My job at the Council is to foster community engagement. This includes lots of travel to our many small communities, from Cordova in the east to Kodiak Island in the west. I also represent the Council at events such as oil spill prevention and response professional conferences, fisherman conventions, scientific forums, local government meetings or conferences, and community receptions.
All that came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 when the pandemic stopped all travel for the Council. Since then, meetings have been via videoconference, educators have cut most hands-on programs, and conferences have been canceled or switched to online.
To continue citizen oversight of the operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and tankers that use it, Council staff had to get creative and roll with the rapidly changing field of public engagement.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a Council project assessed the social impacts of the spill and developed resources that could be used by small communities to help with healing. An oil spill has complex and long-lasting impacts on the social and emotional health of a community, more than a natural disaster. Substance abuse, domestic violence, self-isolation, and suicide all increase as a result of stress that can be felt throughout a community. Activities that strengthen community connectedness help counteract these effects.
Mental health professionals today are making comparisons between the ongoing mental health impacts of disasters such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and those of COVID-19. Many of the elements that make an oil spill so challenging can also be applied to the current COVID-19 crisis, in particular the high levels of uncertainty about when the crisis will end, how long recovery will take, and whether individuals are doing the right thing in response. Like an oil spill, the pandemic will have long-lasting impacts on individual physical health, the economy, and communities’ social fabric. All of this has a cumulative impact on mental health.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, many people needed a friendly ear to listen to their struggles and stories with empathy. The Council sponsored creation of the Peer Listener Training, which empowers residents in our region to support each other through effective listening. In a disaster, mental health professionals are swamped and costly. In small communities, like many rural villages in Alaska, professional support may not be readily available. A neighbor who shares your culture, lifestyle, and experience may be more approachable than a professional counselor, especially for those who may not have a positive view of mental health counseling.
Trained peer listeners, unlike therapists or counselors, do not give advice and are not experts. Instead they actively listen and help their peers vent strong emotions, feel heard, and have their experiences normalized. A peer listener is connected to resources in the community and knows when to make referrals to professionals or other support systems.
The Council offers a “train the trainer” event every few years to individuals who are positioned to bring the training home to their community. Trained peer listeners increase the resilience of the Exxon Valdez oil spill region should another disaster threaten the fabric of life so deeply. One of the primary takeaways is that even a regular citizen, someone who is not a mental health expert, can make a big difference in their community. Checking in on neighbors, asking intentional questions about well-being, and listening with empathy make a big difference for connectedness and healing. These lessons apply broadly, to all disasters that impact our communities.
In September, Council volunteers brought a message of citizen engagement and oil spill prevention to Kenai’s second and third graders.
At the education event known as Masters of Disaster, students engaged in engineering challenges, learned principles of chemistry, got an introduction to tanker design, and practiced oiled wildlife response. The principal of Kenai’s Mountain View Elementary, Karl Kircher, says that making connections at this young age to career pathways, engineering, and applied sciences is crucial, because students are deciding whether school is meaningful for them and what their future might hold.
The community showed their support. Parents texted teachers saying that the activities gave their children meaningful points of connection with their own Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup efforts. The Peninsula Clarion ran a front-page photo titled “Getting their hands dirty for science.”
Ten volunteers spent two hours non-stop with groups of students: Board members Patience Andersen Faulkner, Mike Bender, and Dorothy Moore; committee chairs Jane Eisemann, Jim Herbert, John Kennish, and Steve Lewis; committee members Cathy Hart and Savannah Lewis; and a guest volunteer, Deb Hart. Amanda Johnson, Betsi Oliver, and Nelli Vanderburg of staff completed the team.
In one station, students used a variety of materials to represent boom, skimmers, and other cleanup materials to keep oil off a model beach. Another station showed the impact of weatherization on oil, how a small drop can spread into a large layer of sheen that is hard to contain or be whipped up into mousse that is hard to remove. Investigating ship design was a blast when students ran the length of the Exxon Valdez – 987 feet – and got to handle a Lego version of a double-hulled tanker. At the wildlife response station, students investigated what happens to oiled eggs (answer: oil can absorb through the shell) and experimented with different cleaners to remove oil from feathers. Even using the same product that professional responders use to clean oiled animals, the students saw firsthand that the oil could not be completely washed away. That highlighted the message of the day: Cleaning up spilled oil is tough. Prevention is the best and only way to keep the environment free from oil.
In the past, this program has been offered in smaller schools. It was the first time we offered Masters of Disaster to a community the size of Kenai. The Council regularly adapts its education, and outreach, efforts to best suit the needs of our diverse communities. Next fall we’ll take Masters of Disaster on the road again to Seward. Hope to see you there!
Three Council-related reports accepted at conferences this year
“Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and the Prince William Sound Long Term Environmental Monitoring Program” by long-time contractor Jim Payne will be presented at the 2020 International Oil Spill Conference. This Council program has gathered data on the presence of hydrocarbons in sediments and mussels in the region since 1993.
“Providing a local voice for setting priorities in Alaska for human health, and social and economic disruptions from spills” by Davin Holen, member of the Council’s Scientific Advisory Committee, will be presented at the 2020 International Oil Spill Conference.
“Alaska’s Oil Spill Response Planning Standard – History and Legislative Intent” by Elise DeCola and Tim Robertson, authors of the Council-sponsored report of the same name, was presented at the 2019 Alaska Historical Society Annual Conference.