Within a week of the Exxon Oil spill in 1989, currents and winds pushed the slick 90 miles from the site of the tanker, out of Prince William Sound into the Gulf of Alaska. It eventually reached nearly 600 miles away from the wreck contaminating 1,500 miles of shoreline – about the length of California’s coast and was described as the “largest oil spill to date in U.S. waters.” In June of 1989 I was dispatched to Cordova, Alaska in my new role as an advisor to a donor. Eleven million gallons of oil had spewed into one of the most bountiful marine ecosystems in the world. In total nearly a half million birds died. 30,000 carcasses of 90 species were recovered from the beaches, but this was only a fraction of the actual mortality as the long-term chronic effects and decreased reproduction continues today. Many fish died, but the most serious damage was to their critical spawning and rearing habitats. Over 100 salmon streams were oiled. I remember standing near Bligh Reef where the Valdez had run ground. I distinctly remember the smell of the oil. During my week in the area I had met with indigenous groups, a number of fishermen and their families from the region, and a marine biologist who had been dispatched by the USDA to assess the damage to the variety of marine mammals. This trip in 1989 was my first trip to Alaska.
Today, Prince William Sound appears “normal” to the naked eye. However, if you look below the surface, oil continues to contaminate beaches, national parks, and designated wilderness areas. The spill resulted in profound physiological effects to fish and wildlife: reproductive failure, genetic damage, curved spines, lowered growth and body weights, altered feeding habits, reduced egg volume, liver damage, eye tumors, and debilitating brain lesions. Twenty one years after the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, oil persists in the region and, in some places, the oil “is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill,” according to the council overseeing the restoration efforts.
With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectance in these rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years over the past two generations. Locals blame the oil that pollutes their land and can scarcely believe the contrast with the steps taken by BP and the US government to try to stop the Gulf oil leak and to protect the Louisiana and broader gulf coast shorelines from pollution. According to Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth International, “we see frantic efforts being made to stop the spill in the US, but in Nigeria, oil companies largely ignore their spills, cover them up and destroy people’s livelihood and environments.” The scale of the pollution is mind-boggling. The Nigerian government’s oil spill detection and response agency (Nosdra) says that between 1976 and 1996 alone, more than 2.4 million barrels of oil contaminated the environment. “Oil spills and the dumping of oil into waterways have been extensive, often poisoning drinking water and destroying vegetation. These incidents have become common due to the lack of laws and enforcement measures within the existing political regime,” said a spokesman for Nosdra.
A spokesman for the Stakeholder Democracy Network in Lagos, which works to empower those individuals in communities affected by the oil companies’ activities said: “The response to the spill in the United States should serve as a stiff reminder as to how far spill management in Nigeria has drifted from standards across the world.”
It is now 100 days since the spill and oil has advanced along the Gulf Coast continuing hundreds of miles from Freshwater Bayou in the middle of Louisiana’s coastline all the way down the Florida panhandle to just outside Panama City. The exact rate at which oil is leaking is not known. Estimates of the flow rate have changed drastically to 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day – from 1,000 barrels a day originally forecasted. Calculating the spill to date yields a total of 94 million to 184 million gallons spewed since the rig exploded on April 20th (factoring in the roughly 365,000 barrels collected from the wellhead). To date, BP has sprayed nearly one million gallons of chemical dispersant on the gulf’s surface and applied 500,000 gallons to the leak. The notion is that the diluted dispersant is less toxic than the concentrated oil it treats, but the use of such large volumes of it and its application in a novel setting like the wellhead constitute an “experiment of epic proportions.” BP struggled for months to cap the well and it is still not permanently fixed.
The courts are now wrangling over Obama’s moratorium on offshore drilling. BP is currently exempted from a project it calls Liberty –– “three miles off the coast of Alaska.” Regulators have granted its status as an “onshore” project even though it is about three miles off the coast in the Beaufort Sea. The reason it was deemed “onshore”: it sits on an artificial island – a 31-acre pile of gravel in about 22 feet of water.
The artificial island was built by British Petroleum.
On Tuesday another spill happened north of Barataria Bay, Louisiana which has already been sullied by the larger spill. A barge struck an abandoned well and officials are saying it will take 10 to 12 days to cap. Furthermore, the hurricane season has now started with the potential to disrupt efforts to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
In the Prince William Sound area of Alaska today, one can scratch down a few inches along the shoreline and reach oil. The smell of the oil greets you before it coats your fingers. What I remember most from my trip to this area twenty one years ago, was the resounding call of “never again” that was uttered by so many politicians.
In the forests and farmland in parts of Nigeria the sheen of greasy oil also greets you long before it coats your hands or feet. Oil companies here and in many parts of the so-called “developing world” continue to act with impunity and recklessness.
Yet another commission has been appointed by President Obama to study the Gulf Coast oil accident and make recommendations to strengthen regulation. Another report will be issued. More will be said about our energy policies and our response preparedness. The fisherman of Alaska, Nigeria, and the Gulf Coast are now tied together by oil and the anguish of their waterways.
At Tides, we have activated our Relief and Reconstruction Fund to support the Gulf Coast. Give to the fund.