Appalachia Journal

23 After Exxon Valdez

June 1, 2013

Hidden damages below Prince William Sound

Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2013

My whole body trembled as the shadows darkened over our campsite beside Shoup Glacier near Valdez, Alaska. Sea kayaking in the rain on a 40-degree day on 35-degree water induced the chill. As night closed in, the wind picked up, and the rain came in horizontal sheets. The threat of hypothermia scared me, but there was no place to get warm, no chance to build a fire on the treeless gravel beach on which I huddled under the tarp-covered bug shelter that served as a community tent….
Valdez has always held a dubious place in my conservation conscience. As a preschooler, one of my first memories of a natural disaster was the Alaskan earthquake of 1964. The strongest earthquake ever recorded on the North American continent, it measured 9.2 on the Richter scale with an epicenter a mere 45 miles west of Valdez. The quake triggered a massive underwater landslide, killing 115 in Alaska and destroying the fishing port of Valdez. The quake created a tsunami that killed 33 people, mostly children, who were swept away while standing on the wharf watching a supply ship unload….
In 1989, just three days shy of 25 years after the earthquake, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef at the mouth of the Valdez Arm about 25 miles south of Valdez Harbor. Eleven million gallons of black gold spilled into Prince William Sound. Currents and weather spread the oil along 1,300 miles of coastline and more than 11,000 square miles of ocean….
According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, a joint state and federal partnership charged with monitoring the environmental damage and the recovery from the oil spill, 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 killer whales, and countless salmon and herring died during the period immediately following the oil spill, though these numbers may be low as many carcasses sank uncounted….
It took six hours to paddle back to Valdez. The alarm inside my head mellowed the closer we came to the harbor, and I began to look around again. Several sea lions paused to look at us. A rare sabine’s gull glided past my bow. There was little evidence of the oil spill, at least on the surface.
Most of the lingering effects of the oil are not apparent to the naked eye, but Prince William Sound is far from fully healed. If you dig a few inches below the surface of the intertidal beaches that were heavily oiled during the spill, various amounts of oil will fill the hole, depending on the location. According to a 2007 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 26,000 gallons of oil remain in the sands of Prince William Sound, more than the cleanup effort was able to remove, and though it is dissipating, the rate is a slow, only 0 percent to 4 percent per year….

These are excerpts. To read the rest of Lisa Densmore’s story, please order the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of Appalachia.

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Lisa Densmore Ballard

Lisa Densmore Ballard is an award-winning writer, photographer, and television producer/host, as well as a long-time member of AMC. She is the author of seven books, including Hiking the White Mountains (FalconGuides) and Best Hikes with Dogs: New Hampshire & Vermont (The Mountaineers Books).