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close this bookThe Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster (UNU, 1996, 307 pages)
close this folder8 The Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska
close this folderThe oil spill: Community impact
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentPsychological, social, and cultural impacts
View the documentThe villages
View the documentTown responses

Psychological, social, and cultural impacts

Studies that assess selected human impacts of the oil spill include the following: Araji (1992a, 1992b, 1993) on Homer, Seldovia, and Port Graham; Cohen (1992) and Mason (1993) on commercial fishing; Dyer, Gill, and Picou (1992) and Picou et al. (1992) on Cordova; Impact Assessment Inc. (1990), Palinkas et al. (1993), and Rodin et al. (1992), on the "Oiled Mayors" study; and Jorgensen (1993) and the US Department of the Interior (DOI) (1992, 1993a, 1993b) on the Social Indicators study that was extended to include communities involved in the oil spill. Theoretical analyses can be found in Gramling and Freudenburg (1992); Harrald, Cohn, and Wallace (1992); Browning and Shetler (1993); and Tierney and Quarantelli (1992). The most extensive research - and the only continuing investigation - of community response and recovery has been accomplished by a team in the Subsistence Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They have been documenting the changing utilization of fish and wildlife resources in all the affected communities since the oil spill, and in many cases have pre-spill data (Fall 1990, 1991a, 1991b, 1993a, 1993b). The DOI's Minerals Management Service (MMS) have contributed to the continuity of this research through a joint cooperative research plan and funds.

Emphases, community foci, methodologies, and timing differ among these studies, but no effort is made here to analyse those variations. Rather, the basic outline and results of the two largest studies (Impact Assessment, Inc. and US DOI, MMS) are briefly summarized.

Between 30 March and 15 May 1990, a population-based study by a team of applied anthropologists under contract to Impact Assessment, Inc. (15 field workers) interviewed 594 men and women in 13 communities - 11 in the oil-affected region and 2 control communities outside the area. The study considered everything - from relationships between exposure to the oil spill and the subsequent clean-up efforts to social and psychological impacts. The following were the major findings:

1. A decline in traditional social relations;
2. A decline in subsistence production and distribution;
3. Increases in drinking, drug abuse, and domestic violence;
4. A decline in health status;
5. An increase in reported medical conditions;
6. Increased post-spill anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.

Alaska Natives, especially women, were found to be particularly at risk for the (latter) three psychiatric disorders. Other findings included the following: (a) money was the source of considerable friction; (b) after the accident, people spent less time visiting with friends and less time on community activities; and (c) there was concern about the safety of basic subsistence foods that might have been affected by oil. In summary:

These results document the profound impact that exposure to the oil spill had on social relations, traditional subsistence activities, the prevalence of psychiatric disorders, community perceptions of alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence, and physical health of Alaskan Native and non-Native residents of the affected communities. (Palinkas et al. 1993: 8)

Although the study focused on negative impacts, some positive findings were also noted: "Positive changes resulting from the oil spill and cleanup were indicated in some responses, and these often had to do with either economic benefits or an increased sense of communities pulling together in times of adversity" (Palinkas et al. 1993: 6). Overall, the team concluded that "... the oil spill's impact on the psychosocial environment was as significant as its impact on the physical environment" (Palinkas et al. 1993:1).

The second major study of communities affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill was an extension of the single most comprehensive social and cultural study of contemporary life in Alaska, begun in 1986. It was funded by the DOI MMS and awarded to Joseph G. Jorgensen, as principal investigator, through the Human Relations Area Files, Inc. Thirty Alaskan coastal villages had already participated in the multimethod project. After the oil spill, new questions were designed and additional communities included in the study. In the summer of 1989, eight villages located in the Exxon Valdez spill area and two villages in adjacent control areas were added. Two communities, Kodiak City and Old Harbor, that had been included in the original study, provided pre-spill data. A total of 354 residents were interviewed (Jorgensen 1993).

Two volumes of the Social Indicators Study (Technical Report 155) provide post-spill key informant summaries: Part l includes Cordova, Tatitlek, and Valdez; and Part 2 includes Kenai, Tyonek, Seldovia, Kodiak City, Karluk, Old Harbor, and Chignik (US DOI 1993a, 1993b).

Impacts - not recovery - were the focus of these studies. However, they provide important data for comparative and diachronic studies in the future. Here, briefly, are a few selected findings:

Perceived declines in natural resources are most often registered in small communities, communities closest to the spill, and communities with relatively dominant fisheries economies.

Spill-related economic impacts (spill cleanup and related employment, job relocations, losses of employment, property damages, compensation for damages) tend to cluster in communities close to the spill, which are smaller, dominated by commercial-fisheries economies, and have the least diversified economies.

Structured inequality in spill consequences was revealed.

Relatively unstable households, such as single-parent households, are more likely to report relocation associated with spill-related work.

In summary, it was noted that

... the Exxon Valdez spill may be reproducing an existing or latent social reality - in a sense, replaying an "old script" - that now is characterized by underdevelopment in rural regions, dominance of urban centers that are able to mobilize great resources, and marginalization of Native and unor underemployed residents who lack substantial political power. Because similar patterns have emerged in many of the accounts of great technological disasters (Bhopal, Chernobyl, etc.), this is not at all surprising. (McNabb 1993: 21-23)

These two major studies both indicate that greater disruption occurred in the smaller, Native, communities. That finding may have been the result of the timing of the research and the general orientation that anthropologists tend to have of concern for smaller Native communities. It may also be an artifact of questions that seem designed to understand kinds and degrees of impact. That was, after all, their charge.

However, what is missing is a sense of recovery. Do small, Native, culturally distinctive communities suffer longer or do they have the ingredients for rapid recovery and a philosophy of getting on with life? One small statement in the MMS report on Old Harbor at least suggests this latter possibility:

The Natives of Old Harbor are no strangers to tragedy. Following the destruction of their village in 1964, but bolstered by their religious faith, Old Harbor Natives rebuilt their homes and their lives. In the same way, Old Harbor residents will survive the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. During the winter of 1991 the people of Old Harbor were concerned primarily with looking forward. (Rooks 1993: 808)

Preliminary studies by the Subsistence Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game suggest that the harvesting of natural resources is back to pre-spill levels and in several villages has risen above pre-spill levels, both in amount and in diversity. Perhaps the values of subsistence activities have been heightened because these resources were temporarily lost and there was great uncertainty about their safety and future availability.

Further publications are expected, based on these multi-year studies. Also one publicly funded study for community research focuses on "what can be done to avoid or reduce (mitigate) the problems following future oil spills that would otherwise directly affect residents" (Institute of Social and Economic Research 1993: 1). The project was funded from Alyeska through the Regional Citizen's Advisory Council (RCAC) to the University of Alaska Anchorage for a three-year period beginning in 1992. It has a clear local community theme. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game in cooperation with the MMS is continuing research on subsistence harvesting. The results of these studies are not yet available.

Archaeological impact studies constitute another category of research. The Alaska State Department of Natural Resources has published a report on the effect of the oil on some archaeological sites (Reger, McMahan, and Holmes 1992). Exxon's Cultural Re source Program hired a total of 24 archaeologists and has published three large reports addressing archaeological sites (Bests et al. 1991; Haggarty et al. 1991; Mobley et al. 1990). A whole issue of the journal Arctic Anthropology, including 13 articles on maritime cultures of southern Alaska, was funded by Exxon (Moss and Erlandson 1992). The science of archaeology has clearly been enhanced. Further, two major studies have been funded by the Exxon Valdez Trustees Council - one in 1992 to protect archaeological resources ($160,000) and one in 1993 to assess injury to 24 archaeology sites and to begin restoration on some of them ($260,100) (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees 1992; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Office 1993). Funds for a museum in Kodiak were approved by the Trustees Council for $1,500,000. Far more attention seems to be given to humans who are dead than to those still living!

Despite this apparent bias - and the far great attention given to the biological environment of the fish, birds, animals and beaches 20 coastal communities of south-central Alaska were also affected. The following is a summary of some of those impacts.