Share your Exxon Valdez stories

The grounding of the Exxon Valdez, and the subsequent oil spill, changed Alaska history and affected Alaskans in countless ways. To commemorate it, we're collecting the stories of Alaskans touched in some way by this pivotal events.

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  1     March 4, 2009 - 5:31pm |

Exxon Valdez 20th Anniversary Memoir

The following piece is an account of my first experience of the spill. I am a biologist who was hired by the state in 1989 to help direct cleanup and design and manage damage assessment studies. I spent quite a bit of time in the spill-affected area from 1989 thru 1991. I then worked for DNR for over a decade designing and managing restoration projects paid for with funds from the settlement.
Art Weiner, Ph.D


The helicopter landed on an open, sandy area above the high tide line. We sat in the cabin waiting for the rotors to stop rotating. Through the canopy shone a brightly illuminated landscape of extraordinary beauty. The calm waters of Prince William Sound reflected the snow-capped mountains that surround the Sound like a gem-studded tiara on the head of a lovely queen. In the distance, islands blanketed with emerald green spruce rose out of the sea.

We slowly climbed out of the helicopter only to find that this stunning vision was a mirage, a fa├žade that disguised an ugly reality. With our first breath, we were put on notice that there was something terribly wrong. The crystal clear air harbored noxious vapors not unlike those of the exhaust fumes from a badly tuned car. We were breathing an atmosphere contaminated by the volatile gases that were evaporating from the viscous substance trapped beneath our feet. We had just stepped into hydrocarbon hell.

I stood in frozen shock trying to adjust to the contaminated air. Slowly I became aware of the silence, the stillness, the absence of the natural sounds of a normal intertidal zone. Where was the joyous cacophony of crackles, snaps and pops of the crabs and shrimp; where was the birdsong; where was the clattering of stones stirred by waves? There was only a deathly silence created by the smothering embrace of the crude oil that arrived on every toxic wave and tide.

Walking down toward the water through the intertidal I found myself struggling to maintain my balance. Each footfall encountered an incredibly slippery mousse-like substance that covered each rock, pebble and grain of sand muffling every sound. Where was the bright orange living blanket of seaweed that provides food and habitat for the multitudes of small fish and invertebrates? Where were the limpets, barnacles and mussels that should be clinging in vast numbers to the rocks and boulders? Where was the life?

And then I came upon my first dead bird, then another and another. Here lay unmoving the embodiment of life, loveliness and soaring freedom forever frozen in million year old embalming fluid. Oh God what had we done. I stood there gasping for breath, transfixed by the horror, tears streaming down my face on to the oil-covered stones. I felt a great weight of sorrow and guilt pressing down on me as I began to comprehend the magnitude of this catastrophe, this ecological holocaust. This was a tragedy caused by our unmitigated arrogance and carelessness that no tears could ever wash away.

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