Louisianans affected by gulf oil spill seek lessons in Alaska from Exxon Valdez

Years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Alaska shoreline is still recovering. A small delegation traveled from the Gulf Coast to Alaska to learn lessons from the oil spill 21 years ago so people can know what to expect in months and years to come as the gulf recovers from the massive BP oil spill.
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 9:11 PM

IN CORDOVA, ALASKA He'd just met her, but Evan Beedle wanted Rosina Philippe to know how his life changed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, how pieces of his identity slipped away, one label at a time.

Husband. Father. Fisherman.

Philippe and about a dozen other Louisianans traveled more than 4,400 miles last month to talk to Alaskans like Beedle. They expected advice. Less anticipated was how often it came with confessions. As Beedle and Philippe stood talking in a Cordova parking lot, he told her how his wife left him after the spill, how she took their child with her, how he went from being a man who never doubted he'd be a fisherman to one who grudgingly created a life away from the waters where he grew up.

"They tell you, 'Move on,' " Beedle said. "But when this is all you know, how do you move on?"

Twenty-one years have passed since the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, under the neglectful command of an inebriated captain, rammed into a reef off the southern coast of Alaska, releasing an estimated 11 million gallons of oil into the pristine Prince William Sound. For more than two decades, Exxon Mobil has been paying for that night.

In the years after the spill, it spent $2.1 billion for the cleanup effort, which included hiring locals who were dubbed "spillionaires" for the paychecks they pulled in. In 1991, the company paid $1 billion to settle criminal and civil lawsuits brought against it by the state and federal government. Most of that money went toward the acquisition and protection of ecologically critical habitat in the region.

And just in the past few years, a drawn-out class-action suit launched against the company by 32,000 fishermen, Alaska Natives and landowners ended with the company ordered to pay nearly $1 billion in punitive damages and interest, much less than the $5 billion initially rewarded.

But in Cordova and other Prince William Sound communities - where oil remains in some spots just below the surface - life is still spoken about in uncertain terms. Conversations bounce between what would have been without the oil spill, and what is.

If life had continued undisturbed, herring fishermen would have passed down valuable skills and permits to their children. A Native Alaskan village would have maintained, at least for a while, its prized isolation. Families would have stayed together instead of splintering between those who found ways to deal and those who struggle.

The group from Louisiana - professors, politicians and community leaders - spent a week in Alaska, looking to learn from those who have been where they are headed, those whose lives were linked to the nation's largest oil spill before the Gulf of Mexico incident took that distinction this year. They discovered that spills have a way of lingering long after the water is declared open and the beaches are deemed safe.

If Alaska is any indication, the first year after a spill is not the hardest. It's the years afterward when the environmental, cultural and societal consequences really surface.

Environmental effects

Cold rain falls outside. John Platt doesn't care. The pink salmon are popping. And for this fishing-boat captain, that's all that matters.

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