Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

What Exxon-Valdez tells us about the Gulf Catastrophe

A sociologist views the Gulf oil disaster through the lens of the Exxon-Valdez spill

A crowd gathers in New Orleans' Jackson Square during a protest against the British Petroleum oil disaster Sunday May 30, 2010. Matthew Hinton / The Times-Picayune

Worst oil spill in history:  The Exxon-Valdez tragedy of 1989 wore that smeared crown for more than 20 years—until, of course, the Deepwater Horizon exploded on 20 April, and oil began gushing into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As we watch the events ongoing in the gulf and the impacts to the animals and people who inhabit the region, we keep thinking about NSF-funded sociologist Duane Gill of Oklahoma State University. For 20 years Gill has studied the impacts of the Exxon-Valdez spill on the communities of Prince William Sound, Alaska; we wrote about his work last fall in a piece called Twenty Years After the Oil Spill. We sent a note to Professor Gill in May, asking three big questions.  He was kind enough to respond.

What similarities do you see, in terms of human impact, between the two spills?

Lots of similarities ranging from a) timing (both began in Spring – the most biological productive season of the year); b) communities, groups & individuals tied to damaged/threatened resources in terms of economics, as well as social & cultural ties;  c)  issues of recreancy (blame) and loss of trust in corporations & government; d) corporate down-playing of the amount of spilled oil and resulting damages; e) corporate pronouncements to make survivors “whole” and pay “legitimate” claims; f) potential to experience long-term resource loss (herring in EVOSv[Exxon-Valdez oil spill] & shrimp in BP oil spill); g) increased levels of uncertainty and anxiety as a result of the spill; i) disruption of lifestyles & lifescapes; j) increased collective stress at the community level; k) likely increase in intergroup conflicts, domestic disturbances, alcohol & drug abuse, etc. … l) use of controversial cleanup techniques & strategies; m) potential for long-term, high-stakes litigation that could eventually be as stressful as the spill itself; n) highly likely that long-term, chronic social impacts will occur, just as in the EVOS; o) like EVOS, this is going to be a marathon – not a sprint, so care must be taken not to burn out early…

Residents of Cordova, Alaska, protest the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Photo courtesy of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

What are the main differences?

Main differences include a) BP oil spill has a much larger scope of human impacts – more people, more communities, more primary and secondary businesses; b) greater ease of access and visibility; c) the amount of spilled oil in EVOS was knowable & finite whereas the amount in the BP spill in unknowable (not technically infinite, but it could continue to leak/seep for years, if not decades; d) many survivors of BP spill are still recovering from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ivan, Wilma, etc.; e) greater levels of perceived corruption between BP & MMS [Minerals Management Service], which increases perceptions of recreancy and increases anger, frustration, and alienation. 

The area impacted by the oil gushing from the Gulf sea floor is growing, and now is impacting coastline in Florida and Alabama. Here, visitors stroll past bagged sand stained with oil at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Ala, on Friday, June 4, 2010. Photo: Scott Threlkeld / The Times-Picayune

Do you think the people of Prince William Sound (PWS) could provide insight to Gulf Coast residents in terms of how to weather this horrible accident or respond to it?

The people of PWS are already providing insights to Gulf Coast residents. For example, the community guidebook to coping with technological disasters that our research team developed under contract to PWSRCAC [The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council] is being used in Gulf of Mexico (GOM) communities (BTW, it was used after Katrina as well). Several individuals from the PWS area (Riki Ott, Rick Steiner, Patience Faulkner, to name a few…) have gone to GOM communities and talked with local officials & informal leaders. I am certain more examples will unfold over time.

Before the BP spill, my colleague, Liesel Ritchie, and I were scheduled to go to Cordova and complete our data collection in June. I am certain that we will hear a lot of perspectives from local Alaskans on the current situation in the GOM.

Oiled Brown Pelicans contrast with an oiled American White Pelican, right, on Queen Bess Island Sunday June 6, 2010. Photo: Matthew Hinton / Times-Picayune

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