clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

VALDEZ SPILL MUST BE VIEWED IN PERSPECTIVE

Hired by Exxon, I took a television camera to Valdez, Alaska, in late April. My mission, almost a month after the messy oil tanker accident, was to document the scene, the activity and the cleanup. I learned that no lens is wide enough to capture the vastness of Prince William Sound.

Because the sound can't be photographed in its entirety for a TV set, Valdez fishermen and tourism boosters are rightfully concerned that most of us in the lower 48 states have gotten a distorted view of their situation. The key word, they say, is "perspective." From what I saw, they make an unassailable point.To be sure, the Exxon Valdez spill was horrible, a costly international embarrassment for the company, a calamity. None of my recent acquaintances in Alaska minimizes it in the slightest. But if you think the whole sound is a despoiled pool of goo, let me convey some Valdez perspectives.

The sound is about three times larger than Rhode Island. It contains an estimated 262 trillion gallons of water, into which more than 10 million gallons of crude oil were plunked. That's the equivalent, they say in Valdez, of a teaspoon of fluid in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

As they put it in Valdez, no appreciable fish kill: Herring spawning is O.K. and the salmon are running. The scenery remains breathtaking. Also pristine. (More than 93 percent of the immense shoreline around the sound was unaffected.)

They reminded me in Valdez of their gargantuan earthquake and tidal wave in 1964. At 8.6 on the Richter scale, it obliterated the little town (118 died).

According to Lynn Crystal, a port meteorological officer for the National Weather Service, all of Valdez's petroleum supplies were stored on the water's edge in tanks that immediately ruptured. Into the sound was deposited approximately one million gallons of heating oil, diesel fuel and gasoline, which no one tried to clean up.

Mother Nature did the job. In short order, there wasn't a visible trace of pollution. As the locals explained, that's because the waters are 100 percent replaced or recycled by natural action like clockwork every 20 days. Whatever the gunk, and however it may be spilled, it is rapidly evaporated or dissipated.

Another misconception in the lower 48 should also be dissipated. It's the view that Exxon people were uncaring and slow to respond after their tanker hit the reef. It's perfectly true that I was retained by the company for TV work, so my comments may not be universally accepted as credible or impartial. But I'm also a fair-minded person (I think) and a first-hand witness.

The allegations are nonsense. Exxon's chairman, Lawrence Rawl, was roundly castigated for not having traveled to Valdez until a week later. Even I would have advised an immediate trip - and I would have been dead wrong. Although such a visit would have better accommodated the worldwide press corps, it would have been 98 percent cosmetic or theatrical and 2 percent substantive and helpful.

Instead, Rawl stayed in New York, and on the phone, where he rounded up 469 vessels, 47 aircraft and at least 4,000 workers, all transported with remarkable dispatch to a dot on the upper left-hand corner of the Continent. If you think that's a snap, try getting to Valdez in a hurry.

Why Rawl on those phones? Why not a lower-level executive? It makes for more productive conversations when the chief executive officer calls. Sass and procrastination are near zero on the other end.

If Exxon is sparing an expense or withholding a resource, I am wholly unaware of it. As invasions go, the personnel and machinery I saw in Valdez recalled the pictures of Normandy in 1944. It's also how I aspire to be "uncared" for in later life.

(Jack Hilton is chairman of Hilton/Sucherman Television Productions.)