New Zealanders visit Alaska in search of Exxon Valdez lessons

This past June brought visitors to Alaska to learn about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Raewyn Bennett and Elaine Tapsell, elders of the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, came to look for information and best practices or guidance that might be useful to them in the aftermath of their own oil spill off the coast of New Zealand in 2011.

The cargo tanker Rena ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef in October 2011, releasing over 350 tonnes (approximately 110,000 gallons) of fuel oil and shipping containers into New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. The Astrolabe Reef, known to the Maori as “Otaiti,” is considered sacred by the Maori, and they are concerned about a potential plan to leave the submerged portion of the wreckage on the reef.

Bennett and Tapsell helped with the cleanup after the spill.

Dr. Steven Picou, a sociologist who studies the social effects of disasters, referred Bennett and Tapsell to the council. Dr. Picou worked extensively with the council to create the Coping with Technological Disasters Guide, a guidebook explaining how communities can deal with technological disasters such as oil spills.

Bennett and Tapsell visited Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, Valdez and Cordova. After their arrival in Valdez, The group met with council staffers to hear about the council and the progress that has been made in oil spill prevention and response since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Diane Selanoff, council board representative for the Port Graham Corporation, and her husband co-hosted a small community dinner for the Maori visitors together with Mark Swanson, executive director of the council. Several locals who had participated in the 1989-90 Exxon Valdez clean-up joined the dinner.

“What stood out were the similarities in the responses from our communities to those of their people,” said Swanson.

Bennett and Tapsell next visited Cordova, where council board volunteer Patience Andersen Faulkner coordinated a series of meetings with various people and organizations, including the Prince William Sound Science Center; elected officials; Elders at the Native Village of Eyak; Copper River Watershed Project; Cordova District Fishermen United; and many others. They also viewed the oil spill response equipment with coordinator Ivy Patton from the Native Village of Eyak.

“During the six days traveling the Cordova highways and byways, discussions on the similarities between the two incidents were intense,” Faulkner said. “We talked about the sociological impacts and the cultural significance of the rock in the Bay of Plenty and removal of the ship, which continues to damage the sacred rock..”

“I would like to acknowledge the outstanding manaaki (hosting) we received from the various hosts who met with us and shared their experiences and advice whilst in Alaska,” said Bennett. “We were truly blessed.”

“We have some small projects the results of which we will share with you when they are completed. I was truly impressed by the prevention focus of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council,” Bennett added.

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