On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska. This year, on the 24th anniversary of the infamous spill that resulted, a group of British Columbia First Nations marked the dark anniversary with the launch of a media campaign whose aim is not simply commemoration. The Coastal First Nations, according to Executive Director Art Sterrit, want to offer “an alternative” to the anesthitising language and images featured in the well-funded pro-pipeline campaigns being waged simultaneously by Enbridge, the giant oil company behind the project, and by the Conservative government led by Canadian PM Stephen Harper.
On March 24, 2013, the Coastal First Nations countered this two-pronged onslaught with (among other social media interventions) a Youtube offering under the title “Have you heard the radio call from the Exxon Valdez?”
The two-minute clip begins with archival audio of the radio call from the tanker’s captain, Joe Hazelwood, to the Vessel Traffic Centre in Valdez, Alaska, during the moments just after the massive single-hull tanker foundered. “We’ve fetched up, uh…hard aground…north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef…and, uh, evidently…leaking some oil…and we’re gonna be here for awhile…so you’re notified. Over.” Around 11 seconds in, the wrenching radio exchange is replaced by “Hello darkness, my old friend” and the familiar strains of “The Sound of Silence.” Paul Simon gave permission for the Coastal First Nations to repurpose his material, reportedly for “a small honorarium.”
The video’s next sequence commences with a superimposed question that, in light of rapidly unfolding events, is not rhetorical: “What if it happened in British Columbia (BC)?” A few jarring stats appear, drawn from research, analysis and predictions by Tom Gunton, a former BC cabinet minister currently working at Simon Fraser University. Potential cost to taxpayers of a cleanup: $21.4 billion dollars. Number of full-time jobs that stand to be lost: 4,379. And perhaps the most disquieting figure: “Only 10-15% of an oil spill is ever recovered.”
Subsequently, under the refrain “people talking without speaking,” the video presents images of silent demonstrators, coastal inhabitants with placards reading “Say no to tankers,” with the superimposed poll result “80% of British Columbians support a ban on oil tankers in BC’s coastal waters.” The “people hearing without listening” are represented by Canadian PM Stephen Harper, who appears as a talking head on Bloomberg News, above the footer “Canadian PM touts oil pipeline to Gulf.”
In this instance, the infrastructure touted by the PM would be Keystone, the proposed pipeline from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico – i.e., Canada’s north-south conduit to fossil fuel consumers. The Northern Gateway, set to run from the tar sands through inland BC to the pristine shoreline at Kitimat, would of course be its east-west, or rather its west-east, intended to provide ready access to insatiable Asian markets. The proposed $6.5 bn Northern Gateway would be Canada’s – Enbridge’s – route to China, to India, via supertankers launched into the Pacific from coastal BC.
In recent days, Canada’s natural resources minister told the Toronto Star that he unequivocally ruled out the possibility of a spill of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez on the coast of British Columbia. Joe Oliver enumerated the factors that led to the disaster 24 years ago, and the improvements to policy and best practices that have been instituted since, stressing his “abiding faith in the double hull.” In short, he concluded, “This cannot happen here” – unwittingly deploying, in the name of the government’s pro-pipeline campaign, language to which the Coastal First Nations might also subscribe.
In a “Declaration” recently posted on its website, the aboriginal organisation states that “…in upholding our ancestral laws, rights and responsibilities, we declare that oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters.” The declaration reaffirms that “As Nations of the Central and North Pacific Coast and Haida Gwaii, it is our custom to share our wealth and live in harmony with the broader human community.” Neither Enbridge shareholders nor Conservative cabinet ministers appear to observe that custom.
According to a report by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council – a 20-year status report by the group of scientists and government trustees accountable for the recovery of Alaska’s devastated coast, “One of the most stunning revelations…is that Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment and, in places, is nearly as toxic as it was in the first few weeks…. At this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely.” Hence the prospect, in 2013, of many dark anniversaries to come.
Deborah Esch is a professor of literature at the University of Toronto. Her books include The Brevity of Life: What AIDS Makes Legible; and In the Event: Reading Journalism, Reading Theory. She currently serves on the steering committee of Advox and is an author with Global Voices Online.
Follow her on Twitter: @bsovereign