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8 The Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska

Nancy Y. Davis

The oil industry and the spill
Historical and cultural contexts
The oil spill: Community impact
But, what is recovery?
Chronology of the first 10 days


Oil spills in the ocean epitomize the increasingly global nature of industrial disasters. All countries use oil and most import it by sea. As other industries expand, more oil is consumed and the volume of tanker traffic increases, linking risk upon risk, country by country. Moreover, oil transportation is a complex international undertaking that spreads moral - if not legal responsibility for accidents among many states. This was well demonstrated in 1993 when the tanker Braer broke up in the Shetland Islands. As one Canadian transportation official noted, the Braer was "... constructed in Japan under Liberian registry... owned by an American company... chartered by a Canadian company with a crew from Greece, the Philippines and Poland, and... went aground in England with oil from Norway" (Kizzia 1993a: 9).

If that oil had found its way around the North Sea, then six adjacent countries might have been added to the list of involved states - Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Fifteen countries potentially involved in only one oil spill! With 7,000 tankers transporting 10 billion barrels of oil by sea each year, the stage is set for increasingly complex disasters.

This chapter addresses the largest marine oil spill in North America.1 It occurred when the Exxon Valdez ran aground and leaked oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound on 24 March 1989 (fig. 8.1). About one-quarter of the cargo, 10.8 million (US) gallons, or 258,000 barrels (38,800 tons) of crude oil was spilled. Some ultimately coated about 1,200 miles of coastline, up to 470 miles away from the site of the accident. No human lives were lost, but 20 communities and a rich natural environment were affected.

Fig. 8.1 Location of the Exxon Valdez grounding

Characteristics of vulnerability to disaster in a culturally diverse and spatially dispersed population provide an organizing theme for this study. The coast of south-east Alaska is a setting where a giant oil spill had the potential to bring rapid cultural change. Yet, while some cultural patterns were modified, others seem to persist. In some cases, predisaster changes accelerated, while in others they slowed. New elements, new organizations, new positions, new leaders, new arenas for conflict arose out of the confusing rubble. Do the new entities add to the predisaster ones, or displace them? Some cultures welcome new ideas; others resist them. Some survivors thrive with the new challenges; others may never fully recover.

This chapter draws on anthropological concepts and understandings of cultures, of community histories, their value systems, and relative amenability to modification. The Exxon Valdez disaster seems to have generated considerable emotional energy; massive sums of money; a flurry of new jobs; a gaggle of regulations; and extensive, continuing litigation. But, because of legal constraints connected with class action lawsuits filed on behalf of fishermen and Native populations, few results of social science research on the recovery of communities have been published. What follows represents an attempt to summarize what is known and to raise new questions about the implications.

The oil industry and the spill

The accident

Oil was first discovered in Alaska in 1901, and commercial production began over 50 years later near the Kenai Peninsula in the southern part of the state. But the crude oil that leaked from the Exxon Valdez originated on Alaska's north coast (the so-called North Slope) near Prudhoe Bay. Following discovery of this field in 1968, the technology for transporting oil south across 800 miles of Arctic and subarctic terrain had to be engineered, a consortium of investment and management companies organized, environmental issues considered, laws passed, land claims of Alaska Natives addressed, the pipeline built, and port facilities constructed. A need for speed was highlighted by the Middle East oil embargo of 1973-1974 and a growing awareness of the extent to which Americans might be dependent on Alaskan oil. The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline Authorization Act was passed in 1973, setting aside some of the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) - a previously unheard-of action. Construction began on 29 April 1974, and the first oil flowed through a 48 inch pipe to the terminal in Valdez on 31 July 1977. At present, a volume of about 1.7 million barrels arrives in Valdez every day and, because of limited storage space, most of it must be transferred to tankers that navigate the narrow passage of Valdez Arm into the Gulf of Alaska. Between 1977 and 24 March 1989, from 700 to 1,100 tankers per year crossed Prince William Sound. Alaskan oil provides about 20 per cent of the 1991 US petroleum production, and about 85 per cent of the State of Alaska's annual revenue. However, the North Slope fields appear to have reached the peak of production and now face an inexorable decline in output over the next several decades.

Gramling and Freudenberg (1992) place the Exxon Valdez spill in the historical context of national and international petroleum politics. They note that 111/2 years elapsed between the first major oil discovery on the North Slope and the beginning of oil transportation from Valdez, and that another 111/2 years passed before the first major oil spill occurred on Thigh Reef in 1989. As the North Slope oil industry grew, Alaskan citizens tended to associate it with ARCO, one major shareholder in the consortium of firms that made up the Alyeska Pipeline Company. Most Alaskans did not know that Exxon was one of seven companies sharing the facility. When the oil tanker accident occurred, there were only about 35 Exxon employees in the state, in contrast to 2,600 of ARCO's. That fact may have made a considerable difference to subsequent developments: lacking much contact with Alaska, Exxon's leaders did not know the cultural complexities and diversity present among the Alaskan population. Nor did Alaskans in the small communities along the North Pacific know much about Exxon or the complex business structures and cultural characteristics of its corporate world.

Because Arctic ecosystems were poorly known and assumed to be fragile, environmental concerns were an integral part of the negotiation and building phases of the Alaskan pipeline and associated facilities. Numerous safeguards were included in the project. But, over the years, an "atrophy of vigilance" had taken hold - many of the precautions had been relaxed, personnel had been cut back, and equipment had not been maintained (Gramling and Freudenburg 1992: 176). This falling away of concern was partly a result of the oil industry's safety record in Alaska. After years of more or less troublefree operation, the pipeline did not seem as disruptive to the environment as originally anticipated, despite the fact that it crossed three mountain ranges, three active seismic zones, and hundreds of rivers and streams. Tankers had successfully passed through the Valdez Arm 8,700 times! In light of this record, even the hitherto sacrosanct Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was in danger of being opened to oil exploration and development. But the appearance of a riskless industry was deceptive. As Browning and Shetler (1993) suggest:

What we often fail to imagine as likely possibilities occur more normally and more frequently than expected. Such accidents seem to arrive as complete surprises, and only 20/20 hindsight reveals the systematically ignored potential risks that have been triggered by the coincidence of various causes, apparently unconnected and ordinarily Insufficient, but accumulating enough critical mass of disaster when they unexpectedly reinforce each other.

And so it proved to be. The spill became "a benchmark event in the public perception of technological hazards" (Tierney and Quarantelli 1992: 167-173), highlighting how lax different organizations with fragmented responsibilities had become.

The accident

Exxon Valdez was a new ship, the largest vessel ever built on the US west coast at the time of its delivery in San Diego on 11 December 1986 by the National Steel and Ship Building Company to the world's largest oil company. It measured 987 feet long, 166 feet wide, and 88 feet deep from the main deck. With the aid of computerized equipment, the master, Joseph Hazelwood, and his crew of 20 could transport up to 1.48 million barrels of crude oil per voyage.

The ill-fated ship arrived in Valdez late on 22 March 1989, loaded 1,263,000 barrels of crude oil, and departed from Berth Five of the Alyeska Marine Terminal at 9.16 p.m. on 23 March. The following brief outline of subsequent events is based on several sources (Keeble 1991: 36-46; Richter 1990).

Icebergs, calved off the nearby Columbia glacier, had been reported in the Valdez Arm passage, and the crew were aware that evasive action might be necessary. As midnight neared, the tanker was heading down the Arm at full speed and those on board were preparing for the change of watch (fig. 8.1). Third mate Cousins was in charge on the bridge and able-bodied crew member (AB) Kagan was at the helm; Captain Hazelwood was in his quarters. AB Jones was assigned to the watch usually posted at the bow of the ship, but that night she was suffering from a cold and asked permission to stand watch outside the bridge. She reported a red light on the starboard (right) of the boat; it should have been to the left (port). Cousins was watching the radar looking for icebergs and the steering may have been on automatic pilot. In any case, Cousins registered the danger, and instructed Kagan to change course. The ship did not respond immediately, owing to either the shallow water or the fact that it was still on automatic pilot. Cousins called for Hazelwood but, before the Captain could respond, the tanker ran onto Thigh Reef.2 The time was 12.04 a.m., 24 March 1989.

On shore in Valdez, staff at the Coast Guard Station who were charged with tracking the tankers were also changing watch. Only one person there was assigned to monitor the radar. The single radar that extended vision out of the Arm to Thigh Island was also out of order. Another one had been requested and funded but not yet installed. The Exxon Valdez's imminent danger was not noticed.

The first day: American Good Friday
For many Alaskans, especially in the villages in Tatitlek, Chenega, and Old Harbor and the towns of Kodiak, Seward, and Valdez, the fact that it was Good Friday was significant. Twenty-five years before, on Good Friday, 27 March 1964, the largest earthquake in North America during modern times occurred. Its epicentre was 32 miles north-west of the Exxon Valdez grounding. Many of the same communities, and in some cases the same people, were affected by both events.

Richter (1990) provides the most comprehensive account of the first 40 days after the accident. A detailed report of agency responses and organizational turmoil can be found in Harrald, Cohn, and Wallace (1992).

During the first days, Exxon was concerned about offloading the remaining oil from the ship, and the fishermen were concerned about the oil already flowing. Boats and crews were ready to work but oil-containment and recovery equipment was not available. For several days, oil continued to pour out of the tanker. Debates about the use of chemical dispersants occurred throughout the first three days but, by the time they were resolved, a storm had begun to move the oil away from the vicinity of Thigh reef (see the Chronology of the first 10 days; Alaska Oil Spill Commission 1990).

Thereafter, marine life began to incur severe losses. Years later, damage assessment continues and the total impacts are not fully known (Baker, Clark and Kingston, 1991; Exxon Company 1992). One of the 51 loss studies that were undertaken shortly after the accident reported that the number of seabirds killed ranged from "260,000 to 580,000, with a best approximation of between 350,000 and 390,000" (US General Accounting Office [GAO] 1991c: 2). Other summary data estimated that perhaps 300,000 seabirds and up to 5,500 sea otters had been killed. The sea otter, in particular, became a focus of worldwide environmental and media concern. By 28 March, bird and otter rescue centres had opened. Restoration of 193 otters cost about $80,000 each.

Between April and 15 September, shoreline assessment teams surveyed about 3,400 miles and determined that around 1,300 miles had been impacted by oil (fig. 8.2). At the height of clean-up activity in 1989 more than 11,000 workers, 1,400 vessels, and 80 aircraft were at work in the region. Clean-up techniques included cold-water washing, warm-water washing, bioremediation, mechanical treatment, and manual removal. The relative effectiveness of different methods continues to be debated.

Fig. 8.2 Movement of oil from the Exxon Valdez (24 March to 18 May 1989)

During the first winter after the spill, monitoring programmes were put in place and, by May 1990, shoreline assessment teams were again sent out. More than 1,000 workers treated 600 shoreline sites during the summer of 1990. Federal and state oil spill legislation was also passed. Clean-up continued in 1991, albeit on a smaller scale: five teams treated 147 shoreline sites (Baker, Clark, and Kingston 1991). At this time an Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council and a series of Regional Council Advisory committees were established. In May and June 1992, two teams checked 21 miles of shoreline and found traces of oil on 7 miles. By 12 June the US Coast Guard and the State of Alaska declared the clean-up complete.

Now, more than five years after the accident, there is no clear consensus on the spill's effects. Controversies about data, methods, and interpretation were highlighted at an Exxon-sponsored conference in Atlanta (April 1993). Exxon-funded scientists claimed that they could find no lingering traces of the Exxon Valdez oil in samples of fish and wildlife collected during 1991; scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) countered with the observation that plants and animals could metabolize hydrocarbons into compounds that did not resemble those that were originally ingested (Stone 1993).

Legal actions in connection with the spill are still pending. Some 40,000 Alaskans are claiming around $2.4 billion in direct damages and the disposition of a $900 million clean-up fund is also at stake. In August 1993, 74 boats protested about the lack of resolution on their claims by blocking tankers for several days in Valdez Arm; the fishermen's frustration was compounded by failed runs of herring and pink salmon. When it was announced in September 1993 that Exxon Shipping was suing Alyeska, the pending settlement was reported "jeopardized. "

In summary, though most of the oil appears to have dissipated, human impacts continue, especially in the form of litigation. The need for integration of scientific studies is also clear; thus far, such studies seem to be as fragmented as the agencies and other interests that conducted them.

Historical and cultural contexts

The Katmai eruption
The great Alaskan earthquake

To understand the various responses to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the affected area as a whole should be considered - its geology, cultures, communities, economies, and history, including its history of previous disasters. This kind of analysis provides a regional approach, with time depth. If we can better understand the significance of differences in community size, local cultures, and relative vulnerability to "surprises," more appropriate prevention and mitigation plans for the future can be made concerning industrial and natural hazards.

A topographical map of south-central Alaska reflects the wrinkling effects of geological upheavals as the Pacific tectonic plate plunges north under the North American plate. This area is a highly active volcanic and earthquake zone. It is also a zone of active glaciation. Most of the dramatic land-forms were carved out by Pleistocene glaciers and their successors continue to advance and recede, sometimes calving massive icebergs into adjacent waterways such as Valdez Arm. Like the coasts of Hawaii and Japan, the Alaskan coasts are also vulnerable to tsunamis generated elsewhere. In summary, this is a hazardprone part of the planet.

Prehistoric evidence indicates that human settlement along the coasts began about 7000 B.P. (Clark 1984). The Alaska Native population now are referred to by their common linguistic affiliation, Alutiiq. This cultural region lies between the Tlingit Indians of south-east Alaska and the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands to the west.

The Alutiiq Native population occupies 16 villages in four sub-regions and is affiliated with three different Native corporations that were formed in the 1970s to manage lands and natural resources according to provisions of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act. The villages are small, physically isolated, coastal, and oriented primarily to the fishing industry (Cultural Dynamics, Ltd. 1993; Davis 1977, 1984, 1986). All were affected in some way by the oil spill and subsequent events.

Native residents of the area also live in four regional towns, which are largely occupied by non-Natives. The towns are larger, more diversified, and historically linked to different resources - Cordova to copper development in 1906, Valdez to the gold fields in 1898, Seward to the railroad and seaport access to coal in 1903, and Kodiak to Russian access to sea otter in the early nineteenth century. Now, each of these towns continues to have a different economic mix: commercial fishing provides the primary support of Kodiak and Cordova; Valdez (the terminus of the oil pipeline) and Seward both have fish-processing companies and also are educational centres and tourist destinations.

Valdez and Seward are linked by road to Alaska's major city, Anchorage. The other two towns - Kodiak City and Cordova - and all 16 villages are connected to each other only by air, boat, and, for some, an occasional ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway system. Although these communities are relatively small, they represent considerable diversity in ethnicity, economies, and politics. In all, around 16,000 people live in the affected area, including about 2,000 in the small villages, which range in size from 50 to 300 residents (Fall 1993b).

Disaster experiences have further helped to give different communities distinctive histories. Three major disasters have occurred in this region during the twentieth century, each the largest of its kind in North America: these are the Katmai eruption in 1912, the great Alaskan earthquake of 1964, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Because the experiences and skills involved in coping with Exxon Valdez may have been affected by the legacy of the other disasters, a brief discussion of their impacts is in order.

The Katmai eruption

On 6 June 1912, three cubic miles of volcanic debris erupted from Mount Katmai on the Alaska Peninsula. The explosion was heard 750 miles away in Juneau. An ash cloud spread over 100,000 square miles and traces were discovered as far away as Algeria, giving rise to concern about possible climate changes. To the south of Katmai, ash and darkness fell over a band of sea and land for three days. Up to four feet of ash descended on Kodiak: roofs collapsed; fish streams became clogged; gardens were smothered.

Captain Perry, of the US Revenue Cutter Manning, took charge of rescue, evacuation, and survival efforts in Kodiak. He coordinated supplies, allocated resources, and brought frightened villagers on board. Further, he closed the two bars in the town. There was no question about his authority or the quality of his leadership. Many individuals wrote later about his efficiency and fairness. This experience stands in sharp contrast to the confusion about leadership and authority that surrounded the oil spill 77 years later.

Because an electrical storm associated with the eruption disabled the telegraph station on Woody Island near Kodiak, the area was without direct means for letting the world know what had happened. A flurry of telegrams was routed through the town of Seward to Washington, DC. Secretary of the Interior Walter L. Fisher tried to validate information with Alaska's Territorial Governor Walter E. Clark, who was also trying to assess what had happened and how serious conditions were.

Eventually, three Native villages on the Alaska Peninsula were relocated: the residents of Savinofsky moved to South Naknek in the Bristol Bay area; and the residents of Katmai and Cape Douglas were brought first to Afognak and then resettled at a new village site on the Peninsula, which they named Perryville after Captain Perry (Davis 1986; National Archives: Record Group 75, Bureau of Education; National Archives: Record Group 22, Bureau of Fisheries).

As with most disasters, there were dire predictions of severe and possibly irreversible negative impacts - ruined fish seasons; dead barnacles, mussels and kelp; destroyed streams; blind birds and animals; smothered gardens. But, to the amazement of the scientists who arrived later that summer, the rivers ran, the fish returned, mussels and kelp grew, few animals died, and gardens thrived in the rich ash (Calahane 1959).

One of the benefits of the Katmai disaster was new information provided by a scientific expedition organized by the National Geographic Society to study the Valley of 10,000 Smokes (Griggs 1922; Martin 1913). The area was set aside as a national monument. Through a series of additions, it now encompasses 4.1 million acres called the Katmai National Park and Preserve.

The Native people of Katmai received one of the earliest village schools in Alaska at the new village of Perryville. Another unexpected, but temporary, benefit is mentioned by Martin (1913: 180): during the summer of 1912 there were no mosquitoes in the area. Also, the Katmai eruption left a more permanent marker, a special aid to future archaeological stratigraphy, by depositing a distinctive ash level, one of 14 identified.

In summary, the Katmai eruption of 1912 created a terrible, intense, but temporary fright for those in the path of the ash. No lives were lost. The government quickly came to the rescue; several villages were abandoned and new ones built. New scientific information was gained. Moreover, the event was remembered by a few people in spontaneous references 52 years later, during my research in the region following the next greatest disaster of its kind in North America - the 1964 earthquake.

The great Alaskan earthquake

At 5.36 p.m. on 27 March 1964, a shallow-focus earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale (revised from an earlier 8.4) wrenched 100,000 square miles of the earth's crust. The epicentre was 55 miles west of Valdez and 73 miles east of Anchorage. Whole islands in Prince William Sound were uplifted: Montague Island rose 23 feet; Latouche Island moved 60 feet southeast. The Portage area on Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet subsided 9 feet. Earthquake damage in part of the city of Anchorage was extensive. Underwater avalanches caused tsunamis that destroyed three villages Chenega in Prince William Sound, and Kaguyak and Old Harbor on Kodiak Island. Three towns (Valdez, Seward, Kodiak) and two villages (Afognak, Ouzinkie) were partly destroyed. Property damage was estimated to be $300400 million in 1964 US dollars. Partly because of the time of day, and partly because of the low population density of the area, the death toll of 115 (in Alaska) was remarkably low: 9 deaths were from the earthquake and 106 from local waves generated by underwater landslides and tsunamis. The tsunami run-up was 30 feet at Seward, 90 feet at Chenega, and 220 feet at Valdez.

Physical destruction was great, and the initial fright was compounded by a series of major aftershocks (11 with magnitudes greater than 6.0 on the first day alone) and rumours of more tsunamis (Norton and Haas 1970; Davis 1970, 1971, 1987). As with other disasters, some people were relocated. Two villages were abandoned. The survivors from Kaguyak and Chenega were merged with two other villages, forming larger, more complex, communities receiving more services for all - and new problems. The social organizations of four separate villages do not combine easily into two, a phenomenon that probably has occurred periodically under similar circumstances throughout human history. Just as biotas meet, shift, and interchange species following rearrangement of the earth's crust and climate (Vermeij 1991), so also are populations of humans dislocated, relocated, and newly mixed under radically changed conditions (Workman 1979).

During the recovery period, new local skills were developed to manage agency involvement and new technology, such as community-wide generator systems that were installed in the villages. Valdez was relocated to a nearby site; the port at Seward was rebuilt; urban renewal projects were brought to downtown Kodiak and to Seldovia. The village of Afognak was moved to a new community, Port Lions. Survivors from Chenega were relocated to Tatitlek. Most of the residents of Kaguyak relocated at Akhiok. The village of Old Harbor was rebuilt at the same site, a few feet above high-tide level.

After the 1964 earthquake, the Alaska Regional Tsunami Warning System, later renamed the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center (ATWC), was installed in Palmer. It links Alaska with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu, established in 1948. New regulations for building construction were adopted (and some later modified or abandoned). The National Academy of Sciences promptly organized an Earthquake Committee and by 1 June 1964 their first meeting was held. The multivolume study was published by 1970; it stands as a pathbreaking example of interdisciplinary cooperation in support of attempts to resolve a major public problem. As noted by Rogers (1970) and Dacy and Kunreuther (1969), the earthquake brought in federal funds just shortly after statehood (1959), a time when Alaska was just beginning to spring free of total federal control.

Displacement; new local skills; new technology; additional funds, knowledge and organizations; these all followed the 1964 earthquake. Did this also happen after Exxon Valdez?

The oil spill: Community impact

Psychological, social, and cultural impacts
The villages
Town responses

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.

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.

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