|The Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster (UNU, 1996, 307 pages)|
|8 The Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska|
|The oil spill: Community impact|
Like the earthquake that was followed by a series of tsunamis, the oil spill was followed by a series of metaphorical tsunamis of the emotions. It became a media event with powerful, disturbing images, especially of oiled birds and sea otters (Davis 1990).
The section that follows draws on many kinds of data: (a) community-specific accounts by sociologists and anthropologists (Araji 1990a, 1990b, 1991, 1993); (b) corporate, state, and federal reports (US GAO 1989, 1991b); (c) selected media coverage; as well as (d) my own research on the ferry Tustemena (7-14 May 1989) and in seven communities during July and August 1989 (Davis 1989b). Some conclusions are also based on observations made while living in Anchorage during most of the first four years following the oil spill.
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.
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
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:
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.
Sixteen Alutiiq villages were included in studies following the oil spill. Their experience, disruption of their personal lives, participation in clean-up efforts, and general impacts varied significantly, in some areas as a result of relative proximity to the oil and in other areas as a result of economic inequities and other difficulties.
The kind and timing of community research shapes our understanding. The data are uneven and require careful scrutiny for quality. The methods and professional training of the researchers, the length of some of the questionnaires (up to 300 discrete items), and the mandates and funding sources of the studies superimpose upon the real local experience all kinds of variables, most of which are not easily identified.
In terms of proximity to the actual site of the spill, the distribution of the villages from the closest to furthest away is as follows: Tatitlek (5 miles), Chenega, English Bay (Nanwalek), Port Graham, Port Lions, Ouzinkie, Larsen Bay, Karluk, Old Harbor, Akhiok, Chignik Bay, Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Lake, Perryville, and Ivanof Bay (about 500 miles away). However, on the basis of relative disruptive impact, the order would be different. Chenega not only had oil (which did not hit Tatitlek) but this small village of 77 (1989 census) also served as a major centre for clean-up activities. Ouzinkie received little oil, but reacted with great fear to possible contamination of subsistence resources. Chignik Bay, centre of the highly valued red salmon run, received no perceptible oil but experienced intense hostilities within the community, centred on perceived inequities in the selection and allocation of lucrative boat charters.
Impacts on the villages were rarely the direct result of spilled oil. Rather, fear of the oil, fear of contamination, and uncertainty about how far and to what extent oil would affect the food chain concerned many, and for a long time (Fall 1993a). The continuing uncertainty of the actual distribution and effects of the oil over time became one of the single most disturbing factors during the first summer (Fall 1991a).
Another problem was the assignment of leadership positions to persons not from the local community. Such jobs paid well, and the organization hired by Exxon (VECO Inc.) did not know the residence status of the persons they were hiring. If someone looked Native, it was assumed that they were, and that they came from the local community. In fact, relatives of local residents sometimes arrived after many years of absence, took the available jobs and made a great deal of money. Because they may have appeared to have had more experience with the larger world and, sometimes, to be more educated, they were given responsible, and higher-paying, assignments. The hiring policies seemed not to take account of the local sense of fairness.
Need for extra child care was also a problem. Suddenly, parents had an opportunity to make a great deal of money in a relatively short time, especially if both worked. Young children were left to take care of other, younger children or - as in one village - a grandmother was placed in charge of 15 small children. This situation may have been of greater concern to the social workers than the parents, who were insulted by the suggestion that they were neglecting their families. Culturally distinctive characteristics of small, isolated Native villages include the relative flexibility of hours and freedom of children, especially during the summer time. However, in both towns and villages, parents expressed concern that there were so many strangers around that the usual sense of safety and security was threatened.
The flurry of meetings and media events was also disruptive, though some people thrived on the attention and the opportunities for recognition. Here, again, cultural differences were highlighted. Respected Native leaders would prefer not to call attention to them selves; however, after the oil spill, they were suddenly expected to be expert speakers, to attend all kinds of meetings, and to accept whole new categories of responsibility.
Itinerant Orthodox priests somewhat tempered the intensity of intrusion in the villages. Most of the villagers are Orthodox, a strong tradition established during the Russian America period, and recently revitalized through the establishment of a seminary in Kodiak in 1973. The Church has always played an important role in these communities. During the height of the eruption in 1912, Native residents in Kodiak went to the church and the bell was tolled. The role of the Orthodox Church after the earthquake and tsunamis of 1964 has been documented (Davis 1970). Now, with the emotional trauma of the oil spill, priests were requested to visit and to hold services. At times of environmental disaster, as at other stressful times, local communities have culturally shaped ways of managing crises.
The two large studies on village responses (Impact Assessment, Inc. and DOI MMS) both reflect a sense of social weakness in small communities - a lack of knowledge combined with different leadership styles. For example, according to these sources, "in practically all areas of impact the native communities were rendered more impotent than the non-native communities" (Rodin et al. 1992: 233). I am not persuaded that this is true. Native communities may be more capable of managing impacts and initiating recovery than the towns.
The range of concerns, irritations, and benefits varied greatly among the affected towns during the summer of 1989. Polarizations, between those who worked for Exxon or its contracted service organization VECO Inc. and those who did not, set people against each other in new ways. Many looked favourably on opportunities to make large sums of money ($16.69 an hour) on clean-up activities, or to charter their boats (up to $6,000 a day), or to provide other well-paid services. Those not hired, or who spurned Exxon or VECO, scorned their neighbours who accepted the employment. If a fisherman or any local resident wanted to make money, the opportunity generally was available. If, on the other hand, a fisherman refused to work for the oil company that was perceived as being responsible for the mess, then he was doubly penalized - he lost the chance to make money from the clean-up and he also lost expected income from fishing areas that were closed because of fears about oil contamination. Disagreements among the fishermen were intense and painful. Lack of resolution, combined with a sudden decline in chum salmon during the summer of 1993, led frustrated fishermen to block tanker traffic on Valdez Arm in a desperate attempt to force a discussion with Exxon about their claims. Litigation, and decline in fish stocks, prices, and permit value, have unquestionably slowed recovery for this segment of the population.
As a community, Cordova appears to have suffered the greatest disruption for the longest time and gained the least. Before 1989 it was already a conflict-ridden town; the oil spill may just have offered a new arena for traditional hostilities and exacerbated some of the old problems. But this may also be a misreading of the evidence because more data have been gathered - and made available - on Cordova than on other towns (Picou et al. 1992; Dyer, Gill, and Picou 1992; Reynolds 1993).
Nevertheless, the sources of dispute in Cordova were many: they included the fishermen's willingness or unwillingness to help; inequities of hire by Exxon and Veco; closure of the fishing season; a sudden decline in the number and price of chum salmon, from 40 cents a pound in 1990 to 12 in 1991; decline of fish permit values; the suicide of Cordova's Mayor (Enge 1993); protracted litigation; the fishermen's boycott of oil tankers in August 1993; and the announcement, in September 1993, that 74 of the boycotting boats might face fines from the Coast Guard. Clearly, during 1993, the fishermen from Cordova had not recovered. For many, as reported by Reynolds (1993), "the 1989 oil spill was still an unfolding disaster. Spillrelated problems, fears, and conflicts were widespread." And they still are.
Conditions were different in Valdez. Here, the community was inundated by people, goods, guards, media, and traffic. The oil industry had long been a mainstay of the community and most people had benefited directly or indirectly from the presence of the Alaska pipeline terminus. As the clean-up progressed, there was a massive convergence of people and materials on Valdez. Everyone who wanted to work, could. New bed and breakfast accommodations were opened. People rented their extra bedrooms; some even rented their whole houses and left the state. But, as the population climbed from 2,500 to 10,000, the strain was too much, even for a town that claimed to be accustomed to similar fluctuations. Local residents found they had to forego eating out in restaurants, baby sitters, visiting friends, and going to baseball games. Even the traditional Gold Rush Day celebrations were cancelled in 1989. By July 1990, local people were out of patience with the oil spill and its aftermath; the town had the exhausted feeling that comes with being in a war zone (Robbing, E. 1993).
Seward, like Valdez, was accustomed to increased traffic brought by seasonal tourism, but to nothing like that experienced during the summer of 1989. Unlike some other communities, people in Seward took control of the situation before oil actually approached the area (US DOI 1993a, 1993b).
Of all the impacts on Alaskan towns the uproar in Kodiak is perhaps the most thoroughly documented (Impact Assessment Inc. 1990; US DOI 1993a, 1993b; see, especially, Endter-Wada et al. 1993). Kodiak processes the third-largest volume of fish of any port in North America, and, although little oil reached the town, extensive disruption did.
In summary, the impacts of Exxon Valdez on the communities of southern Alaska varied greatly. Towns and villages experienced different levels of threat; different volumes of oil, and different degrees of contamination; different amounts of access to money and other clean-up benefits; and differences in the quantity and quality of research that was accomplished.