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The Exxon Valdez Disaster, 20 Years Later: The Social and Environmental Scars

The twentieth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill will be coming up soon, on March 24. Meg White looks back at the effects of the disaster—from oil “land mines” in the beaches, to post-traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse, economic ruin, and depression—in a series of articles for Alternet. This article is third in the series.
John Platt, a third-generation fisherman who lost almost everything in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, said that his pride in his hometown of Cordova persists. “It is beautiful to this day,” he said.  But on especially hot days in the Prince William Sound, he can still see the effects of the disaster bubbling up, especially on the shoreline. “Some of the beaches will have a little oil sheen.” That’s because most of the 11 million gallons of oil spilled in the Prince William Sound in March 1989 is still there. Cordova was one of the towns most affected  by the spill. Yesterday, I wrote about the financial impact of the spill on the area, still being felt today. However, the social and environmental echoes are still reverberating as well. Platt said that still bubbling up to the surface are instances of suicide, bankruptcy and divorce. But while debt forgiveness, reinvestment and legal settlements can work to ameliorate economic pain, the answers are much more elusive when it comes to the physical and mental landscape of the area hit by the Exxon Valdez two decades ago. In a recent interview with In These Times, local fisherwoman and marine biologist Riki Ott talked about the toll the disaster took on the community:
“The stress manifested itself in all manner of horrible things, including substance abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, depression, PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], isolation, divorce and suicide. These are the so-called ‘non-economic losses’ in a court of law.”
Professor Steven Picou of the University of South Alabama and Professor Duane Gill of Mississippi State University conducted a study from 1989 to 1997 on the psychological effects of the spill, funded mainly by The National Science Foundation and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. The study found that while high levels of avoidance behavior and intrusive stress marked the first 18 months of life in Cordova after the disaster, problems persisted for years. In groups studied as late as 1995, levels of severe depression and anxiety, as well as PTSD were found in double-digit percentages. The environmental degradation and profound economic loss were compounded by what Picou called the “secondary disaster” of the prolonged and shady legal dealings.
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