Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez
In light of the recent devastating oil spills along the southern U.S. coast, it seems unfortunate but appropriate to revisit the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. Black Wave is a documentary that looks at both the environmental and personal economic impact of the disaster on the small fishing village of Cordova, Alaska, twenty years after the spill.
The story of the Exxon Valdez is as convoluted as you want it to be. Some maintain that the vessel’s captains were drunk and/or overworked when they ran the tanker aground in Prince William Sound. Others say that a faulty sonar system was to blame. In any event, the crude oil spill is cited as the most ruinous human-caused environmental disaster to ever occur.
Black Wave features interviews from the people who have lived to tell the tale. While the O’Toole family—whose personal story is highlighted through several conversations with the filmmakers—have suffered markedly less than some families, their willingness to speak on-camera was largely due to their relative pain. Sam O’Toole had invested his savings in expensive fishing permits less than two months before the spill, effectively leaving the family bankrupt when the local fishing industry subsequently collapsed. In the aftermath of the disaster, his wife Linden was able to shoulder the economic burden by working as a real estate agent, keeping the family afloat. The O’Tooles explained that because they lost less than many Cordova residents—many of whom find it too painful to discuss how their lives were ruined by the spill—they were willing to once again dredge up their memories to share in the hopes of educating a wider audience.
The film also prominently features Riki Ott, a renowned marine biologist and toxicologist, activist, and author of several books about the disaster including Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. At the time of the spill, Ott—like many others in her community—had been working in commercial fishing. Skeptical of the oil ships all along, she had long predicted a spill by saying “not if; when.”
Following the spill, it was apparent that the oil industry was completely caught off guard. Containment and cleanup crews were promised within six hours; but they simply did not materialize. The film includes old footage from locals, who began cleaning up oil faster than the corporation could dispatch emergency teams, which didn’t arrive until days later. To complicate matters further, a storm four days later moved nearly half of the sludge 1,200 miles west of impact, trapping the glistening goo in the sound.
The immediate effects were disastrous. Three hundred thousand sea birds were killed; over 3,500 otters died, as did 300 harbor seals, 250 eagles, and up to twenty-two killer whales. Two hundred thirteen salmon streams were contaminated, and billions of eggs were destroyed.
The human cost is also shown to be immeasurable. While local Cordova fisherman like the O’Toole family suffered losses, cleanup crew workers continue to live with myriad chronic problems such as bronchitis. One cleanup worker in the film, Merle Savage, originally believed he had the flu after he worked to contain the mess. Today, he’s been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and takes a daily cocktail of medication for pain. He’s one of many affected by the “poisoning epidemic.”
The spill can also be blamed for the city’s unusually high stress levels among residents and resulting problems such as high rates of domestic violence, substance abuse, and a higher-than-normal suicide rate. Ross Mullins, a fisherman interviewed for the film, lost his marriage to divorce after the spill, and his sons, once thought to take over the family business, moved far away. At least twelve suicides since the spill have been attributed to Exxon litigation and the related legal matters, including a former Cordova mayor who killed himself due to the immense pressure of the situation and hopelessness that plagued the community.
Alaska’s vastness is difficult to capture on film, as is the vast impact of this horrific disaster; but the documentary effectively showcases the gorgeous wilderness and its inhabitants. Mixed with archive footage of old town meetings and spill cleanup efforts, Black Wave comes at just the right time: to remind us why oil drilling won’t solve any of our problems, and to incite anger and action in response to the impending devastation along the Gulf Coast.