UAF Unveils Oral History Exhibit on Exxon Valdez

Jul 18, 2014

Credit University of Alaska-Fairbanks

The Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill is the subject of a new oral history project by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  KDLG’s Chase Cavanaugh has more on how the project got started and what perspectives it can offer on the incident.

The University of Alaska-Fairbanks has unveiled a mini-website about the Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill of 1989.  It falls under the university’s Project Jukebox, a digital branch of the institution’s oral history program.  One of the key figures behind the site is Alicia Zorzetto, the digital collections librarian at the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.  She says the idea got started when she attended the Alaska State Library Association’s conference in February of last year.

“Leslie McCartney, the curator of oral history from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks was actually presenting on Project Jukebox.  At the time, I think she was just doing a general overview of what the project does.  I was in the audience watching her and I noticed they had some really wonderful themes for different oral history projects, but they didn’t have anything on the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.”

Taking advantage of a state library grant from fellow librarian Patience Frederickson, as well as interviews from an Exxon-Valdez book called “The Spill,” McCartney and Zorzetto started the project in earnest.  In putting together the site, Zorzetto says she wanted to emphasize the long-term consequences of a “technological” disaster like Exxon Valdez, and contrasting those with natural disasters, where the community simply has a chance to rebuild.

“There’s that first wave of disaster which was obviously the oil hitting all these different communities and essentially destroying the fisheries and the way of life for natives, but there was also contract companies coming in to try and help with cleanup.  That led to a lot of issues as well, domestic problems, community problems, because these contractors would come in and pay big sums of money to certain individuals in the community.  Some people didn’t want to work for the contractors, other people wanted to work for the contractors but couldn’t get contracts, and then there were other individuals that were making a fair amount of money, they actually called them spillionaires.”

In addition to workers, Zorzetto said another issue was money.

“For instance, a city like Cordova was continuously being told the money will come, Exxon will take care of the people and will do things right.  There were lawsuits that were going on for 20 years.  It’s a little bit of a different situation, what happens in a technological disaster, and I think that’s probably one of the main points of the entire project, one of the themes that comes up routinely from every individual that was interviewed.”

According to Zorzetto, choosing oral history as a medium provides advantages to both the viewers and those who participated in the site’s creation.

“It assists the individuals speaking, and it assists in the recuperation process, just letting it out and being able to tell their own story.  These are people that don’t generally have a voice in the academic community, and now these are primary sources that can be used for further study later on, perhaps one day, it might even change policy, but just to provide an outlet for these people to be viewed and heard as a very credible source is really important, but also, especially because it’s online, it provides an opportunity for other people throughout Alaska and the world to hear these stories and understand the long-term consequences of technological disasters.”    

The Exxon Valdez exhibit at Project Jukebox is now live.  It can be viewed by visiting this site.