Spillover effect through Alaskan eyes

Here in this snug fishing village of 2,500 people, tucked along Orca Inlet east of where the Exxon Valdez made pollution history, the term to use for 10 years after the oil spill is not "anniversary" but "memorial."

"This town has suffered a lot financially, emotionally, and spiritually," says Kate Boehn, who's been here for 25 years and works for Prime Select Seafoods, a small fish-marketing company.

More than any other place in Alaska, Cordova was hit hardest by the 1989 spill. One-third of the work force is directly employed in fishing or processing, and many others provide needed goods or services. So when the salmon stopped coming back two years after the spill, and then the herring "crashed" as well, it was devastating.

But beyond the dollars and cents, there's a way of life in this remote and beautiful place that's tied to the sea and its rhythms, and for many here, that too has been lost.

"There's this lure of fishing that gets in your blood," says Ross Mullins, a commercial fisherman here since 1963. "And when spring comes around, it's pretty darn hard not to go out there."

Even though salmon are making a comeback, depressed prices due to imports from South America and elsewhere have compounded the spill's impact. According to an Alaska Department of Labor report, the combined harvest value from salmon, herring, crab, and shrimp fisheries is less than half what it was in the years leading up to the spill.

"It touches every doggoned thing around you," says Jack Hopkins, a Cordova fisherman of Tlingit Indian descent. His wife, Lynn, now teaches school, and even though he still has his boat Raven's Child, Mr. Hopkins does whatever he can. Last week, it was shoveling snow off the roof of the high school. The couple has had to borrow against things they'd paid off and dip into their retirement savings to send their daughter to college. "It's a struggle we had not anticipated," he says.

But Hopkins adds, "Fishermen are the kind of people who roll up their sleeves and go to work."

So while many here still are bitter about the impact on their lives - it's not unusual to see a man choke back tears when recalling a fishing partner who moved away - most are busy rebuilding their lives and diversifying their personal economies.

Mark and Sandy King are like that. Mr. King started fishing here on his father's boat when he was eight years old. He built a successful business, but saw the value of his equipment and commercial fishing permits plummet after the spill.

Since then, he has built a small sawmill, started a bed-and-breakfast inn catering to tourists and sport fishermen, and Mrs. King has gone to work part time at the Cordova Chamber of Commerce. (Around here, those who brought in the biggest catches were known as "highliners." Today, the not-so-funny joke goes, a highliner is a fisherman whose spouse has a job.)

The Kings are grateful to be able to meet new friends from around the world through the B&B. "I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to wallow in hurt, but to look for opportunities to make changes," says Mrs. King. Nevertheless, she adds, "We still aren't making what we were just as commercial fishing people."

Kevin O'Toole worked for years to acquire his fishing boat, only to find himself deeply in debt after the spill. Today, he works as an agent in the real estate brokerage his wife, Linden, started a few years ago. "My wife, bless her heart, saw a niche that wasn't being filled in this town," Mr. O'Toole says. Still, when the salmon are running, he wishes the family could be back on the boat.

Many people here stand to be compensated if Exxon must pay the $5 billion punitive judgment awarded in a case involving more than 30,000 people affected by the spill. Exxon is appealing the jury's 1994 decision as "unjust and excessive," saying it already paid enough - some $3 billion total - in cleanup costs, compensation, and penalties.

"It's not the money, it's the principle," says Roxy Estes, born and raised here. Her jaw tightens as she describes how her six children, who worked on the family's fishing boat from the time they could walk, have moved away to find work. It's been three years since their boat, Lady Samantha, has been used to fish.

Many here oppose Exxon's proposed merger with Mobil to create the largest corporation in the world with annual revenues of more than $180 billion. "Letting them get bigger and more powerful just scares us," says Linden O'Toole.

In this matter, Cordovans have found an ally in Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington. Senator Gorton says the merger should not be given the required government approval until Exxon pays up. "We need to send the strongest possible message to Exxon and other oil companies. If you act recklessly, you will pay dearly," he said recently.

The recent deluge of news media has brought it all back for many in this small community. It's been tough for some. But for others, it's also meant a chance to be grateful for opportunities that have come.

Says Sandy King of her family's new activities 10 years after the worst environmental disaster in United States history, "While we both would like closure on this, we feel very blessed that we've been able to do this."

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