Valdez: 19 Years Later The Exxon Valdez oil spill 19 years ago tarnished a pristine coastline. The millions of dollars spent cleaning up, however, may have had a more lasting impact on local communities.
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Valdez: 19 Years Later

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Valdez: 19 Years Later

Valdez: 19 Years Later

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, gourmet coffee hits the stratosphere. Would you believe $22 for a single cup?

First, to Alaska, still feeling the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill nearly 20 years later. Next week the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case against ExxonMobil. Plaintiffs are demanding $2.5 billion, and if they get it, it would be the highest punitive damage award in history. Amy Bracken, of member station KCHU, reports.

AMY BRACKEN: Today the harbor of the native village of Chenega teams with life.

(Soundbite of sea lion roaring)

BRACKEN: A mob of sea lions gathers under the ferry dock, and whales blow in the distance. Once-oiled species of the Prince William Sound appear vibrant again.

But of the dozen or so native communities affected by the spill, some, like Chenega, do not.

(Soundbite of footfalls in gravel)

BRACKEN: Walk up the hill into the village, and you'll find silence, an empty road, and houses shrouded in snow, untouched by shovels or footprints. Since the spill, the local population has declined from an estimated 90 to 50.

(Soundbite of carnival music)

BRACKEN: Resident Wannah Zacher earned a lot working for years on Exxon's cleanup, allowing her to go away to school. But she returned, and now wishes more of her old neighbors would, too.

Ms. WANNAH ZACHER (Resident, Chenega, Alaska): Well, we definitely were paid to where I would see people would want to take that income they earned and put theirself through college or live somewhere else. But, you know, they - there's about four or five empty homes here, and, you know, they refuse to let go of those homes, but yet they never, ever come back. It's kind of sad. I mean, they should - if they want to remain here, they should of. They claim to be Chenegan's, but they're never here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRACKEN: Across the street from Zacher lives Charlie Robertson. He's a non-native who also worked on the cleanup. Sitting at his kitchen table, he looks out the window in time to see a whale breach.

Mr. CHARLIE ROBERTSON: Oh, wow, a whale are jumping. Isn't that nice?

BRACKEN: He says subsistence living is rare these days, even among those who did return, because of Chenegan's experiences as employees and adversaries of Exxon.

Mr. ROBERTSON: The oil spill, it taught them money, about money and the - maybe not all the good values of money. But they learned the white man's ways, going after money. They learned about the lawyers. They learned about litigation. They learned to sell and the give and take.

Ms. CHRISTINA WOLSTON (Communications Director, Chenegan Native Corporation): Well, overnight, a Western economy was injected into these pretty sleep commercial fishing communities.

BRACKEN: Christina Wolston is communications director for the Chenegan Native Corporation, a government-established private business whose shareholders are all Chenegans. She says Exxon dollars accelerated locally a broader dissolution of native Alaskan culture.

Ms. WOLSTON: Money's a good thing in community if you have to have it. But up until that point, they had done pretty well living in a subsistence lifestyle. But when you start injecting lots of different Western cars and TV and cable, we see this all over Alaska where kids do not associate as much with the cultural backdrop of their community because they are so well-connected with the outside. They dress like any kid in America does. And so I think the outside influence, at that point, took a turning point with the Prince William Sound communities.

BRACKEN: But many of those who left the village say they yearn for the old days of living off the land and sea in Chenega. Don Komcoff(ph) is one. After the spill, he left his post as Chenega Tribal Council president and moved to Valdez, the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. There he worked for several years for an oil contractor. He's a claimant in the Exxon Valdez punitive damages case now before the Supreme Count, but he says he'd give up any amount of oil money to have the old Chenega back.

Mr. DON KOMCOFF: I don't think there's enough money for them to pay me. I could be living like a king if I could get from them that I could live - back to where my life was and all my family back together again. You know?

BRACKEN: Since the spill, Komcoff's family split between Chenega, Valdez and elsewhere, and he lost close relatives, including his son, to alcohol, he says. Asked what he would do with his share of the pay-out if the high court rules in his favor, he hesitates. But one thing comes to mind: a fantasy that the company dollars could bring back a little bit of his old life.

KOMCOFF: I don't know. I'd get a boat to live, you know, just travel all over the Sound, and live off the fat of the land. That's my dream.

BRACKEN: For NPR News, I'm Amy Bracken in Valdez, Alaska.

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