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

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.

He needs this catch.

Platt was 28 when the spill happened. Now he is pushing 50 and has no health insurance, no retirement fund and three sons whom he can't help pay for college.

"I am no better off than that 20-some-year-old kid," he says.

Platt's undoing didn't come the year of the spill or even the year after it. Herring, a fish the natives call "the grass of the ocean," was still abundant in 1990 when Platt bought a herring fishing permit for about $230,000.

No one knew then that the herring were dying. Or that once they were gone, they wouldn't soon come back.

John Renner, a man whose fingers carry the calluses and jagged nail beds of a veteran fisherman, used to catch herring and collect their roe, a valued delicacy in Japan. Because of this, he was able to observe the fish closely in the years after the spill. In 1990, he says, they began behaving oddly. Instead of laying their eggs in a row, the herring would leave them in pyramids or in stacks. A year later, they started reabsorbing their eggs.

"We were freaking out because they weren't spawning," Renner says.

In 1992, he noticed lesions, evidence that disease had taken hold of their population.

"And then they died," Renner says. "So we quit herring fishing, and that was devastating to this town."

With the fishery closed all but one year since 1993, permits lost their value and fishermen such as Platt could do little but watch their incomes drop and debts grow. One fisherman, a judo coach, Renner says, couldn't make the payments on his permit and entered into a noticeable depression before committing suicide.

Renner stares at the kitchen counter in front of him for a long minute after saying this. He was found to have post-traumatic stress disorder after the spill - he knew something was wrong because he "couldn't quit crying," he says - and so he doesn't allow himself to talk about certain subjects.

"That's one reason I can't talk about the animals," Renner says.

While it's unknown exactly how many animals died after the spill, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, formed to oversee the ecosystem's restoration, lists these as the best estimates: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

The only two species the council currently lists as "not recovering" from the spill are pigeon guillemots and Pacific herring.

"When we say there is no herring here," says Torie Baker, a longtime fisherman, "that's like [Louisianans] saying there is no shrimp. It's like New England fishermen saying there is no cod."

What, if anything, will be the gulf's herring - the marine creature that dies off en masse years from now? Oil breaks down quicker in warm water than cold, and the government has announced that about three-quarters of the 205.8 million gallons of oil that fouled the Gulf of Mexico has been removed by man or is being broken down by nature. But scientists say it's difficult to predict the environmental damage to the gulf, because of the volume of oil released and the unknown long-term impacts of the dispersants used to break it up.

A fire on a oil and gas production platform in the gulf last week did not trigger an oil leak but served as a reminder of the risks involved with offshore drilling.

In Cordova, Richard Thorne is among the scientists with the Oil Spill Recovery Institute conducting acoustic and aerial surveys of the herring in the sound.

"I think I understand what caused them to collapse," he says. "But I don't understand why they haven't come back."

The herring is the fish that used to open the season, bringing Cordova to life in March. Now the town doesn't come alive until May, when salmon fishing starts.

Platt's son Christopher, 22, is the first of the crew to wake that morning on the boat. For as long as he can remember, his father has encouraged him to go to college and find a career away from the unpredictability of the water. But Christopher wants to fish, gets animated when talking about the tens of thousands of pounds of salmon the crew will pull in that day, knowing his face and hands will burn from jellyfish stings afterward.

As a compromise, he has agreed to finish school next year, which he is paying for through a wrestling scholarship, and then teach so he will have his summers free to fish.

Cordova fishermen describe a generational gap in their ranks, with most of them either in their 50s, too invested to leave after the spill, or early 20s, too young to remember the peak of the devastation. And that is the case on Platt's boat. The two other crew members are 21 and 24.

If Platt could have changed anything about his actions after the spill, he says, he would have given his herring permit back to the state instead of letting the debt hang over him all these years. He was among those who filed a class-action suit against Exxon. Platt says his payment went straight to the state to pay his debt.

Others had it worse. An estimated 6,000 plaintiffs died before seeing the case settled. Some of their names sit on plaques at the Cordova Fishermen's Memorial. On each is a quote that describes the man who was lost:

"Known for his cheerful whistling."

"If there is a fish to be caught, I'll catch it."

"You borne your burdens well."

Cultural consequences

Ask residents of Chenega Bay what they remember most about the oil spill, and several will give the same answer: the exposure.

"There was a whole bunch of people here," says George Eleshansky, who was 16 at the time of the spill and home-schooled by his father.

The village, a cluster of homes that cling to the tip of Evans Island, looks from the air like Legos left on the edge of a green carpet. It's quiet today, but before the spill it was even quieter. Back then there was no landing strip or ferry dock to connect residents to the outside world at regularly scheduled intervals.

If the fishing town of Cordova was affected in subtle, emotion-scraping ways, the native village of Chenega Bay transformed in dramatic, culture-altering ways that are visible along its handful of streets. It changed from an area where residents lived off the land - a subsistence lifestyle they took pride in - to a place where pizza can be ordered from Anchorage and delivered hot, via plane, 45 minutes later.

"The food is what I remember the most," says Meadow Dermer, who was 9 at the time of the spill.

Before 1989, she and other children would play on the beach, picking salmonberries from bushes, prying gumboot chitons from rocks and digging clams. But after the spill, she says, she was no longer allowed to walk the beach, let alone eat what she found.

"We couldn't eat the deer, because they ate the oiled seaweed," Dermer says. "And we couldn't eat seal, because they were swimming in it. Only recently have people begun eating clams again."

To compensate for the loss of such staples, Exxon started shipping in processed food. Suddenly Dermer was aware of Twinkies and Spam and Cheetos. She tried beef for the first time at age 10.

"That was the year I started to gain a whole bunch of weight," Dermer says.

After the spill, subsistence practices dropped off between 9 and 77 percent in Prince William Sound and surrounding areas, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. Dermer's father, John Christensen, gets angry when he thinks about what was lost, about how they once had the area to themselves and then had to share it with researchers, reporters and visitors, all looking to analyze village life.

"The biggest change was the exposure to the world and the public. We lost our privacy, and I really hold that against them," Christensen says. "I didn't come to Alaska to make a living. I came to Alaska to run away from the world."

Christensen and others say the changes might have eventually come with time, but the spill sped them up. In addition to the individual settlements residents received, Chenega Corp., a for-profit representing the interests of a native tribe, sold a portion of its land for $34 million for habitat restoration.

"Prosperous" is the word resident Darrell Totemoff now uses to describe Chenega.

He says this while walking by a church with elegant Russian spires and a new museum named after his father, Johnny M. Totemoff, a well-known fisherman who helped with the oil-spill cleanup. The older Totemoff's boat now sits upside down on the beach, broken and weathered, a symbol of a harder time. Darrell Totemoff points it out as he pulls away in his boat, shiny and fast.

"Exxon bought this," he says.

The personal toll

Tim Kerner canceled trips to Alaska twice, deciding each time that he was needed more in Louisiana. He is now questioning whether he should have come at all.

For 19 years, Kerner has been the mayor of Jean Lafitte. Most of the town's 2,500 residents are fishermen or relatives of fishermen, and Kerner says he's been able to put the majority of their boats - about 300 - to work. It's the other 30 or so, he says, that keep him awake at 3 a.m.

"You want me to name them?" he says. "Wyatt Guidry, Elton Frickey, Gary LaBlanc, Eric Dufrene, John Hickman . . ."

During the trip, Kerner repeatedly asked the Alaskans two questions: Did they see any health effects from the cleanup? And how did fishermen survive once the oil company cut back on workers? He worries about his communities' physical health now that they are working and their mental health once they aren't. Already, he says, the town has seen one suicide, a young deckhand.

"Just got depressed," Kerner says. "He ate the breakfast his mom made for him and then he went in his room and shot himself."

Like Kerner, the dozen Louisianans on the trip all arrived carrying their own concerns.

The group would hear advice ranging from the small (keep a diary because it will help when you testify in court) to the complex (the oil companies will try to "divide and conquer" by paying some people a lot of money and others nothing). They would learn that the health risks involved in the cleanup still aren't clear to Alaskans 21 years later and that there were lives lost in ways other than suicide.

"I had a brother," Gary Barnes, a middle-aged pastor in Cordova, tells the group as they gather in the basement of a church. "It affected him so much that he just dropped out of life. He's younger than I am, and he's been in an old-folks home for a while."

It's something the Louisianans would hear about repeatedly: how some people were able to cope, and others not. How couples divorced, friendships ended and the community split between those who chose to work for the oil company and those who didn't.

The best advice he can give them, Barnes tells the group, is to find forgiveness.

"We cannot afford to allow bitterness to affect us to the point where we're not being effective," he says.

Iris Brown Carter, who grew up near a Shell chemical plant in Louisiana and became an environmental activist after losing relatives to illness, listens attentively.

She then raises her hand and asks, "What do you suggest we bring back to the gulf other than forgiveness?"

vargast@washpost.com

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