In March 1989, an oil tanker sailing south from the Alaska pipeline port of Valdez struck a reef in eastern Prince William Sound. At least 11 million gallons (42 million litres) of crude oil spilled into the sea and onto the shore. Anger, fear and heartache quickly spread around the world, as images of oil-soaked birds, otters, seals and shorelines hit the TV screens.
“Exxon Valdez!” We are still haunted by the big ship’s name (at least the name it bore back when it hit the rocks) and dogged by the question, who or what was to blame for that environmental disaster?
“As with most of our technological disasters there was a combination of mistakes that occurred,” says Scott Pegau, research program manager for Oil Spill Recovery Institute of Cordova, Alaska. Pegau will visit the Yukon early next month to talk about those mistakes and how they were addressed, what the current status of Prince William Sound is, and the state of spill prevention and recovery elsewhere in the world.
One of the first official steps after the spill was to form the institute. It was called for after the accident under the U.S. Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Pegau joined nine years ago. OSRI supports research, education and demonstration projects that improve understanding and response to oil spills in Arctic and subarctic marine waters.
There is good and bad news about the Prince William Sound recovery. Some species have rebounded, but others have not. “One of the programs I work on is herring research – one of the big unrecovered species,” Pegau says.
“I describe them as ‘bacon of the sea,’” he says. “All other creatures seem to feed on them at some point, from the egg stage all the way up.”
Herring serve as an example of how complex and frustrating oil-spill research can be. For instance, did the herring collapse just because of the oil or did they collapse because of something else in the oceanic system? Were destructive natural factors exacerbated and prolonged by the technological disaster?
Herring, like many other creatures, go through cycles. “You tend to get a lot of fish in one year and then you don’t get as many fish for three or four years. That big year is called a “recruitment,” says Pegau. A healthy recruitment of herring in the sound last occurred in 1989. Another is way overdue.
Clean-up methods have also caused frustration and further damage. “Among lessons from the Exxon Valdez is that some of the clean-up techniques are actually worse than the oil itself,” Pegau says.
“The primary shore clean-up technique was to spray the rocks with high-pressure hot water. This sterilized everything and caused more damage.”
Hot water is now authorized only for cleaning man-made shore objects, he adds.
One of the reasons post-spill research has been going on as long as it has is that many of the sound’s animals – such as ducks and otters – have long life spans and take a long time to recover, Pegau says.
Researchers can measure a compound in harlequin ducks that indicates oil exposure. “It is only in the last four years that the indicator level has gone down to the same as it would be in unoiled areas,” he says.
“With otters they are basically looking at the age of carcasses they are finding on the beaches. Typically, you find young otters that have died and old ones, but those in their prime, as showed up post-spill, you don’t expect to find. It has taken 25 years for that to get back to normal.”
Much of the area affected by the 1989 spill looks “normal” to a visitor, he says. “If you were a local you probably would know things are different than they used to be, but it takes time and a lot of skill to detect the real direct effects.”
Oil has leached down through layers of gravel – out of site, but not out of the minds of scientists. “That oil will probably be there 100 years from now,” Pegau says. “It’s just not going away. And it’s not going away because it is not in contact with the ocean and so is not biologically available for microbial degradation.
“People really want to see oil removed from the beach. The heart says, ‘You gotta get it out,’ but the head says, ‘We’d probably do more damage taking it out of gravel than leaving it in place.’”
Yes, disasters can be educational, he adds. They’re obviously not the preferred way of learning things, but studying them is better than remaining unprepared for the next disaster to come along. “I tend to stress what we have learned,” he says. “A lot of people don’t realize how much our ability to respond has improved since 1989.”
On that March 24, with oil pouring into the sea, would-be cleanup crews found themselves without necessary tools and background knowledge. Snow covered some containment equipment and other essential gear was out for repairs. Meanwhile, a big storm blew in, pushing oil to the west and south.
Recovery efforts have to start right away, Pegau says. “When I first took this job, someone said, ‘It takes three days to get started on a spill … the less you have to think in the first three days, the better off you are.’” The knowledge, skills and tools should be immediately available.
Prince William Sound is much better off in 2016 than it was a quarter-century ago, says Pegau. “Of all the places in the U.S. and probably the world, I would say that that Sound is one of the best-prepared. The amount of equipment available is very impressive. I wish more places had such capabilities.”
Scott Pegau will be speaking as part of the Yukon Science Institute lecture series at the Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse on Wednesday, March 2 , at 7:30 p.m. and again at the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City on Thursday, March 3, also at 7:30.
This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/your-yukon