Prince William Sound: Getting the Story Right

Published September 8, 1994

The 1989 oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound was a terrible accident. It should never happen again. The damage awards now coming out of Alaska jury rooms will encourage oil companies to make sure it doesn’t.

But was the spill a long-term environmental disaster, as many environmentalists are claiming? Did it ruin Prince William Sound for decades, or even forever? The answer, it is becoming clear, is “no.”

Jeff Wheelwright, former science editor of Life magazine, has written a new book titled Degrees of Disaster and subtitled Prince William Sound: How Nature Reels and Rebounds. Wheelright discusses the immediate and long-term impacts of the spill with great sensitivity and more detail than any news story or court judgment is likely to provide.

Wheelwright admits that he was an optimist when he went to Alaska. “I believed in the life force. I believed that if an organism was assaulted and did not die, it would immediately strive to heal . . . . The Sound struck me as a superorganism, coursing wi th energy. The sea flushed the straits, the streams fed the sea, the sun seared the stain. Petroleum was of the earth, and the earth was responding to it dynamically.”

Wheelright doesn’t duck the ugly facts of the spill itself. He tells how at least a thousand sea otters swam on their backs right into the goo that clumped their fur and kept them from ever getting warm again. He spent time in the village of Chenega, wher e natives remain angry and skeptical of government assurances that sound like double-talk.

Wheelright went out of his way to visit the improvised animal morgue, a walk-in freezer full of sealed and tagged garbage bags: “‘otters to your left, bald eagles to your right, seabirds straight ahead.’ . . . It took a quarter of an hour for the odor of death to dissipate from my jacket.”

Journalists love quick-hit visual horrors like this. But Wheelright goes beyond them, quoting Cal Lensink, an elder of sea otter biology who worked the spill: “However many were killed, it won’t make any difference to the population, that’s for certain. T hey are still overpopulated in Prince William Sound.”

An overpopulation of sea otters? How often has this observation appeared in news accounts of the spill, or in the many fundraising letters from environmental groups seeking to capitalize on the tragedy?

An equally difficult-to-find fact concerns the fate of pink salmon. The catch broke all records right after the spill, in 1990 and 1991, then fell sharply in 1992 and 1993. Commercial fishermen, reporters, and environmentalists, eager to pin the blame on oil companies, talk darkly of a delayed toxic effect. But scientists, by and large, disagree.

Fish populations have a long history of boom and bust cycles. Since 1960, according to Wheelright, “the number of pink salmon estimated to have returned to the streams of the Sound has bounced between one [million] and twenty million fish.” Reasons includ e the 1964 earthquake, changes in ocean temperature and zooplankton, the pressure of commercial fishing, and the rise of aquaculture, “any one of which,” writes Wheelright, “probably, has exceeded the oil spill in impact.”

(Biologists found more injured salmon eggs in oiled streams than non- oiled ones, but it didn’t matter. All streams produced equal numbers of fry the following spring. The vast majority of salmon eggs don’t make it, anyway.)

Few scientists still buy the idea, accepted as dogma in many environmentalist circles, that nature is in a delicate balance until people show up to disturb it. “In the newer thinking,” according to Wheelwright, “nature is so variable that any additional d isturbance only changes the course of future variability.” There is faint hope of finding a “natural” baseline from which lawyers can calculate the costs of any single disturbance.

In her 1962 classic Silent Spring, Rachel Carson said that for us to disturb the “balance of nature” was like standing on the edge of a cliff and defying the law of gravity. This image helped shape an entire generation’s view of the environment. Thirty-tw o years later, Jeff Wheelwright and a growing number of other voices describe a very different vision in which nature is robust and resilient. The recovery of Prince William Sound may prove that this new generation of environmentalists has got it right.

Harold Henderson is a staff writer for the Chicago Reader. He lives in LaPort, Indiana.