Exxon Stops Oil Spill Cleanup

Exxon's promises to clean up after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill have not been kept, Congress adopts a bill slightly reducing old-growth forest cutting, and some new publications cover the environmental news beat.
By Tom Turner
January/February 1990
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If at first you don't succeed, quit.

That could be the corporate motto of Exxon. No, come to think of it, it would be If at first you don't succeed, claim that you did anyway. Then quit.

Following the grounding of the Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef last March, Exxon nobly accepted full responsibility for the damage done by its oil and promised to clean up after itself, a job the company said it could finish by the end of the summer. Through the summer months, Exxon issued frequent statements congratulating itself on the progress of the cleanup.

Impartial observers were not so sanguine, however. Independent scientists, fishermen, representatives from the state government, journalists, and others reported that progress (if pulverizing the hardened crude oil and washing it back into Prince William Sound can properly be called progress) was wretchedly slow and that, despite Exxon's glowing report cards to the contrary, not one mile of one single beach had actually been fully cleansed of its petroleum grime.

Then, late in summer, Exxon started to sound cagey. It announced that cleanup operations would be suspended for the winter, starting on September 15. It promised to come back in the spring and have a look around; it made no promises about resuming cleanup or restoration activities. Then, a week or so before the target date, Exxon announced that it was clearing out. It declared victory and was withdrawing, much the way some people said we should have extracted ourselves from Vietnam.

The difference here, of course, is that this is a battle Exxon is morally obligated to keep on fighting, probably for years. No one knows just how thoroughly it is possible to clean a soiled body of water and its shoreline in that part of the world, but it's abundantly clear that whatever Exxon has done to date is utterly unsatisfactory.

In an effort to bring the force of the federal courts to bear, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed suit against Exxon in August, asking the court to order the company to continue the cleanup until the job is done—and done right. Further, the company would be required to pay for as complete a job of environmental restoration of Prince William Sound as is technically possible, and hang the expense.

As this is being written, the court has not ruled on the request. One hopes the court will be sympathetic. Exxon seems to think its responsibilities are at an end. They're not.

Old-Growth Forest Cutting Reduced Slightly

A flurry of lawsuits in the Pacific Northwest over the past few years finally got the attention of Congress, several executive agencies, and many others focused on the difficult problem of how to preserve old-growth timber without doing excessive damage to the economy of the timber belt. The latest news on the subject is one of those Washington, D.C., solutions that satisfies virtually no one and also quite emphatically fails to solve the problem.

As reported in this space previously, the central figure in this struggle is the northern spotted owl, a rare creature that most scientists believe is perilously close to extinction. Putting it on the Endangered Species List, however, would severely curtail logging in the bird's old-growth habitat; as a result such a listing has been vigorously resisted by the timber industry and thus by most politicians from the owl's home region.

Nonetheless, using the masses of scientific studies and opinions that underscore the bird's plight, the Legal Defense Fund gained a series of court injunctions that blocked new timber sales in spotted owl habitat. By last spring, virtually all new timber sales of old growth in Oregon and Washington had been halted.

This caused an angry outcry from loggers who were fearful for their jobs. The fact of the matter is—and this is borne out by many studies, including one conducted by the state of Oregon itself—that the loss of jobs in lumber mills is mainly the result of automation and of the shipment of raw logs to Japan. Restricting cutting in what little unprotected old growth remains would have a negligible effect on employment. But the timber industry doesn't want to hear that, nor do loggers or politicians. Environmentalists and nocturnal birds are more appealing targets.

The Northwest delegation, led by Senator Mark Hatfield and Representative Les AuCoin, both from Oregon, then asked Congress to take them off the hook by shielding timber sales from judicial review, a practice that sounds unconstitutional but is, in fact, quite legal and has been used in the past. Without the opportunity to challenge timber sales in court, environmentalists would be powerless to slow the relentless decimation of old-growth forests.

The struggle consumed much of the spring and summer. After several vain attempts at compromise (made difficult by the fact that the environmentalists were by no means united in their approach), Congress in early October adopted a bill that provides for the following: The old growth cut on federal lands in Oregon and Washington this year will be 9.6 billion board feet, a slight reduction from last year's cut. Spotted owl habitat in the national forests will be protected as much as possible from "fragmentation." Judicial review will be limited but not eliminated.

The long-term effect of the bill remains to be seen. Environmentalists took heart in the fact that Congress had finally acknowledged the importance of old-growth ecosystems but lamented the fact that the acknowledgment didn't include far more stringent restrictions on logging. "What we don't know yet is whether the owl can survive even this slightly reduced level of cutting," said Todd True of the Legal Defense Fund's Seattle office. One can only hope that expediency won't lead to disaster.

Environmentalist Publications

I bring to your attention two magazines and one mapmaker.

World Watch, published by the institute of the same name, is a new six-times-a-year journal of international environmental news and commentary. It carries articles that are comprehensive, thoughtful, scientifically literate, and yet extremely accessible. It is exactly the sort of background one needs to understand the daily drumbeat of terrible news from the daily papers and television reports. It is a magazine that says, unabashedly, that its mission is to save the world. The best news may be that Worldwatch thinks it's possible. The Worldwatch annual publication, State of the World, is also available.

Earth Island Journal, a quarterly, is a political counterpart to World Watch. Where that journal's reporting of problems in the tropical rain forests, for example, will concentrate on science, the Journal is likely to focus on the natives who are losing their cultures to satisfy First World greed and on the political struggles that are growing with amazing rapidity as the Third World tries to change its dead-end status as the resource colony for the rest of us. Earth Island Journal subscription includes membership in the Earth Island Institute, or you can get a sample copy. Both these estimable magazines are absolutely essential to an understanding of international environmental affairs.

Finally, a plug of a different color. If you're half the map addict I am, you'll adore the products of Raven Maps and Images of Medford, Oregon. Raven specializes in outsize topographical maps of the western states—one state per map, averaging maybe 30" by 60". These are enlargements of maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, colored in such an intriguing and skillful manner that the mountain ranges, river valleys, glaciers, and deserts pop out in revealing and startling ways, providing a whole new perspective on the landscape. Raven also produces fanciful computer-projection maps of islands as seen from the side, all the way from root to crown. Mesmerizing. 


Tom Turner, a writer and editor with over 20 years' experience in the environmental field, is staff writer for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund [now Earthjustice], an independent environmental law firm that represents manyorganizations across the country. It is supported by private donations. For more information, contact Earthjustice.

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