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September 24, 1989
The damage done...
Bill Allen is not an everyday American. The New Mexico oilfield hand-turned-Alaska millionaire thinks positively. He has survived bankruptcy, become a wealthy man all over again, and turned the nation's worst environmental disaster into gold.
Alaska has always drawn men like Allen who have refused to let nagging concerns or negativity get in their way. There may be a strain of Allen's kind of thinking in all of us the attitude that settled the country, that kept pushing back the boundaries of the frontier.
It is one thing, Allen believes, to be concerned about the oil spill and to try to clean it up. It is another thing altogether to suggest that Alaska be off limits to further oil development.
The Exxon Valdez spill has hurt the oil industry, he says, but if it is used to irrationally oppose all oil development, it will hurt the nation.
"Alaska's got the only big pools of oil left" in the United States, he said. "It's going to figure into the energy needs of the U.S. for a long time."
Admittedly, Kelly Weaverling with his beard and ponytail, his expertise as a kayaker and wilderness guide, his bit of Cherokee Indian blood, his background as a Navy submariner is not an everyday American, either. Few of us conspire at let alone succeed in - spending four months each year on wild, ever-surprising isles such as Perry Island.
And yet perhaps we understand Weaverling's tears. Perhaps there is a bit of Kelly Weaverling in all of us, as well.
Perry was one of the last islands in Prince William Sound to be struck by the slick, and had there been enough containment boom, maybe the beach could have been protected.
But there wasn't. There was not enough oil boom in Alaska, or for that matter in the world, to protect all of Alaska's Perry Islands and Day Care Coves.
"One thing that sticks in my craw is listening to the oil companies tell us that they made Alaska rich," Weaverling said. "They've got it all wrong. It was Alaska that made the oil companies rich. And this is how they say 'Thank you.' "
At one time in his life, Weaverling said, his reaction to the spill would have been to move away. This time, though his own secret paradise has been lost, Weaverling isn't running. Maybe it his age, or maybe it is his commitment, or maybe it is just his experience that tells him there are no more safe, inviolate places on planet Earth.
He remembers what he felt: "Our backs were against the wall. There was nowhere left to go."
Six months after the Exxon Valdez gashed open on Bligh Reef, the story of the spill has evolved beyond that of environmental outrage and dying animals. In part it is a story about Alaskans in crisis: their state's dependence on oil, their sense of betrayal by a caretaker industry, and their response to betrayal.
The spill and its aftermath have crystallized important issues about how important development is, how carefully it needs to be managed, and the extent to which there are values besides Alaska's cherished independence and nose for opportunity to be protected as the decisions are made.
The spill's story is also a story about us. The Exxon Valdez disaster speaks to the contradictory desires of human nature, to the Bill Allen in us and the Kelly Weaverling in us. It asks how well we will be custodians of Alaska or our nation, or planet in the future.
Most of Alaska is public land. Its oil reserves are owned by the American people, leased to the oil industry. The state is unique: biggest in size, smallest in population, closest to the original creation and most tempting in its potential wealth. It is a garden, and oil is one of its many fruits. But only one.
There is a dilemma to all empty and beautiful places, where more people want to live than the land can naturally support. They require the extraction of resources to survive. The people who love a place best who love it so much that they must live there are forced to exploit it to stay, and in exploiting it to change it, and then to risk damaging that which they once loved. It is true of growth around Puget Sound, and true of oil in Alaska.
Finally, as the North's long winter approaches again, this is also the story, for many Alaskans, of how deeply, discouragingly difficult it is to undo the damage.
Kelly Weaverling made one more trip to Perry Island, in July, four months after the spill. This time, he took his wife, Susan Ogle, with him. Weaverling figured she was ready to deal with the oil on the beaches they had combed for nearly a decade. But he could not have prepared her for what they found.
The first sign of change was a yellow inflatable boom stretched across the entrance to the bay. "That's just great!" Weaverling thought as their boat neared the beach. "Now that the oil's on the beach, there's no way for it to get washed away."
It would get worse. The Exxon cleanup had come to the island, with pressure hoses, pumps, boilers and a small army of $17-an-hour workers.
Weaverling described the scene: trails trodden into muddy bogs, beach and forest littered with cigarette butts and paper, at least 80 campfire scars, oily boot tracks, human excrement and toilet paper in the mossy grottoes.
"The worst," said Susan Ogle, "was where they'd used those pressure steam hoses. They'd shot them at the top of the beach, and the ground has eroded and given way. Normally there's tall grass above the high water line where the fox sparrows nest. It's all blown away. No more sparrows. There was no resemblance to the beach we remembered.
"I walked down to the waterline to see what's living and what's dead. I've always loved the gooey things best the mussels, barnacles, snails. All the barnacles have turned black and died, cooked by all that high-pressure steam. You look below the low-water line and all the mussels are dead, too.
"And graffiti! 'Ralph was here.' Things like that. Scratched on the rocks with screwdrivers."
Then Susan Ogle swilled her glass of cheap red wine and laughed a dark, ironic laugh.
"Day Care Cove is dead," she said. "And it was killed by the cleanup."
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