Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

In the Wake of the Spills

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Ten years after the Exxon Valdez spill, a footprint glistens with oil on an island in Prince William Sound.

Watching the drama of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the subsequent gushing of thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile biodiversity, I’m saddened, but not surprised to see history repeat itself yet again.

Back in March 1989, a tanker called the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.  Like the current Gulf spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster was well covered.  We were flooded with dramatic and heartbreaking images—animals coated in thick black oil struggling to live, heroic people desperately trying to save them, yellow suited teams of workers cleaning the oil from rocks lining the once-pristine shore.

Though I hadn’t been to Alaska at that time, I grew up around the water and the disaster was vivid for me.  When I saw those images, I thought, never again.  How could we as a nation, even with our great need for oil, allow a mistake like that to occur? Countless animals were killed or maimed and the livelihood of thousands of people was jeopardized.

In the mid 1990s, National Geographic assigned me to photograph a story on the effect of the oil industry on Alaska.  It was called “Oil on Ice.”  I accepted it with trepidation.  I had rarely worked above the Mason–Dixon line.  My assignments took me mainly to warm climates and I liked it that way.

I underestimated the north’s wild call.  Once I got that first blast of cold air into my lungs, I was hooked and Alaska became my favorite photography location.  That might seem odd since I rarely photograph animals or landscapes.  I photograph social and economic issues.   But I loved the state and once I completed the oil coverage I started thinking about projects I could propose that would bring me back to Alaska.

That chance came in 1998, when National Geographic sent me to Prince William Sound to photograph a story on how the region was recovering nearly a decade after the Exxon spill.  Researching the story reminded me how much damage had been done to the area.  Still, I didn’t expect to see oil, much less smell it.

I was traveling with a researcher whose job was to see where the oil still remained and take assessments of it.   We were jumping from one island to another via a floatplane.  When we landed by the first of the islands that had been in the pathway of that spill, the stench was overwhelming.  Although the shoreline looked clean, it stank just like a refinery.  The researcher showed me why.  The oil was still there, just below the surface and still in liquefied form.  As we walked along the shore, our booted feet broke through the thin covering of rock chips on the surface, and water rapidly filled in our footprints.  The sun hit the one closest to me, spinning a beautiful rainbow of color out of the oily film.

Rocks on an island in Prince William Sound still carry oily goo from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The researcher stopped to collect samples, digging down with a spoon; she came up with clumps of a gooey black mess.  It didn’t take her long to get enough samples to fill a jar.  By the time we headed back to the plane, her yellow work gloves were black.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, researchers began studying bird rookeries in the Barren Islands to determine the impact.

Showing oil on the shoreline didn’t have a lot of visual drama, but it was an important picture for the coverage.  There would be other more dramatic situations; a bird rookery impacted by the spill, salmon harvesting, and Prince William Sounds’ magnificent coastline scenery.  Seeing oil was a visual reminder that the spill had done long term damage, not a passing injury that would wash away in a month or two.

Before setting foot on those islands I had no idea that oil in its liquefied form could last that long.  The spill had happened ten years before!   But that is what we have to remember if we, as a nation, feel that offshore and coastal drilling are necessary.  Yes, the technology is advanced and relatively safe and yes, there are years when nothing much happens and the rigs pump the oil day in and day out without so much as a leak.  But when an accident does occur, the consequences can be catastrophic and the price we all pay—in money and damage to the environment—is very high.

Laying down oil spill containment booms during a drill. The drills were instituted after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but the technique doesn’t work well in choppy water

What I find most amazing is how ill prepared the oil companies seem to be for these catastrophes.  The boom technology we’ve seen used in futile attempts to contain the Gulf of Mexico spill is little changed from that used for the Exxon Valdez spill over twenty years ago.   Companies drilling in deep water like the Gulf should not be allowed to do so unless they have a workable plan to immediately contain spills.

Eleven human lives have been lost, and countless numbers of birds and marine creatures will be lost, along with millions of gallons of oil.  As with Alaska, the effects of the spilled Gulf oil will linger long after the clean up efforts have ended.   After witnessing first hand the long-term damage of the Exxon Valdez spill ten years after the fact, I feel we should rethink our desire to drill for oil in these fragile ecosystems.

One Response

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  1. I agree. Even if the probability of accident seems low, the potential harm is so extreme that the risk is too great.

    noelle argue

    May 27, 2010 at 4:30 pm


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