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Alaskans share lessons learned from Exxon Valdez oil spill

Should an oil spill occur in Alaska, 300 local vessels with crews trained to lay boom and pick up oil with skimmers are on standby. Fifty of these local vessels are available to begin clean up within six hours of the spill, and another 250 vessels are available to respond within 24 hours. This immediately available citizen response and other lessons learned as a result of Alaska's Exxon Valdez oil spill were topics of discussion at a forum attended by seafood industry and community leaders and representatives from state and federal agencies last week at the International Trade Center in Mobile, Ala.

The forum, presented by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, was an opportunity to learn first-hand from others who have experienced the environmental and economic effects of a major oil spill.

In 1989, Joe Banta and Torie Baker were Alaskan fishermen when the Exxon Valdez spilled about 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound. Their experiences during the spill and the 21 years that have followed seemed to take on more value when the Deepwater Horizon oil leak began in the Gulf of Mexico on April 22.

Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Director LaDon Swann invited Baker and Banta to the Gulf of Mexico to share the lessons they learned and to answer questions from extension agents and industry leaders.

Baker, an Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Services fisheries specialist and commercial salmon fisherman, and Banta, project manager for environmental monitoring with Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, visited Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama the week of May 10 to share their first-hand knowledge from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the partnerships they formed to assist the affected water-dependent industries in Prince William Sound.

"No more. We can't let this happen to our coastline again," said Banta as he described efforts in Alaska that led to more stringent regulations for oil companies who drill in Alaska waters. Alaskans were able to take advantage of the effects of the oil spill to pass laws to protect their waters and shoreline. And the immediate response vessels permanently on standby are funded by the oil companies.

Another preventative measure requires at least two high-powered towing vessels to escort all oil tankers through Prince William Sound. This offers a line of defense that can help correct problems before spills happen.

Today, the herring fishery (which was one of Alaska's largest exports) in Prince William Sound, has not come back. Salmon, another large export, has recovered, although it was affected for many years, according to Baker. Immediately after the spill, the fishing industry developed monitoring protocols which included logs on boats as well as monitoring and more inspections at processing plants to assure the public of seafood safety, Baker said. To help the hard-hit fishing industry, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Association conducted a campaign to fight a public perception that all Alaska seafood was damaged.

"For some people in our community, the losses were devastating," Banta said.

He described a peer-listening training program used to help members of the community assist others who were wiped out financially and emotionally.

"Fisherman might not go see a counselor, but needed help dealing with the depression of losing their very way of life," he said.

Banta and Baker also warned of the long-term stress of extended litigation. In Alaska, all claims were bundled into a class action suit against Exxon Mobil Corporation. The suit dragged on for 21 years.

Another point they made is that there is a marked difference between communities that suffer natural disasters and those who go through technological disasters. While communities usually work together to bounce back from a natural disaster, communities going through a disaster that has a responsible party have a harder time. Technological disasters create corrosive communities that lose their sense of community and experience increases in divisiveness, alcohol and drug use, domestic violence and suicide.

Banta brought copies of the "Coping with Technological Disasters Guidebook," which the citizens' council created after the Exxon Valdez went aground. The guidebook says businesses can expect to lose employees to better paying jobs related to the cleanup, cities may need to hire people to deal strictly with spill-related issues, families may experience separations due to oil-related jobs and government offices may be swamped with requests for information. The guidebook can be found at http://pwsrcac.org/docs/d0001001.pdf.


Oil spill resources

For more information, see these resources:

·        Alaska Sea Grant, Exxon Valdez Spill 20th Anniversary website:
http://seagrant.uaf.edu/conferences/2009/evos-anniversary/index.html

·        Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council (PWSRCAC): http://www.pwsrcac.org/

·        Coping with Technological Disasters Guidebook: http://pwsrcac.org/docs/d0001001.pdf

·        Appendices to Coping with Technological Disasters Guidebook: http://pwsrcac.org/docs/d0001002.pdf

·        Coping with Technological Disasters Peer Listening training videos: http://pwsrcac.info/community-impacts/

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