Native Alaskans Still Reeling 25 Years After Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill

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Twenty-five years ago today, an Exxon tanker carrying 53 million gallons of oil through a channel in Alaska's Prince William Sound struck a reef and spilled millions of gallons of oil along 1,300 miles of coastline.

Estimates from NOAA and the State of Alaska put the oil spill at 11 million gallons, although that number is disputed, and some have estimated as much as 38 million gallons were spilled.

The oil spill killed thousands of animals in the pristine environment, devastated the salmon and herring fisheries and profoundly affected the way of life for native Alaskans in the area.

Dune Lankard is a member of the Eyak Alaska Eagle clan, an environmental activist and a life long resident of Cordova, Alaska — one of the communities most affected by the oil spill.

He says the Exxon-Valdez oil spill's economic, cultural and psychological toll was enormous for his people.

"It was more than just an oil spill," Lankard told Here & Now's Robin Young. "We had an Alaskan dream, and that dream was intact for several thousands of years. And our relationship was with that land and sea and all of those animals ... And so when that was disrupted, that fabric of our way of life and our Alaskan dream was also stolen from us."

Interview Highlights: Dune Lankard

On the long lasting impacts of the spill on the region

"Salmon have not fully come back, but we have five of the largest hatcheries in the world – and so the numbers of salmon that are returning are in great numbers. But, you know, there are still not the wide runs that I grew up fishing. And there’s hardly any herring in the region at all. Herring was 50 percent of our annual income which, you know, was a pretty healthy hit for the community of Cordova."

"Most of us made our living from the ocean, and if you look at the tribe, the Eyak people ourselves – there’s only about a 150, 160 of us alive right now. In Cordova, there was as many as 30 to 40 that still came back every time the fish would come home. And then when there was no money to be made in fisheries — they basically disappeared and our prices plummeted down to about a nickel to ten cents a pound, you know a lot of folks just couldn't make a living, so a lot of folks moved away.

"There was more than just an oil spill, it impacted marriages, you know, there was divorces, there was fishing cooperatives — we’d have three to five different fishermen in one little cooperative group that worked together; they all broke up – there was more drug and alcohol abuse, suicides, a lot of despair."

On what Lankard thinks are current threats to Cordova

"Right now there is more development planned in Cordova. For example, they want to build a deep water port in the name of oil spill response, and we really believe that the emphasis on building a spill port is really turning Cordova into a port city, and our fishing industry replaced with cruise ships. Cordova is one of the last Wild West communities on the planet that's still thriving and you can still make a living from the fishing way of life. We're the eighth largest seaport in poundage harvested...Why would you ever want to disrupt anything like that?"


This segment aired on March 24, 2014.


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