Wandering the West
August 3, 2010
So the cap is in place and the drilling mud and cement are about to be poured to seal off the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. After 107 days at 62,000 barrels a day, give or take, the current estimates say the gusher will have spewed nearly 5 million barrels of crude, or about 210 million U.S. gallons, into the Gulf’s waters.
That’s an astounding multiplication of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which the oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. At the time, in March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez disaster was an unparalleled disaster. I’d been to Valdez in 1976, when the oil companies were hurrying to finish construction of the port facilities to handle the oil that would soon flow from the North Slope through the new Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
It was an amazing scene. Most people, it seemed, were from Texas and Oklahoma and were scrambling to find housing anywhere. I remember seeing a refrigerator box wrapped in layers of plastic with a mailbox out front. Any hardship was worth it to soak up all the oil money that was flowing then.
On March 24, 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood retired to his quarters and let his third mate take the Valdez through a passage where an obstacle, Bligh Reef, was clearly marked and known. While steering around some icebergs, the Exxon Valdez ran hard aground on the reef, opening up the tanks below.
The initial response was poor. As oil spread in one of the North Pacific’s richest and most scenic places, response crews scrambled to mobilize ships, oil booms and other cleanup equipment. Altogether, 1,000 of the Sound’s 3,000 miles of coastline were fouled.
As in the Gulf, tourists, fishermen and the local businesses that relied on them were righteously angry at the oil industry for fouling the sound and killing the fishing. Twenty-one years later, the herring fishery still hasn’t recovered and locals say they can still roll over rocks on the beaches and find oil beneath.
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Comparing the two isn’t at all equivalent. The Prince William Sound spill, far north in a much colder environment, was a drop in the bucket next to BP’s warm-weather Gulf disaster. It will take years for BP and the courts to sort out the legal claims and pay the damages, and years to actually chase down what oil it can and clean it up. In Alaska it took only three years for the state to officially call the Sound clean again.
If visitors avoided Prince William Sound for a period after the spill, they should go now. There’s too much to see in this North Pacific wildlife paradise. California gray whales are frequently spotted, along with killer whales, humpbacks and belugas. There were many famous pictures of oil-slimed sea otters in 1989. Today their descendants are frequently spotted from tour boats, floating on their backs, trying to crack open clam and oyster shells with rocks gleaned from the sea floor.
Access to the Sound is through Whittier on the west side, and Valdez to the north.
Whittier is an interesting Alaskan oddity of a town, accessible only by train tunnel from Anchorage. Catch the Alaska railroad for the ride down scenic Turnagain Arm in Cook Inlet to Portage Glacier and transfer to the Whittier train. On the other side of the tunnel, Whittier stands as a remnant of World War II.
The military knew Whittier offered an ice-free deepwater port for shipping material to the Pacific Theater, and an instant town was born. But from its wartime peak, only 300 people remain. Some of them run charter boats into the sound. Along with whale watching, the boats cruise to the tidewater terminus of several glaciers, where the blue ice "calves" periodically, falling into the water with a crash, a splash, and a wave that could swamp a boat. The biggest is Columbia Glacier, which belongs on your life list if you visit the far north.
The other approach is from Valdez, which offers cruises to different glaciers in the central part of the sound. Both gateway towns also have charter-fishing boats for salmon and halibut outings. A family fishing trip to the Sound years ago yielded a fish bigger than the boy (my son) who caught it.
It may not seem like it now, in the heat of the battle, but nature, given time, can heal a lot of wounds. Go to Prince William Sound today and you’ll be awestruck. You also might come back with a whopping fish tale.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.