pws-2008For those of you who have not seen the film the Age of Stupid, Pete Postlethwaite, puts in a great performance as a despairing  archivist wondering how we allowed the world to be ravaged by climate change.

You could imagine Pete putting in a similar performance as an archivist looking back at how the oil industry was allowed to despoil the world too.

You could see Pete riffling through the many, many examples of the injustices and pollution of an industry that operates generally to its own rules.

Even though you would be spoilt for choice for examples, one would have to make the list: The Exxon Valdez.

The 1989  spill, which poured at least 11 million gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, stands as an example of an industry that promised the earth  but ended up destroying a place many believed to be sacred.

The destruction of wildlife and on peoples’ livelihoods was on an industrial scale.

Hundreds of thousands of fish and birds died, thousands of marine mammals were killed.

Thousands of cleanup workers got sick, an unknown number died.

In the story you would have to weave the complete cynicism of a company called Exxon that cared more about its image than the cleanup.

You would have to look at how the company manipulated the science and very soon tried to claim that Prince William Sound was clean and safe.

The trouble was that from this one starting point – the spill – you got two different end points. Anyone paid by Exxon essentially trying to say that there was not a problem and anyone not paid by Exxon saying that the effects could last decades if not longer.

I remember sitting in a dark lecture theatre and listening to Otto Harrison, Exxon’s clean up coordinator tell a packed audience of oilmen that the reason that Exxon had flown British scientists in is that Americans believed people with English accents more than American ones.

That is how cynical there were.

Within a short period of time the Exxon-scientists were saying that everything was OK, but all the government and independent scientists were saying that generations could suffer from lingering pollution.

The disparity led the head of the Exxon Valdez oil Spill Trustee Council to ask the question “What good is science if the answer depends on where you get your money”.

Within a couple of years, Exxon declared the beaches clean and upped sticks and left.  Only the lawyers were left to line their pockets as the oil-giant fought for years to reduce the size of the damages it had to pay out.

Exxon has repeatedly tried to draw a line under the issue arguing that Prince William Sound was once again pristine.

But researcher after researcher has kept finding oil polluting the Sound. The oil spill may have been twenty years ago but its lethal legacy continues.

There are still around 50 beach segments where a significant amount of oil remains buried.

And now yet another authoritative study has found lingering pollution through the oil that remains trapped in sediments in the Sound’s gravel beaches.

Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience, a team of scientists has found that oil just a few inches down is dissipating up to 1,000 times slower than oil on the surface.

They suggested that a lack of oxygen and nutrients in the gravel was slowing the dispersal of the remaining oil.

Researchers led by Professor Michel Boufadel from Temple University in Philadelphia, US, carried out a three-year study on a number of beaches to find out the cause behind the lingering deposits.

His testing over the past three summers in Prince William Sound showed that its gravel beaches consist of two layers: an upper layer that is highly permeable to water, nutrients and oxygen, and a lower layer that isn’t.

The oil is stuck in the lower level.

“You have a high amount of oxygen in the seawater, so you would think that the oxygen would diffuse in the beach and get down 2-4 inches (5-10cm) into the lower layer and get to the oil,” said Prof Boufadel.

“But the outward movement of [fresh groundwater] in the lower level is blocking the oxygen from spreading down into that lower level.”

Not surprisingly, Exxon’s scientists are claiming the remaining oil is harmless.

“Scientists who have studied spills for years know that after crude oil spills you can and will find buried oil many years later, but that it does no harm and does not need to be (removed),” says Exxon contractor Paul Boehm, a chemist and vice president for Exponent, an international consulting firm that works for Exxon.

It also makes you think whether they also see flying pigs out of Exxon’s windows too….


  • My name is Merle Savage; I was a general foreman on three different barges during the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) beach cleanup in 1989. It was an exciting adventure with unusual environmental conditions and demanding situations — but it turned into 20 years of extensive health deterioration.

    In 2007 I learned how toxic the hot water beach spraying was from Dr. Riki Ott. She informed me that Exxon’s medical records and reports that surfaced in litigation brought by sick workers in 1994, had been sealed from the public, making it impossible to hold Exxon responsible for their actions.

    Exxon developed the toxic spraying; OSHA, the Coast Guard, and the state of Alaska authorized the procedure; and Veco and other Exxon contractors implemented it. Over 70 percent of the 11,000-plus work force was subjected to breathing in the toxic fumes 12-16 hours a day. Beach crews breathed in crude oil splashed off the rocks and into the air: the exposure turned into chronic breathing conditions and central nervous system problems, among many other massive health issues, which continues.

    My website is devoted to searching for EVOS cleanup workers who have been exposed to the toxic spraying and are suffering from the same illnesses as me. Our summer employment turned into a death sentence for many — and a life of unending medical conditions for the rest.

    7 minute video that exposes medical issues:

    Stories and photos:

  • I agree that the spray and steam method just moved the oil around. There is a way that the oil can be transformed into fatty acids that fish will eat. It has been used for 21 years with positive effects on the land and sea. It is being used every day in Europe with great success. It works especially well on old oil spills. The bacteria literally eats the oil an transforms it. The video on the web site was on a river that was cleaned up by natural means in 30 days.

  • I worked for the Stabberts who owned the Corinthian 195ft ship that they used to house the VPs that worked on that spill. They eventually sold the ship to them. I had thought about working up there to help with the clean up, but I chickened out. Now I am glad. I have so oftened wandered what was happening up there, this latest spill has def. sparked more interest. So sorry to hear about all the ailments to these wonderful people trying to help an awful sytuation! My heart goes out to them!!!

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