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The day oil hell broke loose in paradise; 30 YEARS ON FROM EXXON VALDEZ DISASTER; EXCLUSIVE.

Byline: CHRISTOPHER BUCKTIN US

THIRTY years ago this month, Mike Webber went to bed early ready for a 4am start. The third generation fisherman wanted to be up ahead of the rest of the fleet to harvest spring herring in Prince William Sound, one of earth's most pristine ecosystems.

But it was only when he woke that his nightmare - and that of the whole of Cordova, Alaska - began to unfold.

For 45 miles away the giant oil tanker Exxon Valdez had run aground on the well-marked Bligh Reef.

Her captain, Joseph Hazelwood, not on the bridge at the time, alerted coast guards just after midnight and said the ship was "evidently leaking some oil".

His alleged slurred words could not have been a bigger understatement.

For as he tried to free the ship, his actions led to more than 11 million gallons of crude oil leaking into the sound's frigid waters, black ening 1,500 miles of coastline and setting off one of history's worst man-made disasters.

Now, as the 30th anniver sary of the spill was remem bered on Saturday, Mike and the local community find themselves still piecing together their lives lives blighted not only by the oil but also by greedy oil barons' lack of proper redress.

The sound and the once-abun dant herring, though, have not been so lucky. Nor have the killer whales that once thrived in these waters.

And despite a multi-million dollar clean-up, Exxon Valdez's shameful legacy still haunts the area.

The herring have never returned and the pods of killer whales, which once numbered 25, continue to die. Only seven remain - so shocked by the disaster they have not given birth since.

Marine expert Katrina Hoffman says they face "extinction by attrition".

The director of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and head of Prince William Sound Science Center tells the Mirror: "This one pod is going to experience extinction by attrition, natural mortality and lack of live birth.

"It's most likely because of toxicity from the spill. Some bird species, too, have not recovered. Pigeon guillemots are one of them."

Today Prince William Sound looks a stunning landscape of mountainous fjords, blue-green waters and thickly forested islands.

However, pick up a stone on a rocky beach or dig a little deeper and it is possible to find pockets of oil. In March 1989 the 2,200 souls in isolated Cordova were highly dependent on commercial fishing. Since a 1964 earthquake des- troyed the road, the only way in was by air or a six-hour summer ferry trip.

So bad was the impact of the spill, the town became known throughout the world as the "ground zero" of the disaster.

When the ship with its faulty radar and sleepy crew hit the reef, it wasn't just wildlife that was decimated the heart was torn out of the town as well.

Fishermen were confined to port. Businesses failed. Drug and alcohol abuse went up, as did domestic violence and depression. The ex-mayor, along with many fishermen, killed himself.

The town also descended into civil war as the ship's owners Exxon paid some fishermen to mop up the spill.

They were jealously labelled "spillion aires" as they made a fortune while others received nothing. Mike says: "This once close-knit community changed. People couldn't look to their neighbours to help. You didn't trust your neighbour. You didn't trust your family. It was very, very sad."

Mike, 58, should know. The spill cost him his first marriage to his childhood sweetheart while six of his friends took their own lives.

"It was brutal," he says. "The com-munity itself suffered because people left town they got so depressed. A decade later, 20% had gone. Schools got smaller. It was a ghost town. We didn't get compensated for one year of commercial fishing that we missed out of the 18 years it took for the settlement to come through.

"In the end, we got maybe what we might've made in one season."

Because the oil company and government agencies were illprepared, oil from the Exxon Valdez stretched for 11,000 square miles, killing fish, birds, whales, seals and otters. Deer were affected, too, as they ate oil-covered vegetation.

Environmentalist Dave Janka, of Auklet Charters, says: "You could smell the oil before you even saw it.

"From an area once teeming with life you could sit by the water and hear nothing. Everybody called it the dead zone." Dave still takes samples from the beaches showing how much oil is present. He says: "If you had a leaking fuel tank in your yard, you'd be forced to the point of bankruptcy to clean that up. Yet one of the most profitable corporations in the universe gets to walk away from this."

Asked why Exxon never cleared up all the beaches, he adds: "Nobody forced them to do it and clearly they haven't felt it was right." Today there is still a great anger towards the firm. It paid [euro]2.3billion for the clean-up and [euro]267million to 11,000 fishermen and others affected.

But some claim they hardly saw a cent. A joint lawsuit against Exxon wasn't resolved until 2008 when the Supreme Court slashed an initial award of [euro]4.4billion to [euro]452million.

Exxon - unavailable when we contacted them for comment - fund ongoing research into why the herring have never returned. The fisherman, who continue to catch salmon, are now trained to use the latest technology within hours of any new spill. However, they know only too well the area is never far from disaster.

Right now the Exxon Valdez's remaining oil lies motionless in the icy water. But the area's susceptibility to earthquakes means it can be stirred at any moment.

"We are at the mercy of Mother Nature," says Mike. "It was she the Exxon Valdez damaged. She is the one who lost the most."

chris.bucktin@mirror.co.uk

DISASTER FACTFILE

2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 900 bald eagles and 250,000 seabirds died 10,000 workers, 1,000 boats and 100 aeroplanes and helicopters were used to clean up after the disaster The amount of oil spilt could fill 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools

CAPTION(S):

NOW Mirror's Bucktin with town's fishing fleet in background

DAVE He still finds oil on the beaches

MIKE Disaster cost him wife and friends

1989 Exxon Valdez stuck fast on Bligh Reef

DEADLY Oil coated seabirds and animals across 11,000 sq miles
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 26, 2019
Words:1077
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