"Lingering Oil Education Project" Seventeen Years Later -- High School Contest Winners' Field Trip: Students Review Lessons Learned Since 1989 Oil Spill

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Lingering Oil Education Project High School Contest High School Contest Winners find "the oil on the beaches is still there, affecting the animals"

They say what you don’t know can’t hurt you, but a group of four Alaska high school students set out to disprove that. Winners of an essay contest in which they discussed how their families were affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, their reward was the chance to participate in a field trip around Prince William Sound to learn about the spill and lingering oil. Under a motto of “Learning from the past, for the future” they took the lessons they learned about the social and biological effects of the oil spill to educate their peers and others in Cordova and, also, Washington, DC.

The 17th anniversary of the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill has recently come and gone, marking the date when a chain reaction of human errors set the Exxon Valdez oil tanker aground on Bligh Reef, where it leaked approximately 11 million gallons of North Slope crude before it was finally stopped. The oil slick covered 10,000 square miles and killed upwards of 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 150 bald eagles, and countless other creatures in Prince William Sound. A badly mismanaged cleanup followed, and after that, Exxon seemed only to be a legal battle and a bad taste in Alaska’s mouth.

The Lingering Oil Education Project team - including Marney Mallory, Zeben Kopchak, and Emma Roemhildt of Cordova, Hannah Bradley of Homer, and their advisor Kate Alexander of the Prince William Sound Science Center - assembled in Cordova March 14 to begin painting a picture of the social impact the spill had on the Sound. Roemhildt, 14, said “I’ve noticed a lot of bitterness in my community in Cordova, both to Exxon and to each other. Community members feel bitter over losing their livelihood: the fishing industry. That bitterness isn’t the most fun thing to grow up with.”

After waiting for bad weather to subside, the team boarded their chartered boat, the Auklet, and headed out into the Sound with Dr. Jeff Short, an Auke Bay Lab scientist who has spent over 10 years studying lingering oil Prince William Sound and disproving Exxon’s claims that oil is no longer affecting PWS. According to his 2001 study, 15,500 gallons of oil still remain on PWS beaches – only 2% of the original amount spilled, but still enough to affect intertidal foragers like sea otters and sea ducks.

The next morning, the team headed to two different beaches in Herring Bay, to see if they could find some of the remaining oil themselves. It was, unfortunately, very easy to find. It only took a few minutes of digging about six inches down in the rocky beach to find sediment that was black, sticky, and stinky with Exxon crude. “Disgusting” was the consensus reaction. After taking samples from both beaches, they headed for Valdez, where they received a tour of the SERVS fleet (Ship Escort Response Vessel System) aboard the Valdez Star, a 116 foot skimmer vessel. “It was pretty reassuring to see all the response equipment we have today compared to the nothing they had in 1989,” commented Mallory.

The team began compiling their findings during the next leg of their journey as they traveled to Washington, D.C. They worked while taking the ferry from Valdez to Cordova, and during transit stops in airport terminals. They also spent several late nights compiling a brief presentation and some background materials to share with others. In Washington, D.C., they gave a 30-minute presentation to Sidwell Friends High School, natural resource staff from the offices of Senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young, the American Petroleum Institute, George Washington University, and McLean School in Maryland.

“It was a full schedule, but very rewarding,” said Bradley. “By the end, we felt like we had really opened some eyes, including our own.”

“The oil spill is still affecting Prince William Sound,” Bradley continued. Fishing, the main moneymaker, has never recovered, she said, and the oil on the beaches is still there, affecting the animals. But apart from the biological effects, the people, including the Lingering Oil Education team, were affected too. They realized just how much the spill still means to people in lost fishing and changed attitudes.

Bradley summarized the team’s overall conclusions, saying “The oil spill teaches us a huge lesson about responsibility: clean up the messes you make. It shows us to take action in our environment – it was human complacency that caused Exxon Valdez, and only our activism can make changes in the current situation. Learning about the spill and how it isn’t over yet is the first step in making sure there is never another Exxon Valdez.”

Photo of team - link


photo courtesy of DJanka: l to r: Zeben Kopchak (Cordova, AK), Dr. Jeff Short (Auke Bay Lab, Juneau, AK), Marney Mallory (Cordova, AK), Emma Roemhildt (Cordova, AK), Dave Janka (Captain, Auklet Charter, Cordova, AK), Hannah Bradley (Homer, AK), Kate Alexander (Prince William Sound Science Center, Cordova, AK)

Photo of Zeben Kopchak dips gloved fingers into hole dug on an unnamed beach in Herring Bay, Knight Island, Prince William Sound, AK.


If you’d like more information about lingering oil or this project, contact: Kate Alexander at the Prince William Sound Science Center (907) 424-5800 x 231.

Press Release written by Contest Winner Hannah Bradley.

High resolution images available upon request.


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