Remembering The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
5:01 pm
Wed March 26, 2014

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Brings 'Bad Juju' And Pain 25 Years Later

Originally published on Wed March 26, 2014 8:54 pm

At Ross Mullins' home in Cordova, Alaska, you have to slam the front door extra hard to make it close. The former commercial fisherman lives in a small wood-frame house that's in need of repair. Some of the windows are cracked and he leaves the water faucets dripping to protect uninsulated pipes from the harsh Alaskan winter.

When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground and started leaking oil 25 years ago, the disaster drastically changed the fishing industry in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Mullins has never recovered from that blow.

"I figure my own net worth going into '89 was around $1.5 million," Mullins says.

He was in his mid-50s, prime earning years, when the spill wiped out herring and other fisheries.

"My net worth today is, I would say, minus $100,000," Mullins says. "That's the nutshell right there."

His story begins 18 years before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when he and other Cordova fishermen were fighting the proposed trans-Alaska pipeline that would bring oil tankers to their fishing waters.

He has an old clip from the CBS Evening News that shows a young Mullins standing on a pier, warning of economic collapse should there be an oil spill in Prince William Sound.

"This town would no longer continue to exist in my mind," he said in the video.

The words seem prophetic today. This fishing town of 2,200 endured decades of financial hardship in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Mullins, now 78 years old, sits at his cramped kitchen table, empty gin bottles rattling around on the floor, and describes a downward spiral in the years following the spill: first bankruptcy, then divorce. This is a story repeated by other families around Cordova.

"I'm just kind of waiting for the end, you know?" Mullins says.

Like a lot of local fishermen, Mullins was banking on a class-action lawsuit to make him whole. In 1994, an Alaska jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages for Exxon's negligence. But the litigation dragged on for nearly two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court reduced the award to $500 million, plus interest.

When the payout finally came, Mullins says it was pennies on the dollar of what he'd lost. Fishermen here slowly, painfully lost control of their destiny, he says.

"For the majority of the fishermen in Prince William Sound, the legacy of the Exxon Valdez is bitterness, loss of faith in the federal justice system," Mullins says. "That's what most fisherman wanted, was justice."

Today, with the litigation over, the biggest mystery that remains is what happened to Prince William Sound's herring fishery. Other fish — salmon, cod and halibut — have rebounded. Scientists are still trying to figure out why herring are not back to fishable levels now 25 years after the spill.

Scott Pegau coordinates a herring monitoring program at the Prince William Sound Science Center. Walking along the Cordova fishing harbor, he points out baby herring swimming beneath a pier.

"Look, you see over in the corner?" Pegau says. "These are fish that are about four inches long that we're trying to find."

Pegau says herring are important because they're a food source for just about every other species on Prince William Sound: the whales, sea otters, seals, bald eagles and other birds. Twenty-five years ago herring also represented about half of the fishing economy in Cordova, the first fish to arrive each spring.

The problem now is that there are not enough young herring to replenish the adult stock, Pegau says. The answers as to why remain elusive.

"It may be one of those things where, when the ecosystem came back it just came back in a different mode," Pegau says.

That has forced fishermen here to find new ways to survive. Rob Maxwell is busy in the back room at LFS Marine and Outdoor in Cordova stitching a cork line to the webbing of a massive 900-foot commercial fishing net, a custom seine that purses up like a drawstring to catch salmon.

Exxon Valdez oil spill anniversaries are wearing thin around here.

"A lot of people just want it to go away," Maxwell says. "It just brings bad juju up."

Maxwell is a third-generation herring fisherman. He spends his winters building nets and now fishes for salmon. He was 25 years old when the spill happened in 1989.

"The only way I made it was, my wife went to work. We went to work doing other things," Maxwell says.

His wife started a cleaning business. He spent more time building nets. It was touch and go for years, he says, when he "seriously stressed out" about whether they could make it. Like many other fishermen at the time, Maxwell says he encouraged his kids to go to college and find a less vulnerable career, which left a generation gap. The industry is just now starting to attract young anglers again.

Maxwell points to a young couple helping him build the seine net, Sabin and Casey Landaluce. They build other people's nets in the winter and fish together come spring.

"I been fishing since I was 15," says Sabin Landaluce, now 28 years old.

Landaluce has little memory of the spill. He says his generation is now embracing the fishing business.

"It's a good thing because in 10 to 15 years a lot of guys will be retiring," Landaluce says. "So we'll be the future of the fishery."

The future in Cordova has been forever changed by an ecological disaster 25 years ago.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

When the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker ran aground and started leaking oil 25 years ago, the disaster drastically changed the fishing industry in Prince William Sound, Alaska. This week, NPR is looking at effects that still linger a quarter of a century later.

Today, NPR's Debbie Elliott has the story of fishermen in Cordova, Alaska, who have struggled to survive.

ROSS MULLINS: Slam that door real hard, real hard. There you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOOR)

MULLINS: There, that's the way to do it.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Meet Ross Mullins.

MULLINS: I'm a former commercial fisherman here in Cordova, who lived here since 1963.

ELLIOTT: His wooden house is in need of maintenance, windows are cracked, and water trickles from the bathroom where he leaves the water dripping to protect un-insulated pipes from the harsh Alaskan winter.

Mullins' story begins 18 years before the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, when he and other Cordova fishermen were fighting the proposed Trans-Alaska Pipeline that would bring oil tankers to their fishing waters. He plays an old clip from the "CBS Evening News."

(SOUNDBITE OF "CBS EVENING NEWS" CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They fear an oil spill if the tanker should collide or run aground in some of the treacherous waterways.

MULLINS: The economy here is based solely on fishing...

ELLIOTT: In the video, a young Mullins is standing on a pier, warning of economic collapse should there be an oil spill in Prince William Sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF "CBS EVENING NEWS" CLIP)

MULLINS: If it were damaged seriously, this town would no longer continue exist in my mind.

ELLIOTT: If the sound were damaged seriously, this town would no longer exist, words that seem prophetic today. The fishing town of 2,200 endured decades of financial hardship when the 1989 oil spill wiped out Cordova's lifeblood. Now 78, Mullins shows the tape from his cramped kitchen table, trash strewn on the floor below.

MULLINS: Don't mind my gin bottles down there.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: Drinking gin from a jelly jar, Mullins describes a downward spiral in the years following the Exxon-Valdez spill. First bankruptcy, then divorce, a story repeated in other families around Cordova.

MULLINS: I'm just kind of waiting for the end. You know?

ELLIOTT: At the time of the disaster, Mullins was in his mid-50s - prime earning years fishing herring.

MULLINS: Well, I figure my own net worth going into '89 was around 1.5 million. My net worth today is, I would say, minus 100,000. There you are. That's the nutshell right there.

ELLIOTT: Like a lot of local fishermen, Mullins was banking on a class-action lawsuit to make him whole. In 1994, an Alaska jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages for Exxon's negligence. But the litigation dragged on for nearly two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court reduced the award to $500 million plus interest. Mullins says when the payout finally came, it was pennies on the dollar of what he'd lost. He says fishermen here slowly, painfully lost control of their destiny.

MULLINS: For the majority of the fishermen in Prince William Sound, the legacy of the Exxon-Valdez is bitterness, loss of faith in the federal justice system. That's what most fisherman wanted was justice.

ELLIOTT: Today, with the litigation over, the biggest mystery that remains is what happened to Prince William Sound's herring fishery? Other fish - salmon, cod, and halibut - have rebounded. But scientists are still trying to figure out why herring are not back to fishable levels now 25 years after the spill.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS)

SCOTT PEGAU: Look, you see over in the corner? Those are little herring.

ELLIOTT: That's Scott Pegau. He coordinates a herring monitoring program at the Prince William Sound Science Center. He's spotting baby herring from a pier at the Cordova fishing harbor.

PEGAU: The really small fish that we're after, these are fish that are about four inches long that we're trying to find.

ELLIOTT: Pegau says herring are key because they're a food source for just about every other species on Prince William Sound: the whales, the sea otters and seals, bald eagles and other birds. Twenty-five years ago, herring also represented about half of the fishing economy in Cordova, the first fish to arrive each spring. Pegau says the problem now is there are not enough young herring to replenish the adult stock, answers as to why remain elusive.

PEGAU: It may be one of those things that when the ecosystem came back, it just came back in a different mode.

ELLIOTT: That forced fishermen here to find new ways to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF STITCHING SEINE)

ROB MAXWELL: I'm building a brand new net for salmon seining.

ELLIOTT: Rob Maxwell is busy in the back room at LFS Marine and Outdoor, stitching a cork line to the webbing of a massive 900-foot commercial fishing net. It's called a seine. It purses up like a drawstring to catch salmon.

MAXWELL: This is either 43 or 44 nets this winter. We still got, like, seven to go.

ELLIOTT: He says Exxon-Valdez oil spill anniversaries are wearing thin around here.

MAXWELL: A lot of people just want it to go away. It just brings bad juju up. You know what I mean?

ELLIOTT: Maxwell is a third generation herring fisherman. He spends his winters building nets and now fishes for salmon.

MAXWELL: The only way I've made it, because I was 25 when the oil spill happened. The only way I made it was my wife went to work. We went to work doing other things.

ELLIOTT: His wife started a cleaning business. He spent more time building nets. It was touch and go for years, he says, when he wasn't sure they'd get through.

MAXWELL: Stressed out, seriously stressed out.

ELLIOTT: Like many other fishermen at the time, Maxwell says he encouraged his kids to go to college and find a less vulnerable career. That left a generation gap. The industry is just now starting to attract young people again.

SABINE LANDALUCE: I'm going to cut this out of here, Rob. It's all tangled up...

ELLIOTT: Sabin Landaluce is 28. He and his wife, Casey, work with Rob Maxwell building other people's nets in the winter. The couple fish together come spring

LANDALUCE: Oh, I've been fishing since I was 15. I've been working on my own gear since 2006.

ELLIOTT: He has little memory of the oil spill.

LANDALUCE: This generation, actually there's quite a big group of us young fishermen in the fishery right now. And it's a good thing because in 10, 15 years a lot of guys will be retiring. So we'll be the future of the fishermen.

ELLIOTT: The future in Cordova that has been forever changed by an ecological disaster 25 years ago.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: See more Alaska reporting on NPR's Tumblr @NPROnTheRoad.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.