VANCOUVER – The date March 24, 1989 remains a black mark in the minds of environmentalists and coastal communities as they witnessed a massive oil slick unfurl in the waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
The Exxon Valdez disaster was one of history’s worst oil spills, and twenty-four years later, a B.C. First Nations group is pointing to the tragedy as proof the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project should not go forward.
The province’s waters are no place for massive tankers exporting oil to Asian markets, according to the executive director of Coastal First Nations, Art Sterritt.
“All of the social, environmental and economic impacts … are not something that Coast First Nations are about to allow happen to us. We just couldn’t survive that,” Sterritt said.
Sterritt launched a new social media and television advertising campaign on Sunday, to commemorate the Exxon Valdez spill and provide “an alternative” to pro-pipeline ads by Enbridge, the company behind the hotly-contested project.
“We thought showing people a little bit of reality would be appropriate,” Sterritt said. “We think that there might be some people … becoming a bit numbed by Northern Gateway’s $300-million campaign.”
Enbridge launched its own multi-million dollar media and online advertising campaign last May, to sell the public on the economic benefits of the pipeline and the company’s safety and oil-spill prevention procedures. According to Northern Gateway manager Paul Stanway, the company spent less than $5 million to promote the pipeline, which would ship petroleum from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C.
Sterritt refused to disclose how much his group spent on the new ad, but said it will likely be confined to inexpensive northern TV networks and free social media websites unless his group receives additional funding from outside sources.
The two-minute commercial begins with live audio that chronicles the conversation between the oil tanker’s crew and the Valdez Vessel Traffic Centre during the harrowing first minutes when the ship ran aground on Bligh Reef.
Photos and video of oil-covered wildlife, rainbow grease islands, and tarred-up beaches follow, soundtracked by Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence.”
“Don’t be silent,” the commercial’s subtitles read. “Vote for an oil-free coast.”
The ad contends a similar spill could cost B.C. taxpayers about $21.4 billion to clean up in today’s numbers, and wipe out more than 4,300 tourism and fishing jobs.
Sterritt said the statistics are based analysis and predictions by Dr. Tom Gunton, a former environment minister under Glen Clark who now teaches at Simon Fraser University.
He added that events of recent years have yielded more than enough evidence to warrant a long, hard look at the pitfalls of pipelines and tanker traffic.
“We researched what had happened in Alaska and various other places, and then as we went along, we had all these other lessons delivered up to us — like the Gulf of Mexico … the Kalamazoo (River),” Sterritt said.
Cleanup efforts and equipment haven’t progressed much in the past two decades, based on what he witnessed during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, Sterrit said.
“It was the same technology — throw some booms out there, try to scrape some up, try to burn a little if you can, throw some diluent on it and try to get it to blend in — so that it’ll be out of sight, out of mind.”
Non-invasive long-term restoration efforts are nearly impossible, according to a 20-year status report by the group of government trustees and scientists tasked with recovery on Alaska’s injured coast.
“One of the most stunning revelations … is that Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment and in places, is nearly as toxic as it was in the first few weeks,” the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council report stated.
“At this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely,” it said.
The spill cost Alaska nearly $2 billion in clean up over the first few years, the trustee council said, but the non-monetary costs were been just as dear.
The herring population, for example, has never recovered — nor has the commercial herring fishery. Pink and Coho salmon populations have also suffered, as have eagles, otters and seals. Nearly half of the area’s 36 killer whales were never seen again after the spill, their carcasses believed to have sunk to watery graves.
The man-made disaster also took a human toll. The tourism and recreation industries were crippled when activities such as hunting, fishing and kayaking ceased. Likewise, many of the 22,000 First Nations people who once relied on subsistence fishing and shellfish gathering in intertidal pools never resumed their activities, with lingering questions about the health of wildlife from Prince William Sound.
In 1991, a judge ordered Exxon Corp. to pay $900 million in yearly increments to resolve charges of environmental crime.
While the court forgave $125 million in recognition of the company’s clean-up efforts, Exxon Corporation has since been asked to pay an additional $92 million for “unforeseen” restoration costs.
A number of factors were to blame for the widespread devastation, the trustees council said — among them, the lack of a pre-rehearsed emergency response and adequate equipment to carry out such procedures.
Many of these safety concerns have since been addressed by transportation authorities and tanker companies — including an international ban of single-hull tankers such as the Exxon Valdez. Many ports also now require two escort tugboats, specially-trained pilots who know local waters, and regular oil-spill preparedness and response drills.
While Enbridge has promised “world-class” oil spill prevention and response for the $6-billion project, lawyers for the provincial government had many unanswered questions as they wrapped up cross examination of company experts at the Northern Gateway review hearings last week.
The project proponent did not demonstrate under oath it would be able to access or respond to a spill in remote areas, said Environment Minister Terry Lake, nor did it show it would be able to recover sunken oil in the event of a spill.
Lake said another concern was Enbridge’s lack of land- or marine-spill response plans, something the company said it would provide after the project was approved.