Exxon Valdez: Has Prince William Sound Recovered?
STORY: A decade later, you can once again hear the shrieks of eagles soaring over the blue-green waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound. You can watch sea otters as they float lazily, grooming their fur and caring for their young, just as they did before the Exxon Valdez crashed into a well-marked reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil. To the untrained eye, things seem back to normal.
But look deeper--as scientists have done--and you'll see that looks are deceiving. According to Molly McCammon, executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the sound will need much more time to heal.
McCAMMON: "It is clear that the oil spill affected areas have still not recovered from that earlier devastation. We know that while there is progress toward recovery, there is still oil on the beaches. We know that weathered oil can still be toxic at very low levels. We know that many resources are still not recovered and we know that the people of the region have not healed."
The trustee council was established following the Alaska spill to protect habitat and monitor recovery of Prince William Sound. That means rebuilding lost populations of fish, birds, and animals.
By official counts, the spill killed 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales. Numerous other species, from salmon to clams, also suffered casualties. More than 500 miles of remote wilderness shoreline was oiled.
Yet a decade later, the river otter and the bald eagle are the only species to have recovered. Thirteen other species, such as salmon, harbor seals, and several seabirds, are listed as "recovering." Still other species, such as the sound's killer whales, have shown little sign of bouncing back, according to Stan Senner, chief scientist with the trustee council.
SENNER: "Killer whales have shown some small progress since the oil spill back in 1989. We've seen a gain of some three animals to the injured AB pod since 1996. However, we continue to place this species in the not recovering category because when you have an animal that lives to be 30 to 50 years old, it's simply premature to declare we've got real progress here."
Sea otters--those cuddly marine mammals that became the poster children of the oil spill--were among the hardest hit. In heavily oiled areas, sea otters have had to cope with long-term exposure to oil. Stan Senner says it may take twenty more years for these populations to fully recover.
But not all the news is bad. To protect birds and animals, the trustee council spent $400 million dollars, from an out of court civil settlement with Exxon, to buy 650,000 acres of wilderness in the spill area. Molly McCammon says protecting habitat will ensure the recovery of the sound's ecosystem.
McCAMMON: "These lands include 1,500 miles of shoreline, more than 300 salmon streams--incredible habitat for all of the species listed up here today."
Yet to some, the most fitting conclusion to this ten-year ordeal is the end of Captain Joseph Hazelwood's legal appeals. Convicted in 1990 of illegally discharging oil he will this summer begin 1,000 hours of community service. He'll spend that time picking up trash along Alaska's highways.
OUTRO: From the Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, this is Doug Schneider with Arctic Science Journeys.
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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