20 Years, 20 Chances: Guest post by Marybeth Holleman

Last June, when the Supreme Court ruled that Exxon pay $507 million to Alaska Natives and fishermen harmed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, I was visiting friends in Kodiak. “Well,” said a local commentator, “at least it’s a slap on the wrist to Exxon.” My friend, who’d captained a fishing boat in Alaska for decades, disagreed: “It’s no slap on the wrist; it’s a pat on the back between good ole’ boys.”

I have to agree. Two decades after the spill, Exxon finally pays—but it’s a tenth of the $5 billion awarded by a jury in 1994.

In Cordova, some posted banners decrying Exxon and the Supreme Court. When a life-long Cordovan refused a banner, protesters told her they’d boycott her cafe. “I just want to put this behind us,” she said.

The oil spill was, for many of us, a watershed moment. We all have them. But we rarely recognize them when they’re happening. We just respond to what’s in front of us. Oil, lots of it, and dead wildlife everywhere. “The day the water died,” said Chief Walter Meganack. Only later, sometimes much later, do we begin to comprehend the event’s impact in our lives. (That’s partly why it took 15 years to finish my book, HEART OF THE SOUND. The problem with memoir is, you’ve got to live it first.)

At this 20-year marker, I’ve noticed a shift in the way we talk about it. Now, it’s portrayed much like the 1964 Earthquake, as an interesting event in Alaska’s history, full of fascinating stories of heroism and loss.

Me, I feel like both the woman in Cordova who didn’t want the banner displayed, and the woman who threatened boycott. I feel relief that it’s passing into history. Relief that my son, and his generation, all born after the spill, can hear it discussed without so much raw anger and grief. It makes it easier to get through another anniversary. But I also feel regret. In part, my regret is, like the boycotter, outrage that the settlement was so long in coming, and so miniscule.

What I regret most is that we as a culture haven’t learned more from the oil spill. Our basic approach to our life on this Earth hasn’t shifted. Our oil addiction still runs everything, from the cars we drive to the leaders we elect. We are still willing to take increasing risks for what one OPEC founder later called el excremento del diablo.

They say time heals all wounds. Sometimes it’s more of a numbing. We go on because we have no other choice. For me, this anniversary is a time to renew my resolve. I’m not interested in reminiscing; there are no “good times” to recall.

We study history in order to do better. In the case of the oil spill, we didn’t need the passage of time to learn what needed to change. We knew immediately. Many knew before the tanker hit the rocks. Still, on we go. Oil spills flood the world’s seas: Spain, Scotland, Pakistan, Lebanon, Africa, you name it, oil has spilled there. Some are large, sudden events, like Alaska’s; others are more insidious, like the oil seeping into the Niger Delta from Shell Oil’s leaking pipelines, creating a fatal chaos for all.

Meanwhile, oil consumption worldwide has risen 30 percent in the past twenty years. Like the addicts we are, we scramble to get at it any way we can—from offshore leasing up and down both U.S. coasts to the energy-intensive and environment-destructive tar sands extraction in Alberta. (We’ll lose half of America’s migratory birds in this stunningly ill-conceived method of oil extraction.) Even President Obama (who’s such an improvement I hate to complain) continues to use the oxymoron “clean coal” We haven’t learned from the spill. We’ve ignored its lessons. We’ve turned our backs.

And the oil spill isn’t over. Pacific herring, critical prey for 40 different marine and terrestrial species, have yet to show recovery. Most species aren’t fully recovered, including pigeon guillemots, orcas and sea otters. There’s still oil in the beaches. Neither the private nor the government litigation is resolved. And all Exxon gets is a pat on the back, while making record profits. It’s criminal, really.

Yet we’re still fighting over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and battling offshore oil leasing in Bristol Bay. What’s more, Alaska’s coastal communities are flooding and Alaska’s polar bears are drowning, all because of oil.

Lately I think of the oil spill as an ominous foreshadowing of the one in which we’re now awash: Climate Change. As if the Earth, or God, or whatever guides us through space, said, Hey, wake up! Look at what this devil’s excrement is doing! when that tanker hit that rock.

I recall the oil spill image of the brown bear, half his face stained black with crude. And now, alongside it, I see the face of a polar bear, half her face buried in sand, waves washing over her emaciated corpse.

Island photo by Dean Rand.
Marybeth Holleman is our featured author this month.

6 thoughts on “20 Years, 20 Chances: Guest post by Marybeth Holleman”

  1. Beautifully said, Marybeth. The numbing – I felt that last night, in a different setting (back in a village school, where I started 30 years ago) that same sense of things not changing despite outrage and protests and lots of good works. Discouragement – that’s the diablo’s best card. It’s palpable. Powerful images, thoughtful remembrances like you offer here – that’s our best defense, and our biggest hope that change, though slow, will come one day.

  2. With anniversaries popping up every year, to many people, this is just another. It’s almost as if by putting a round, chunky number to it, the spill can be safely relegated to History. In a fast-paced society, with eyes constantly fixed on the next “event horizon,” we rarely find time to consider the lessons that could have been / should have been learned.

    In this context, the writer (the memoirist, the environmental writer, or whichever label you’d like to affix), like the storyteller of old, is the repository of things easily glossed over or forgotten. More than that of scribe, our role should be that of burr under the saddle. We keep writing about this and similar events as much out of self-respect as from a wish that, somehow, people could learn from the past — if only we could find the right words to make it come to life.

    This, however, can affect how what we write is received; as Marybeth shows, at some point people don’t want to be reminded and move on with their lives . . . until the next traumatic disruption.

  3. Thanks Michael, Deb. Burr under the saddle. Yes. Reminds me of that saying — good art should make us feel uncomfortable.

  4. It’s hard to keep discouragement at bay. But considering the power of steps in a positive direction, the next 20 years holds 7,304 chances. Every day counts.

    Here in Kodiak we’ve been hearing Prince William Sound RCAC spots on public radio every day. And this weekend several events are scheduled for those of us who want to remember. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll move forward with more wisdom.

  5. Elizabeth Bradfield

    A burr, yes, and a writer in looking back also does the valuable work of connecting events. Connecting the spill in Spain to the one in Alaska, reminding us of Alberta’s oil plan, making the links in the chain visible. Hopefully, through that, showing how HUGE the chain itself is. Thank you for this.


  6. Thank you, Marybeth.

    I began reading your essay a few days ago, but couldn’t finish. There is nothing that ever replaces the raw grief one feels about something if the barriers constructed in order to go on are breached.

    I think this is the job of the writer; you’ve done beautifully.

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