How learning to listen can help communities heal from disasters

In 1989, when a young Patience Andersen Faulkner was working as a legal aide in the picturesque town of Cordova, disaster struck when crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound from the tanker Exxon Valdez.

Part of her job was to listen to the folks who came into the law office talk about their experiences with the spill.

“They would tell me how things devastated them emotionally,” she says. Even though the spill affected her too, she just listened.

The town didn’t have much in the way of mental health services, so Andersen Faulkner pushed the lawyers she worked for to get the community some help. They introduced her to Dr. Steve Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama.

Dr. Picou had been studying the impacts that technological disasters had on communities. While the effects of natural disasters were well-understood, technological disasters were a relatively new field, with little documentation. After the spill, he came to Alaska to study how the disaster affected the community of Cordova. This work developed into the Council’s guidebook called “Coping With Technological Disasters,” designed to help communities cope better with similar disasters in the future.

A technological disaster is human-caused. These accidents are caused by the failure of systems that are in the control of people.
Examples include an oil spill, train derailment, plant explosion, or other accident, which have different effects on communities than a natural disaster.

How different types of disasters create different social environments

Not only are the effects of a technological disaster long-lasting, they differ from other types of disasters. After natural disasters, such as earthquakes or typhoons, there are systems in place for support, such as government agencies. Communities often bond during efforts to rebuild.

Following a technological disaster, there are questions about responsibility, victim-blaming occurs, and complex lawsuits are common. All of these can cause lingering psychological damage.

In 2006, Dr. Picou surveyed Cordovans to examine the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. His work showed that 17 years after the spill, recovery was progressing, but psychological stress from the spill was still present.

Some natural disasters can have elements in common with technological disasters. Problems with preparation and response, such as occurred after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, can cause similar community effects.

Lessons on listening

Andersen Faulkner noticed that when the clients talked through their problems, they often left feeling better.

“They weren’t cured of anything, they didn’t have any money, but they at least knew they had a tool within themselves on which to draw,” she says about the experience at the time.

The Council’s 1996 guidebook by Dr. Picou included a section on training community members to become peer listeners. This work was based on the experiences of Andersen Faulkner and other Cordovans. In 1998, Andersen Faulkner joined the Council’s Board of Directors, where she served as a representative of the Cordova District Fishermen United until 2022. She helped guide the development of updates to the guide and manual.

Over the years, this program was used and adapted for recovery following disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, the Council updated the “Coping With Technological Disasters” Guidebook. This year, the Council sponsored a major overhaul of the peer listener program. A newly revised Peer Listener manual incorporates many advances in the fields of peer-to-peer support and community resilience.

How the new manual can help

The revised manual is designed to assist communities that have been through a disaster. Here are a few ways the manual can be beneficial.

For individuals:

  • Skills to be a better listener
  • Examples of supportive and reassuring responses
  • Warning signs that additional help is needed beyond peer support
  • How to recognize when you are getting overwhelmed and need to take care of yourself
  • Links to resources for additional help, including many specifically for Alaskans

For communities:

  • Promotes a network of support that increases resiliency
  • Fosters empathy among community members
  • Identifies vulnerable populations

Download the new Peer Listener Manual: Coping with Technological Disasters Appendix F: Peer Listener Training Manual

Surveys emphasize importance of protecting nearshore habitat for wintering birds

Three years of data from surveys of marine bird species is now available online. The data is intended to help identify areas where marine birds tend to congregate in the winter, so that protective measures can be taken in the event of a spill in Prince William Sound.

Previously, most surveys of birds and mammals were conducted in Prince William Sound during spring, summer, or fall. This data from winter adds depth to our understanding of bird populations and the risks posed to birds from an oil spill.

Additionally, these surveys provide baseline monitoring information that can be used to understand the environmental impacts of terminal and tanker operations on marine bird species. The surveys were conducted in winter, which is an important time for marine bird survival given the typically harsh conditions.

Researchers identified 23 distinct bird species. Murrelets were the most common marine bird at 38% of sightings. Pelagic cormorants and common murres were the next most common.

Data available online

The results of the surveys are publicly available online. A map of the data is through the Alaska Ocean Observing System and NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA).

These surveys continue the work done by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council’s Gulf Watch Alaska, which started monitoring in 2007. Datasets from 2007-2023 are available on the Alaska Ocean Observing System’s website (

Download the final report

Marine Bird Winter Surveys in Prince William Sound – 2023

Analysis of genes increases understanding of oil’s effects

New techniques in the field of genetic analysis are improving our understanding of the effects of oil spills.

Image of a colony of blue mussels on a shore in Larsen Bay, Prince William Sound. The waters and mountains of Prince William Sound can be seen in the distance.
The Council collects samples from blue mussels like these to better understand the effects of oil spills. Photo by Lisa Matlock.

Since 1993, the Council has gathered data on the presence of hydrocarbons in sediments and blue mussels in the region. Samples of sediments and mussels are collected and analyzed for the presence of oil or other pollutants that originate from the Valdez Marine Terminal and tankers that ship oil from there.

In 2019, the Council began looking at new methods to measure the impacts of oil on the environment. In April 2020, a spill from the terminal leaked approximately 1,400 gallons of oil into Port Valdez. This unfortunate incident presented a unique opportunity to learn.

The new research analyzes the genes of blue mussels using a technique known as “transcriptomics.” Transcriptomics involves measuring how particular genes are expressed in an organism. This expression can be affected by conditions in the environment.

The research began in 2019 with a pilot study. The early research looked at 14 specific genes. More recent work expanded the study to over 7,000 genes, and is summarized in a new report sponsored by the Council.

The researchers compared samples of mussels taken from sites near the terminal, near the Valdez harbor, and a third control site. They found some interesting results.

Effects of oil on genes lingers

After the April 2020 spill, the levels of oil in the mussels had declined by August, however the mussel’s genes showed evidence of lingering effects.

Different pollutants have different effects

More recently, researchers tried to identify how the effects differed according to different contaminants. The crude oil-contaminated samples were compared to samples from the Valdez harbor, which were contaminated with pollutants such as diesel fuel or vessel exhaust, and the control site.

Genes such as those associated with stress, neurotransmitters, and the immune system were among those that varied between the three sites.

Results expected to have far-reaching implications

The information in these studies will help improve the Council’s monitoring program in the future. The researchers noted in the report that the findings are not just applicable to Alaska but could potentially improve monitoring in marine environments around the world.

Alaska North Slope oil trending lighter since 2010

Photo take after the Exxon Valdez oil spill of a rocky beach in Prince William Sound. The rocks are coated in black crude oil.
The oil spilled in 1989 (pictured above) was “heavier” than the oil flowing through the Trans Alaska Pipeline today.

Crude oil is often referred to as a “fossil fuel” because it is made up of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. Over time, these remains were exposed to heat and pressure inside the Earth’s crust, forming crude oil.

This process is full of variables. The organic materials that make up one pocket of oil can differ from another, or the deposit could have been exposed to different pressures or temperatures during formation. These variables mean oils have different properties such as density, viscosity (thickness), or tendency to form an emulsion.

The oil pumped through the Trans Alaska Pipeline System is a mixture from different fields. That mixture changes over time. The properties of oil can change as the field ages, and new fields are brought into production.

These variations mean the oil behaves differently. It can flow faster or slower, or evaporate more readily.

These, and other variations, influence the techniques used to clean up a spill.

Approximately every five years, the Council obtains a sample of crude oil from the Trans Alaska Pipeline System for analysis. Researchers look at properties such as weight, evaporation, and emulsification. A new report summarizes the latest findings.


A “heavy” oil is denser than a “light” oil, which flows more easily. Heavy oils are more useful for asphalt and plastics, while lighter oils are processed into gasoline and jet fuel.
When the pipeline first started transporting oil, the oil was considered “heavy.” In 2010, a sample analyzed by the Council found that the oil had lightened considerably. The trend continued in 2015 and again with this recent sample, although the shift has not been as dramatic since 2010. The most recent analysis categorizes the oil as a “medium” viscosity.

These properties may affect response tactics. For instance, if spilled, lighter oils may be easier to pump, however lighter oils could spread more rapidly, covering a larger area.


Lighter weight oils are made up of substances that evaporate more easily. A fuel such as gasoline can evaporate completely at temperatures above freezing. In crude oil, however, evaporation of lighter molecules leaves behind heavier components of the oil. The heavier oil components emulsify more readily.


Emulsification is the process by which one liquid is dispersed into another one in the form of small droplets. Mayonnaise is an example of an emulsion: oil, water, and egg yolks are whisked together to form a thick paste, with the egg serving as the emulsifier to keep the oil and water from separating. In a similar fashion, ocean waves and wind can mix water droplets into spilled oil.

Some emulsified oils break down and separate back into oil and water over time, however in heavier oils, this mixture can stabilize, becoming permanently emulsified.

Emulsified oil is much more difficult to clean up. The volume can triple in size and become almost solid. If the emulsion stabilizes, it is difficult or impossible to recover with a skimmer.

Oil samples analyzed by the Council prior to 2001 formed stable emulsions when weathered. Tests performed on the recent sample found that the newer oil will emulsify, but does not stabilize into a permanent emulsion.

Report available online

The tests on the sample were conducted by Environment and Climate Change Canada. Dr. Merv Fingas interpreted the lab results, which are summarized in the new report:

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