Community Corner: Alaskans still learning from the Exxon Valdez spill

Maia Draper-Reich

By Maia Draper-Reich, Outreach Coordinator

In February, the Council participated in the Alaska Forum on the Environment, a week-long conference that draws attendance by professionals, researchers, students, and others working in environmental fields related to Alaska. Community members and Alaska Native elders are also invited to speak on environmental issues and concerns. It was clear from sharing and connecting with the Forum’s attendees that the Exxon Valdez oil spill remains important for many Alaskans.

The Council hosts an exhibitor booth where we connect with participants about our mission and work. This year, the Council shared a booth with Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, or CIRCAC, which allowed us to engage with attendees about the two sister organizations, our shared history, and our specific regions of oversight.

As the Outreach Coordinator, I am a member of the Forum’s planning committee and help organize the oil spill track of sessions each year. This year, I presented on behalf of the Council on a session titled “35 Years Since the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Community Projects and Engagement.” The other presenters for the session were Shiway Wang, executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, and Shaylon Cochran, director of communications and public outreach at CIRCAC.

Wang spoke about impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Trustee Council’s restoration projects and science. Then, Cochran and I presented jointly sharing about our respective regions and origins, including the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the associated responsibilities. Cochran and I each took a turn highlighting each Council’s past and current work. It was an excellent venue to emphasize the lessons learned from the spill about the importance of local community engagement. This was exemplified by the accomplishments by all three organizations. The session was well attended with approximately 70 people in the room and 60 online participants. Questions from the audience centered on continued impacts from the spill on wildlife and prevention gaps.

I was encouraged by my conversations at the booth and after our session about the importance of citizen oversight and the value of the work we continue to accomplish in the region.

Community Corner: Music, Salmon, and Oil Spill Prevention

By Maia Draper-Reich, Outreach Coordinator

In early August, the Council hosted a booth at Salmonfest in Ninilchik, Alaska. The annual music and arts festival welcomes nonprofits to host information booths and share with attendees about their work in the ‘Salmon Causeway’. Salmonfest is a festival rooted in advocacy, working with organizations on the front lines to protect Bristol Bay and its wild salmon fishery. They also support other causes throughout the year. The variety of booths at the 2023 Causeway included salmon-focused and environmental groups, as well as advocacy and education of other issues like Alaska Native interests, women’s health, and more.

Board President Robert Archibald, Port Operations and Vessel traffic System Committee member Max Mitchell, and I staffed the Council’s booth across the three-day festival. The Council’s booth tied into the festival’s theme of healthy salmon through sharing about citizen engagement in marine oil spill prevention and response, and marine invasive species.

We spoke to individuals from the Exxon Valdez oil spill region and beyond about the spill, its aftermath, and the ongoing work the Council does to promote the safe transport of crude oil through Prince William Sound. We handed out Council publications and logoed giveaway items. Ear plugs were popular as they are highly useful at a music festival event and exemplary of how prevention is key. Because of the festival’s environmental advocacy origin, the approximately 350 attendees who stopped by the booth were engaged and receptive with many eager to stay connected and learn more through our newsletter and receiving a copy of The Spill book.

Sharing about invasive species took the form of a carnival game-style activity. Booths were encouraged to have an activity that attendees could complete or engage with to get a stamp on their Causeway bingo card. The Council’s carnival game was the Green Crab Attack explainer activity where the participants get to step into the shoes of a marine scientist monitoring for invasive crab species such as European Green Crab. Youth and adults of all ages tried out removing foam sea creatures from the crab trap and sorting them into categories keeping an eye out for any green crabs.

Salmonfest was a great opportunity to connect with community members from lower Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula, as well as those from elsewhere in Alaska and visitors, on citizen engagement in oil spill prevention and response in Prince William Sound and the downstream communities. On Sunday, people carrying large salmon puppets paraded by the nonprofit Causeway as a local act played on the nearby Inlet Stage, illustrating how the festival allows art, local environmental issues, and people to converge.

Valdez community engages with on-water oil spill response training

Valdez residents watch fishing boats practice pulling oil collection boom during the 2023 tour of Alyeska/SERVS’ oil spill response training. Photo by Dave Janka.

The Council held a tour for locals to observe the annual oil spill response training for fishing vessels in Valdez, Alaska, on May 3, 2023. This has been an annual event since 2016, rotating through several communities in the region, though it was postponed during the height of the COVID pandemic. The Valdez community was invited to join the Council from 12:30 to 3 p.m., on a Stan Stephens Cruises vessel to observe the training.

Valdez High School student Izzy Kizer stated about the event, “We need to know how to prevent [oil spills], but when they do happen, it’s very important to know how to clean them up. Some of these things, they work on a way larger scale than we’re aware of and seeing that helps broaden your perspective.”

The local fishermen participating in the training are contracted by the Ship Escort Response Vessel System, also known as SERVS, to respond in the event of an oil spill from a Prince William Sound tanker or the Valdez Marine Terminal. SERVS is Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s oil spill removal organization and coordinates annual spill response exercises in multiple Southcentral Alaska communities, including Valdez.

This Council event helps keep communities informed on what oil spill prevention and response measures are in place in Prince William Sound and downstream communities, especially those involving their local fishermen. Valdez residents learned about oil spill response technology, tactics and how this program helps Alyeska operate safely in Prince William Sound. Narrators from both the Council and Alyeska were on board to describe the activities so that participants could better understand the training. We would like to thank our partners, Alyeska/SERVS and Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises, for helping to support this event.

This photo shows three people inside the cabin of the tour boat discussing a piece of an oil skimmer. The piece is a round disc coated in a fuzzy material.
Council staff show a fuzzy disc from a skimmer. The fuzz on the disc is designed to catch more oil than water, which makes it more efficient at collecting oil than traditional skimmers.

”It takes a lot of coordination and cooperation from so many different entities in the community and that’s really fun for the students to see,” said Gilson Middle School teacher Ann Norris. This sentiment was echoed by Mo Radotich, one of several representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on board the tour. “I think it’s good for us all to get together – from regulatory, industry, RCAC, community members that are here. I think it’s important to see us working together and keep developing those relationships,” said Radotich.

Alyeska’s contracted fishing fleet is the backbone of their oil spill response system. It is essential to the system operating as it was designed to do and part of what makes the Prince William Sound system world-class. These contracted vessels and their crews help ensure the most comprehensive response measures are in place for both open water and nearshore resources. A major lesson of the Exxon Valdez spill was that incorporating local mariners into the spill response system helps ensure a quick, efficient and effective response.

This photo shows
A local fishing vessel practices pulling oil spill boom in formation with an oil spill response barge. Several of these barges are staged in Prince William Sound to be ready in case of a spill.

Since the inception of SERVS after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Council has been highly supportive of local fishermen and mariners being trained annually with the best available technology to prepare for oil spills. Valdez mariners have the most intimate knowledge of, and connection to, the waters in and around Valdez. Their involvement would help protect the most sensitive areas, such as hatcheries and spawning streams, from spilled oil.

“It’s such an integral part of our community. We’re so dedicated to the fishing industry, so protecting that resource is paramount,” said Valdez resident Shannon Day. “It’s important for us as adults to know about this, for the children to be exposed to it, so that they have the same love and dedication as they grow up.”

The Council has held previous fishing vessel oil spill response training tours in Seward, Whittier, Cordova and Homer. The Council hopes that through such programs communities will understand the importance of oil spill prevention and having the most robust response strategies in place in the event of a spill.

“You know what, I’ve lived in Valdez for 21 years, and spent a lot of time in the Sound. Today I learned a lot of stuff about oil spill response and different functions of Alyeska,” said Gilson Middle School principal Rod Morrison. “If we don’t learn about it, there’s a danger that it could happen again. The [Exxon Valdez] oil spill was terrible and some of the precautions we have in place now will help prevent that from happening again, but we also have a great system if it does happen again.”

Community Corner: A new look at old programs

Maia Draper-Reich

Hello from the new voice here in the Community Corner! Since joining the staff in early August, I have enjoyed launching into and paddling around the vast and deep waters of the Council’s work. I step into the outreach coordinator role with my background as a naturalist, science and environmental educator, dancer, and outreach program manager.

I know the joy of facilitating young people learning about the nature that surrounds them. There is a specific excitement that comes when you help someone make a new connection about a science-based fact. I recognize the importance of clear information leading to an audience’s inspiration, which leads them to action.

As I explore and learn about the Council, I am sparked by the variety of community outreach accomplished and funded throughout the region. The Youth Involvement project stands out. As in years previous, the Council provided funding for educating the youth in our community on topics related to the Council’s mission, such as citizens’ oversight, environmental impacts of the operation of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company oil terminal in Valdez and the oil tankers that call there, oil spill prevention, and response planning and operation. Eight programs were funded this year.

The Council sponsored a new youth track at the Prince William Sound Natural History Symposium this year, put on by the Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation to encourage and engage young people in the Prince William Sound region. These presentations and others from the symposium are available online at the foundation’s website: Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation – 2022 Symposium

Oil spill prevention and response engineering was taught through the remotely operated vehicles, or ROV challenge at this year’s Tsunami Bowl. This challenge was put on by the Prince William Sound Science Center. Youth Involvement also funded writing a ROV Kit Build-Guide for other educators to teach robotics and Exxon Valdez oil spill history and aftermath. It is available on their website. PWSSC’s R.O.V. Kit Build-Guide: How to build a simple remotely operated vehicle for classroom use

Among the rest are oil spill education for students via the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and the Copper River Watershed Project, and for teachers during Alaska Geographic’s Kenai Fjords Floating Teacher Workshop and Prince William Sound College’s Ecology for Teachers course.

The Youth Involvement projects are indicative of the many modes of community outreach that are important to share the Council’s mission and the varied work of the staff and committees. Each connection the community of volunteers, staff, and partners make with the Council’s audiences – be it the member communities and groups, the greater scientific community, oil industry and regulators, or the citizens of the region affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill – is a paddle dipping into the water and pushing the Council’s metaphorical kayak forward.

I look forward to continuing to tell the story of the spill, foster the network of organizations doing oil spill prevention and response education, and to inviting learners of all ages to understand their environment. As always, our goal remains to continue the Council’s mission through engaging our community members in meaningful experiences and inspiring new and long-time environmental stewards.

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