Exxon Valdez Memories From Alaska’s Capitol Still Fresh 25 Years Later

An otter covered with oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill – ACE6 (Photo by ARLIS Reference)
An otter covered with oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill – ACE6 (Photo by ARLIS Reference)

It’s been 25 years since the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground, spilling hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil in Prince William Sound.

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Twenty-five years ago, Marta Lastufka saw a puzzling ill omen at a party where a woman was giving readings with tarot cards.

“And everybody kept getting this scary card, it was like, the death card, or something,” says Lastufka, a page for the Senate Finance Committee. “She said, ‘You know, I don’t know what this means, but something is going to happen that’s going to affect all of you.’ And that was probably just a few days before the Valdez oil spill. And then we realized, oh, that was it.”

The Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground 25 years ago today, spilling hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil in Prince William Sound. Around the state Capitol Building, the memories for many are still fresh.

The spill brought a frenzy of activity to Alaska, including workers, reporters and profiteers.  Legislative aide Ron Clark had a front seat. He was a special assistant to Gov. Steve Cowper. Clark and the governor flew up to Valdez a few days after the spill.

After they got off the plane, Clark remembers the governor asking him, “Are you ready for this?”

“And I said, ‘I dunno, what’s this?’ He says, ‘You’ll see,’” Clark recalls. “The doors open and, like, two dozen Klieg lights flash on. All these camera lenses suddenly are trained on him, microphones being thrust at him, and people shouting questions, and, and, he kind of pauses before he wades into this, and he turns to me and says — ‘That’s ‘this’. This is what I meant.’ And he just — pwoo! — walked into this amazing scrum of press people.”

Clark says entrepreneurs came, too, by the thousands, clawing for a few minutes of the governor’s time to hawk their cleanup solutions. His voice tightens as he imitates the frantic tone: “Here, governor, here! Here’s the cure to the spill, here’s what you need to–this product is just what you need!”

He calls it a bizarre and surreal time. One man tried to sell nylon mesh bags full of chicken feathers as a alternative to oil boom. Within a few weeks, bankers’ boxes filled with spill-related mail lined the hallways of the Capitol’s third floor, Clark says.

“You know, there was a whole section on sea otters. You know, oiled sea otters: Clean them and release them? Kill them humanely? Every category of letter had a banker’s box, and we just had piles and piles and piles of these letters that just kept pouring in,” Clark says.

The impact wasn’t so immediate for Sen. Gary Stevens. He was in Kodiak at the time teaching history. There, the first weeks were part of an awful waiting game.

“I’ve heard people say anything that falls in the water in Prince William Sound is going to wind up on the beaches of Kodiak,” Stevens says.

The news reached Kodiak weeks before the clumpy oil balls fouled the beaches.

“It was just a horrendous experience as we watched that oil over time slowly move out of Prince William Sound and eventually hit the beaches of Kodiak. We knew it was going to happen, and it was just like one of those inexorable things that you know it’s going to happen, you know it’s going to happen, and then finally it does,” Stevens says.

Stevens remembers the sight of oiled birds, oiled animals and the oiled workers trying to clean it all up.

The workers at sea needed a way to clean themselves up, too. Rep. Paul Seaton was a commercial fisherman at the time and one of his fish tenders was repurposed for just that. He put an old house with a boiler and tanks aboard the ship to supply fresh water and serve as a decontamination unit.

“Because all these people were out there cleaning up and they had no place to take showers, or wash, or wash any clothes for the first part. And so we became the vessel that was out there providing cleanup for the clean-uppers,” Seaton says.

For the most part, the oil has come and gone. Still, Stevens says sharing these stories is important.

“Because it needs to be commemorated. It was something that we just cannot forget. It happened. It really happened, it’s a part of our history and we can’t forget the impact that the oil spill, the Exxon- Valdez oil spill had on Alaska,” Stevens says.

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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