go back to the previous exhibit, which speaks to Exxon’s thought process leading it to site an oil pipeline in one the most scenic, ecologically critical, and longest undammed river in the contiguous United States.

Four, Exxon will probably maintain that this was a freak accident and could not have been foretold or prevented. A full airing of Exxon’s record will show that this is simply not the case.  One only has to look at how it has maintained (or not) their Yellowstone Pipeline.  The Yellowstone Pipeline is a 550-mile pipeline that originates from the refineries in Billings, MT, makings its way westward to deliver petroleum products to Idaho and the state of Washington (the Yellowstone Pipeline and the Silvertip crude pipeline that failed this week, are nominally part of a larger system that Exxon oversees).  The pipeline was sited in some of the most rugged country to be found in this nation.  But rather than respecting the fact that the Yellowstone Pipeline was situated in such a harsh environment, Exxon and Conoco who co-managed the pipeline, failed often to maintain it satisfactorily.  In its 55-plus year history, it has leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of petroleum into Montana’s rivers and lands.

Most famously, Exxon and Conoco in the mid 1990’s realized that a right-of-way for the Yellowstone Pipeline that went through the middle of the sovereign Flathead Indian Reservation, was soon to expire and had to be renewed with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes who controlled the lease. Problem was the pipeline had spilled at least 71 times on the 1.2 million acre reservation, contaminating tribal fishing and hunting grounds.  When it came time to renew, the tribal members had only recently witnessed a spill with the pipeline that resulted in a whopping 163,000 gallons leaking into a reservation creek.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, were to say the least, reticent to renew the lease given the damage that Exxon and company had caused.  In this milieu, the Yellowstone Pipeline management went to the extraordinary measures to apologize to tribal members by posting a full-page advertisement in the tribal newspaper saying, “We’ve done serious damage to the land’ ‘For this we are truly sorry ‘ We’re asking for a chance to do things right.”  And while Exxon and Conoco approved the ad, they did not notice the howling coyote that was seemingly inserted by the paper’s staff within the oil company’s advertisement.  As High Country News reported at the time, “Tribal members must have noticed: Coyote is known as a trickster in many tribal legends, one who can’t always be trusted.”  With that, the tribal members rejected the renewal of the lease, and turned away from millions of dollars from Exxon; possibly realizing that millions in dollars cannot compensate for the loss of irreplaceable natural resources.

Which brings me back to Claim #4 in trying to pawn this accident as a freak occurence, Exxon can commit all they want to cleaning up the damage – as they should – but we should question the accidental nature of these incidents.  As history has shown, Exxon has often chosen a path that allows for spills, and the environment and human health are often the losers.  The Yellowstone spill might actually be a rare accident – if and when all the facts come to light – but this only proves that stronger enforcement and accountability for current pipelines are an absolute must.

Note: this is not the only insult to Montana’s environment that is happening under Exxon’s watch.  Exxon also plans to turn the scenic highways of Montana into an industrial superhighway to serve tar sands extraction in Canada by sending hundreds of “megaload” shipments through the state’s scenic highways.   For more information see: Exxon Solves Their Megaload Problem - By Cutting the Trees to Shreds

Article source: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/bmcenaney/yellowstone_river_damaged_by_e.html