Two years to the day after the Exxon Valdez smashed into Bligh Reef and dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, oil lingers on beaches and coastal villagers said they have lost patience waiting for Exxon to clean it up and pay damages.
"There is still oil out there on the sound," said Mary Gordaoff of Tatitlek, a tiny Aleut village a few miles from Bligh Reef. "You can smell it. You can touch it. You can taste it.""It's been two years and our land still has oil on it," said Chuck Totemoff of Chenega, displaying oily gravel and tarballs from shores near his small fishing, hunting and gathering village. "Exxon wants everyone to believe there is no oil in Prince William Sound."
"We have been patient with Exxon for two years now and it doesn't seem to be doing any going," said John Kvasnikoff of English Bay.
"We've stayed silent for two years," said Kathryn Andersen of Eyak, accusing Exxon of betraying native villagers' trust in believing Exxon promises to "make us whole" by cleaning up the oil and restoring the sound. "I'm pretty angry. I'm pretty upset."
The villagers met reporters Sunday, the second anniversary of America's worst oil spill, to ridicule Exxon cleanup claims and to urge Exxon to live up to its promises to villagers hurt by the March 24, 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez.
Village leaders, confident that the oily rocks gathered from their beaches were ample evidence of their claims, even passed out Exxon public relations pamphlets in which the oil company boasts that the "good news coming out of Prince William Sound" is that "the area is well on its way to a robust recovery."
Extensive subsurface oil remains, said Ernie Piper, state spill coorinator, who said there would be a small-scale cleanup this summer, the third year of cleanup, but that it may take waves and weather perhaps five more years to cleanse beaches of crude.
Villagers don't want to wait that long - they fear the wait will be longer - for oil to disappear, and they want Exxon to settle damage claims with the 1,836 native village residents of the sound who remain afraid to return to their old subsistence way of life.
Before the spill, Chenega's 70 residents collected 90 percent of their food from the sea, the shore and the nearby forests, Totemoff said, but villagers now rely largely on food shipments flown in from Anchorage because they are afraid that wild food from the sound will poison them.
"It's devastating to the elders," Totemoff said. "They have been subsistence food gathering all their lives."
Chenega has no store and Aleut residents traditionally fish, hunt seal, collect shellfish and plants from tidal areas and hunt deer in near-shore areas."
"We want our homeland brought back to what it was," said Keith Gordaoff.
If government settlements with Exxon become final, native villagers will have the largest claims against Exxon. With their claims unresolved two years after the spill, Aleut leaders said they plan to bring their concerns to the American public and to step up their lobbying and litigation efforts.
In announcing the $1 billion out-of-court settlement with the state and federal governments March 13, Exxon Chairman Lawrence Rawl said his company's massive $2 billion cleanup means, "We have kept our promise, Prince William Sound is essentially restored."