Turbulent Early Years

Early board members and staff describe the emotional turbulence of the first few years after the council was formed and how they learned to channel that emotion into a professional, effective organization.

“In the early days we were so caught up in the emotions of the devastation, it was hard to remember that we were trying to launch and stabilize an organization that would exist far into the future, and far beyond the Exxon Valdez disaster itself. You could hardly fault people for being passionate and upset, but we had to remember that in order to be effective we had to put our efforts into building a strong foundation for the future and not to be sidetracked too much by the crisis of the day, because there will always be some kind of crisis of the day. The key is to be ready for it and have a good system for dealing with it.”

– Scott Sterling

“Conflict was inherent and a natural component in RCAC’s establishment and history. While conflict has some positive aspects, in general, it had negative effects and many times kept both sides from moving forward in a positive direction. The grudges were deep and mistrust was rampant.”

– Sheila Gottehrer

“The negative is that it was formed out of a disaster. The horse was out of the barn, so to speak, and we went about closing the door. The positive side is that it has matured over the years. I would say during the first ten years, it was a pretty contentious relationship between industry and the board. I can remember some meetings where there were some very fiery exchanges, and that was a necessary part of the process.

A month or so following its formation, the president of Alyeska confided to me that he was disappointed that the relationship hadn’t advanced further. I think my remark to him was, “You can’t reach into the charred forest and get the victims of the fire, then dust them off and expect them to be anything other than what we are.””

– Bill Walker

“Those of us who were originally involved were pretty overwhelmed with all the stress and harsh conditions that we all went through. Even today it brings back a lot of bad memories. Personally, it turned me strongly against the oil industry and against the state and the federal government. So there was a lot of bitterness.

When you start a group with a lot of people being very bitter, professionalism isn’t always what it should be; there’s always going to be a mix-up between doing things right and allowing your emotions to get in the way. In the first year or two we had to sort that out.

Once we did that, it became a very efficient machine and we were able to really take a strong look at what we needed to do. When we worked with the oil industry and the shippers and others, it was pretty tough. There was a lot of give and take. Industry had to learn that they had to put up with us and that we had better find a way to work together. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took a while.”

– Stan Stephens

“We tried to deal in good faith with a high degree of civility and professionalism, but it did get contentious at times. Part of that was due to the extreme sensitivity to the disaster itself. Building trust was not easy and it took a lot of work and a lot of time. On top of that, we had to learn the technical aspects of what we were dealing with. We had to learn to understand and address the technical and engineering questions, the consciousness of the global oil industry and the role that TAPS and Alyeska and its parent companies all play. We had to raise our consciousness greatly to understand how the oil industry views things, and the role it plays in international oil supply and demand and international oil economics.”

– Scott Sterling

“When we first got started, the first few meetings, the only issue on the table was oil spill response, but there were a few of us who worked hard to get the mission to include all the environmental impacts of the tankers and terminal. That was somewhat of a contentious issue, but it got resolved within about three meetings, then we took on all the environmental impacts. There was so much work that the RCAC ended up doing, invasive species and air quality, just to name a couple; none of that would have been included if it had remained what it started out being.”

– Marilyn Leland

“I used to kid about “Meetings R Us” because in the early days we attended so many meetings. All in all, I think the RCAC was set up very well. I think it was a hard time for the oil companies to accept that citizens should have any say about anything having to do with them. I can kind of understand that, because, if I’m the captain of a military ship, I wouldn’t expect civilians to tell me how to run my ship. I think that’s essentially the way the oil companies felt about it. I think ultimately it worked out extremely well because we managed to realize that everybody had the same goal. None of us wanted to have another oil spill and if we did, we wanted to have something in place that was going to mitigate it to the maximum extent, and hopefully prevent it in the first place. In the beginning it was a little contentious between the oil companies and the RCAC. They weren’t sure why we were even there.”

– Stan Stanley

“At those early meetings, I think there were people from Alyeska who were skeptical and they didn’t really want to participate, but I think there was also a lot of people from Alyeska who were glad we were there because we helped them to do their jobs better. Our presence lent weight to things they may have wanted to do anyway, and we may have made that a little easier for them.”

– Marilyn Leland

“Once we did towing studies and risk assessment, it became obvious that we had something that the shippers could go back to the owners and higher-ups with and say, “Hey, look, these guys are right. If we have a major accident, it’s going to be 100 per cent our fault because they have proven themselves.””

– Stan Stephens

“We were also able to insert local fishermen and their boats into the response plan. That was something that had never been done before and, in fact, in the early days of the spill had been rejected by Alyeska and Exxon. In fact, when I talked to Alyeska and offered assistance from some of our fishermen, I was told “we can’t afford the liability of using amateurs.” The good news is that now, Alyeska and the shippers now know that Alaska fishermen are professionals and the most qualified to assist in a response.”

– Marilyn Leland

“Safety is bound up with all the other issues that affect the industry. It has economic implications, it has legal implications, it has management implications, it has political implications. Every sphere of human endeavor is affected by safety and concentrating the intelligent discussion that keeps you mindful of all that is an education, to say the least. In the realm of politics and safety and engineering and commerce and maritime law, it just goes on and on. It was pointed out to me that you cannot become an instant expert on everything and you probably shouldn’t even try, but what you should do is keep in mind the goal and learn what you need to learn. Don’t try to be an instant expert because that can lead you down the wrong path. So that was me, I was a lawyer generalist, I didn’t try to become an expert on anything, I just tried to keep in mind the goals.”

– Scott Sterling

“There were tens of thousands of volunteer hours in the first few years of the organization. When you have that kind of volunteer effort, and then on top of that you can fund travel and meeting locations, and legal expertise, and technical expertise to advise the volunteers, you’re leveraging their dollars way beyond what they can do with those same dollars, and I don’t think they realized or expected that.

There was a lot of emotion and a lot of energy that came out of the oil spill by people who were upset by the fact that it happened to us, and it gave a channel for that energy and that emotion to do something positive. Those are all really good things.

The downside is that we are sort of dependent on the industry for the funds, although I haven’t seen that to be a tremendous downside.”

– Tim Robertson

Up next:

What worked? What didn’t?

About this page:

The quotes on this page are part of an oral history of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, released in April 2015. For more information about this document, please visit:  Stories of the early years and formation of the council released

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