Exxon Valdez oil spill response spurs area residents into action
Editor’s note: With 2014 marking the Homer News’ 50th anniversary, it’s the perfect time to look at Homer’s past. This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, an event that filled the pages of the Homer News for months.
When the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, and oil began pouring into the waters of Prince William Sound, it seemed a long way from Homer. The ship was headed to Long Beach, Calif., from Valdez, the terminus of the trans Alaska pipeline, more than 200 miles northeast of the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, as the crow flies.
It didn’t take long for the possible scope of the spill to become clear, however.
“For about 24 hours, we were thinking it was a tragic problem that Prince William Sound was going to have,” said Tom Kizzia, who was the Homer News’ temporary managing editor at the time. “Right at the beginning, you just didn’t know, but pretty quickly it was clear it would be all over the sound. It was a couple of days before people started looking at currents and saying, ‘holy s***, here it comes.’”
Kizzia worked for the Homer News in the 1970s and the Anchorage Daily News in the 1980s. He was living in northern California in February 1989, when Joey Gay, the Homer News managing editor at the time, accepted a fellowship in Japan.
“So, I came up to fill in at the Homer News and have a nice, mellow three months back in Homer,” said Kizzia.
That “mellow” time ended on March 30 with the first spill stories that overshadowed stories commemorating the Homer News’ 25th anniversary.
“The Prince William Sound oil slick may be headed this way,” was one March 30 headline.
A week later, the headline “spill hovers off peninsula coast,” along with a photo of concerned fishermen, dominated the front page of the Homer News. The editorial and that week’s political cartoon focused on the spill. Letters to the editor, points of view and ads asking for cleanup workers and supplies spread across the paper’s pages.
By mid-April, with oil entering Cook Inlet, Kachemak Bay residents braced for the worst. Fearing the damage oil would cause to area beaches, locals collected clams to be stored for later eating. Containment booms were deployed in hopes of protecting a Tutka Bay hatchery. Letters to the editor were evidence the concern was growing.
“Having fished your beautiful waters, seen the wildlife, and the never ending scenery, it makes us sick,” wrote Joyce B. Lowney of Tempe, Ariz.
What wasn’t growing, at least not fast enough by local standards, was Exxon’s response.
“If Exxon is truly interested in doing what is right for Alaska, then the company must come to grips with the fact that this is a two-front war,” the April 13 editorial read. “The first front, obviously, is the cleanup. But the second front is prevention. Leadership from Exxon is essential as people in the lower peninsula prepare to battle for the preservation of the bay. But that leadership has been non-existent here.”
Kizzia recalled a headline he wrote for the April 30 Page 1: “Booming is business as oil arrives.”
“There was a huge effort to build huge log booms on the Spit, which led to my favorite all-time headline,” he said of the play on words.
The May 11 story Kizzia wrote summed up the “dark, hopeless feeling” of the time came from a visit to Gore Point with Park Ranger Roger MacCampbell. In one paragraph of the story, he said, “MacCampbell took a walk through the oil. The molasses, studded with sticks and seaweed, sucked his boot to the ankle. He worked something free with his foot and carried it above tide line. Some kind of bird.”
Other aspects of the spill also made their way into the Homer News. The $16.69 hourly wage offered cleanup workers was better than what was offered by area restaurants and canneries. Health concerns surfaced for cleanup workers, with Exxon issuing a warning “not to work in heavily oiled areas during warm, still days” and issuing respirators to some of the crews. Individuals who had “incurred damages directly resulting from the oil spill incident” were directed to submit claims to offices opened for that purpose, including one in Homer. However, tension resulting from cleanup efforts also resulted in Exxon threatening to close the Homer office.
In June, a front-page article noted “a wave of social disturbance, some say a ripple effect of the Exxon Valdez disaster,” had hit Homer, including increased domestic disputes, driving while intoxicated and other disturbances such as barroom brawls. The following week, the Homer and Anchor Point churches of Christ ran an ad with Bible verses focused on not being anxious.
Finally, on Sept. 14, coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill moved off the Homer News’ front page. It returned the following two weeks, but was gone again by Oct. 5.
Of the attention given the spill, Kizzia, who had left the Homer News by June 1, said, “I think we neglected some other stuff. … But it was hard for everyone to pay attention to anything else.”
Looking back, Kizzia said he was thankful he was in Alaska when the spill occurred.
“If I had been in California and this thing had happened, I’m not sure I’d ever have come back to Alaska,” he said the sadness and tragedy he associated with the event. “I feel so lucky in a weird way to have been here for it, to have been here for that time.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at email@example.com.
March 30: The spill
is first reported.
April 6: Oil hovers off the peninsula coast.
April 13: Oil enters Cook Inlet.
April 20: Spill response begins in Tutka Bay and Seldovia, animal rescue efforts begin.
May 4: Most oil will bypass Kachemak Bay; Anchor Point prepares for its arrival.
May 18: Oil arrives on Homer beaches; Exxon opens a Homer office.
May 25: Oil arrives in Ninilchik.
June 8: Marion Beck operates seal recovery at Halibut Cove.
June 15: A lower Cook Inlet commercial fishery closes due to the spill.
June 29: Upper inlet is closed to driftnetters; the Pratt Museum opens “Darkened Waters: Profile of an Oil Spill.”
July 6: Bill Day invents a machine to strip oil from rocks.
July 13: The release of more than 200 oiled sea otters is planned.
July 20: Exxon makes plans to end Homer-area cleanup.
July 27: The inlet drift fleet will miss salmon run due to the spill.
Aug. 10: Volunteers focus cleanup efforts on Mars Cove.
Aug. 31: Cook Inlet subsistence lifestyles suffer due to spill.
Sept. 7: Exxon ends its local cleanup; the city of Homer agrees to monitor beaches.
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