21 Years Later, Exxon Valdez Scars Still Healing

Prince William Sound
While the scenery in Prince William Sound looks beautiful, the Exxon Valdez spill left scars beneath the surface.
Not even the stunning beauty of Alaska's Prince William Sound can hide the deep and lasting scar just beneath the surface.

"There are some folks I cannot get to talk to anybody about the spill because it brings back nightmares," said Patience Andersen Faulkner, a Cordova resident.

"The Spill" began at 12:04 a.m. on March 24, 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy.

"Evidently leaking some oil and we're going be here for awhile," Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph Hazelwood said during the spill.

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Over the course of 56 days, the black cloud spread damaging 1,300 miles of shoreline. Ten thousand people helped clean it up. It took more than four summers and cost Exxon $2.1 billion.

Faulkner lives in Cordova, the largest fishing town on the sound. Twenty-one years later, things look pretty normal.

"Well it does look nice and normal but we don't have any herring," Faulkner said.

That's why Mark King's boat is parked in a warehouse. The former herring fisherman used to pull in up to $150,000 per year. Now he makes about $50,000 fishing salmon. Herring basically disappeared within three years of the spill.

King's hope was to pass on his business to his kids.

"They're gone," King said. "They aren't involved in fishing. They didn't have the opportunities I had growing up here."

While herring populations are still devastated, other species such as salmon and bald eagles have recovered. But perhaps the most remarkable is what never went away - and you can find it just a short plane ride from Cordova. On the shoreline, all you have to do is move a couple of rocks and you strike oil - Exxon Valdez oil - 21 years later.

In fact, over 21,000 gallons of oil are left from the spill. It is naturally decreasing at a rate of 0 to 4 percent per year. So it could take decades - or even centuries - before it's all gone.

Researcher David Janka said that two decades later, the oil is still a threat.

"There are salmon streams nearby, there are birds that utilize these beaches," Janka said.

Along with the oil, a bitterness remains. A jury awarded fisherman and other residents along the sound $5 billion, but Exoon appealed and only had to pay $507 million, while the community has paid a heavy price.

"We've had tons of divorces, tons of domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and suicides," Faulkner said.
So prevention is now the focus. From the air you can see barges stationed on the water with equipment to handle a spill and oil spill drills are held regularly.

"If there was another spill like here like the one that we had, it would be devastating," said Mike Collins, a local pilot. "And there is that constant fear around people that live here."

For the infamous tanker, by law it can never enter these Alaskan waters ever again.