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The Invisible Stain

by Charles Wohlforth

I allowed the boat's aluminum hull a resonant bump against black bedrock, a shelf jutting out from one of the islets scattered on the bright, blue water west of Green Island, and jumped ashore with a bucket containing a long, braided anchor line, which I wrapped around a boulder. The children tumbled over the gunwale in their rubber boots and orange life jackets and immediately began to inventory the tide pools. My wife, Barbara, followed with the baby on her hip, striding toward the island's high-tide line. Our picnic site would be there, on a beach of pea gravel below the island's central turret of upturned metamorphic rock, which nature had sculpted after the style of Dr. Seuss or Vincent van Gogh, and which supported, on a tiny upland, just a few ancient hemlocks and Sitka spruce. It was a typical Prince William Sound shoreline, warm under summer sun, as intricate as its own universe and as anonymous.

Out of thousands of similar such places, I remembered this one clearly. I had visited in 1989, before the children were born, before we owned the boat, back when Barbara and I were newlyweds and I was a reporter chasing the spreading mess of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Back then I had landed in a helicopter amid the confused odors of petroleum, salt, and rotting sea life and climbed over oil-slick rocks to record the death by poisoning of countless tide pools.

On my return, after so many years, I expected the rocks to be clean. But as I followed the others with my heavy load of picnic supplies, glorying in the day, I looked down to find a glob of oil, a tarry conglomeration of feathers and seaweed stuck like a wad of chewing gum to a rock outcropping. I pried it off with a piece of driftwood and smelled that distant but instantly familiar odor from 1989.

Oil sank in on some shores protected from waves amid beds of mussels or eelgrass and remains fresh and toxic today. At the slow rate of decomposition in these cold, dark places, oil may last another 15 years, poisoning the animals that absorb its toxics 30 years after it was spilled. The damage persists even where the oil cleanup was as vigorous as Lady Macbeth's hand-washing. Back then the state of Alaska and Alaska natives who subsist on these waters wanted all the oil gone; Exxon often obliged, seemingly eager to spend as much money as possible on the way to a total cleanup bill of $2.1 billion. Workers blasted rocky beaches with boiling water at fire-hose pressures, killing everything and washing oily sediments to the seabed. Like forests scraped away to mineral soil, those beaches were taken over by the weeds of the sea, opportunistic species filling the niche. The ecology of some shores still wobbles in imperfect balance like a beginning bicyclist.

The oil spill was like a droplet of ink landing on clear water. Its black outline soon disappeared, but a sour taste remained. This persistent bitterness forced scientists to reconsider the power of hydrocarbons in extremely low concentrations to disrupt the entire web of an ecosystem, subtly harming the reproduction and robustness of many related species -- sea otters, harlequin ducks, herring, and others. A recent Science review of government-funded research on the spill's effects explained these findings, with charts of arrows showing how sublethal toxics move through the system from one species to the next. This finding, that tiny quantities of oil can harm an ecosystem, has application far beyond Prince William Sound. The authors point out that animals may be exposed to these low-level toxics wherever storm water carries oil-drips from roads.

Lacking my experience in the oil, other members of the family never mention thoughts of the Exxon Valdez on our long summer camping trips to the sound. My memories have grown less urgent, too, overlaid by new layers from many much happier days on these waters and along these shores. But the memories remain vivid within their hiding place, rising fresh and acrid when disturbed. Like the odor of tar latent in the interstices of some of the sound's quiet, unvisited places, these memories do not fade away.

Charles Wohlforth's new book, The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change (Northpoint Press), is due out in April. He lives in Anchorage and can also be found at

OnEarth. Spring 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council