A person born in March of 1989 would now be 30 years, 8 months old. Roughly, you have to be at least 40 years old and have lived in, or had some connection to Alaska at the time to have any first-hand memories of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
When 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound, it was the largest accident of its kind in this country’s history. Since then, it has been dwarfed by 50 oil spills worldwide, each of which spilled even more oil into our collective world ocean. To those who were here at the time it was a life changing event. Last night, I sat and listened as some of my friends recounted their stories from the summer of 1989, speaking of weeks with endless work and little sleep, of shock and sadness, of the worst and the best it brought out in people, of how it was like a war scenario in that every aspect of life was shadowed by this one major event that took precedence. Those who were there will never forget.
Even though I was not in Alaska in 1989 my life story is entangled in the spill. The first year I came to Alaska I worked an internship at the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova, which was founded after the spill to study its effects and form a scientific hub in the affected area. Later, in 1996 I started my graduate research working on oil toxicology and designing laboratory experiments to explain how oil affected the plankton and how it can spread through the food web. I have since moved on to other things, but I can truthfully say that my life probably would not have taken me here if it had not been for the oil spill of 1989.
However, to the roughly 150 students currently in eighth grade at Kodiak Middle School the story of the oil spill is a history lesson, talking about something that happened long before they were born. It has been my job in the past two weeks to bridge the generations, to ensure that the lessons learned from the oil spill are not entirely buried under the sediment of time.
We began with the story of the oil spill, the pictures of the super tanker amidst a large slick of oil, workers on the beaches trying desperately to clean oil off the rocks, and oiled and dying otters and seabirds. We heard the story of the killer whale pod that lost its breeding members and was destined to extinction, and how even 26 years later scientists were still digging up oil under the rocks of Prince William Sound’s beaches. I showed around a sample of beach rocks collected 22 years after the spill that looks fresh as if nothing changed over that time. Why linger over such dark events? Why bother students with it instead of moving on and allowing the mantle of time to cover it up? It is in the hope that we will be better prepared if it happens again.
From the background story we moved our lessons to a mock scenario of an oil spill that might have happened in Kodiak. What would we do if it happened outside our harbor? How would we respond? How would we clean it up, how to keep out wildlife or respond to oiled sealions, otters and birds? How do we protect our salmon streams? How would we get a message out to the community to keep people safe from exposure to toxic fumes?
We pretended to form a unified command, which is a group formed with all affected stakeholders and responders in such a situation, a kind of think-tank where a response plan is made and coordinated. Professional Engineer P. Cummings from NWFF Environmental gave a presentation to help students see and understand the methods used in cleaning up oil and give them a chance to ask technical questions about their ideas.
To wrap it up with a hands-on activity, we will have students test a model of an adsorbent boom. There are containment booms, which simply keep the oil from spreading. And there are adsorbent booms to pick up oil out of the water. After the Exxon spill, a hair dresser somewhere in the Lower 48 saw an oiled otter on the news and decided that if an otter’s fur picked up so much oil, perhaps human hair would do the same. He stuffed a bunch of hair in his wife’s nylon stockings and made a big hair sausage boom, then tried it out in a homemade oil spill scenario. He was onto something; apparently, hair is very good at picking up oil from the water. You can check out the story on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2Pll0V4HdM.
With a kind donation of clipped hair from a local hair dresser, we will compare the efficiency of hair booms with other materials. If you recently had your hair trimmed in Kodiak, perhaps your snips are going to assist in a student conducted experiment to see which materials are better at cleaning up small oil spills.
Remember the local resiliency discussion? Would it not be another step in the right direction to make our own oil spill response booms? With a panty hose and a lot of human (or dog) hair, you could have a few of those on your boat and be ready next time the tank overflows while you are refilling it. For the sake of our amazing environment no idea is too weird if it is a good one!