20 Years After the Exxon Valdez: Our Alaska director takes a look back

When the Exxon Valdez ran aground twenty years ago, our Alaska Regional Director Eleanor Huffines immediately left her studies at the University of North Carolina and headed to Alaska to help clean beaches and oiled wildlife in Prince William Sound. She returned to Alaska every summer thereafter to help.

“It is the catastrophic event that changed my life and brought me to advocacy,” Eleanor says. In honor of the anniversary, I sat down with her to share some of her memories of the March 24 spill that devastated 1,300 miles of coastline and forever changes the lives of Alaskans. Below is that interview.


What compelled you to go to Alaska to help the clean up?

“It took 11 days before they could even stop the leaking.”

In 1988 I took a three-month semester course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). During the course we spent one month sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. I got to know the Sound intimately before the spill. It was the kind of place where you would encounter spectacular wildlife everyday: Orca whales rubbing on the beaches, harbor seals resting on glacial ice or sea otters feeding on clams. For brief periods, armies of fishing boats would appear to take advantage of the salmon and herring runs. We were a group of 12 camping and moving every day. It was magical. I was back at school in North Carolina when the spill happened. I got a call that morning and it was all over the news and I knew I had to go. I was on a plane back to Alaska the next day.

What was your reaction after arriving in the Sound?

I expected to be sad, but I couldn’t have fathomed the intensity of being surrounded by toxic oil...the constant eye watering, the nausea, the headaches. The smell was intense. The sheer amount of oil and the difficulty of cleaning it up was something I couldn’t have imagined.

The pain in the eyes of the people whose lives who had forever been changed was unmistakable.

What do you remember most of the catastrophe?

At first it was eerily quiet. Prince William Sound had no state or federal oil spill response teams or equipment capable of handling the growing catastrophe…Fisherman and Alaska natives were out on the water desperately trying to contain the oil with everything they had. It was an incredibly sad time for people. What really struck me was how everyone was rising to the occasion. People ranging from 4 to 80 years old were giving their hearts and souls trying to save this place and their traditions. People were weeping as they picked up dead animals. It was unbelievably heartbreaking. Another thing that really stuck in my mind was the incredible influx of people. Within weeks there would be more than 10,000 people working on the clean up. The impact of all these people left its own ecological footprint over the years.

How did you handle the beaches and animals that had been impacted?

Oil sea otter. The government and industry failed to contain the spill offshore. And no one knew exactly what to do once the oil reached the beaches. So we tried different techniques. At first we scoured the beaches with hot water from pressure hoses until scientists realized the hot water was killing the only organisms that had survived the initial hit. Then once we cleaned a beach, the tide would come back in and cover it in oil all over again. The few sea otters we found that were not already dead we tried to clean. It didn’t always work, There were times when the sea otters would die from being over heated from the hair dryers being used. It was a fairly desperate time.

And the Prince William Sound today?

Twenty years after the spill some species have not recovered and there is less wildlife. Even now, if you dig in the right places you would still be able to find toxic oil. But I don’t want to discourage people from going. Prince William Sound is still a magical place and if you have never been there you would have a hard time seeing a noticeable impact from the spill.

What is the mood in Alaska as the anniversary of the spill approaches?

I’d say the emotions range from anger to despair to a desire to move on and be happy. Generally, I think the people here want the lessons of the spill to be learned, but they also don’t want their pain to be used for political agendas.

What's your biggest take-away from serving on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council Public Advisory Group?

We advised the state and federal officials on how to restore the injured ecosystem, cultures and communities. My biggest take-away is that no matter how many scientists and no matter how much money you throw at something like this, you never want to be in the situation again yet that’s exactly what’s happening with the proposed oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean and Bristol Bay.

Does drilling in Arctic waters hold the similar risks?

Most people would agree that the poor government response and lack of equipment contributed to the severity of the impact. While there have been some improvements in Prince William Sound since 1989, there have been no meaningful improvements in other sensitive coastal communities. Another challenge in the Arctic is that the sea ice conditions complicate a potential clean up. No one knows how to clean up oil in broken ice. People say there’s better technology now than in 1989, but none of that has been applied to the Arctic Ocean. And no matter how much technology advances, it can all come down to human error, just like in the Exxon Valdez.

How can we ensure that more oil and gas tragedies don’t happen in Alaska?

We definitely shouldn’t open more offshore oil and gas development in Alaska until the government has a better understanding of the species and the ecosystems at risk particularly in the face of climate change. The government must first have a strategy to protect those sensitive species and the cultures dependent on them.

In 1992, Huffines moved to Alaska full time. She spent years guiding sea kayak groups and working on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council Public Advisory group before coming to work for us.

Eleanor Huffines.
Hosing down the beach on Prince William Sound. Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
Oil sea otter. Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.