The Exxon Valdez belched its errant oil onto the shores of Valdez, Alaska 20 years ago.
Ten years ago, I had a reporting crisis over the question: Had Valdez recovered?
I hired a freelance TV reporter to produce a 90 second story for ScienCentral to deliver to ABC News for local newscasts across the country. We have delivered thousands of stories to ABC since 1999, though back then we were new at it.
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The freelancer lived in Seattle. She interviewed about a dozen people in researching the story, recording 3 or 4 on camera. There was a documentary filmmaker who actually got on a boat and checked out inlets along the coast. Beautiful – they looked pristine. That made sense. Exxon had spent hundreds of millions of dollars – albeit slowly and under enormous government pressure – to clean up the 11 million gallons of crude it spilled into Prince William Sound. The mayor of Valdez said it was amazing how well nature can recover from such insults, with the right cleanup plus 10 years.
Something nagged at me, though. Was it really clean? How would I know? I worried over the script, the images, everything. I did my best to manage the process of getting this story out the door. It went to ABC. Then it hit me. WHO PAID THE PEOPLE WE INTERVIEWED? It turned out that everyone interviewed took money from the Exxon cleanup fund, even the mayor of Valdez. And I pulled the plug on that story.
The freelancer said that everyone, in one way or another, lived on Exxon’s money. I refused to believe that. And indeed, people who do not take Exxon money say that the Sound has yet to completely recover. Tars remain under the waves; bird populations have never fully recovered.
To this day, the debate remains as to how long it will take for the entire ecosystem to recover. What is not a matter of debate, to me, is that if you follow the money, you can eventually find your way to a proper pile of muck.
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