People and Pollution: The Social Impacts Oil Spills Have at a Community Level

Posted Fri, 08/21/2020 - 08:34
By Alyssa Gray, Office of Response and Restoration

Originally published on March 19, 2019. 

Oil spills can damage the environment and the wildlife and marine life that depend on it. They can also cause physical, mental, and financial stress to people as individuals. But even at a larger social level, like a community, oil spills can threaten the order of things.

A group of people at conference tables in discussion.
Image credit: Sea Grant.

In a Sea Grant workshop last year, as part of the series “Regional priority setting for health, social, and economic disruption from spills,” community members, emergency responders, and researchers gathered to discuss the physical, mental, social, economic, cultural, and spiritual impacts from oil spills. Liesel Ritchie, Oklahoma State University Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events, presented an overview of social science research on community impacts of marine oil spills.

Ritchie was part of the team that started studying social impacts during Exxon Valdez — the tanker that grounded on Bligh Reef in Alaska in 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. At the time, it was the largest single oil spill to happen in U.S. coastal waters. Ritchie has since worked on several other major spills, including Deepwater Horizon, which is at present the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

As a sociologist specializing in human-caused disaster events, Ritchie has listened to communities over the years that have firsthand experience dealing with the impacts of oil spills.

“Despite the different locations, many of the social impacts are similar if not the same,” Ritchie said. “But the regional setting can make a difference … I think that the dependence of folks on oil in Cordova [Alaska] was so much less than what we saw in the Gulf Coast, where business owners and people relied on oil and the oil industry for jobs, which also left them more vulnerable in some ways. People down in the Gulf Coast are so entrenched in it, the oil industry is part of the routine in ways that it isn’t for people in Cordova.”

Ritchie’s research following Exxon Valdez began in 2001, and continued until 2010. She and her team had just begun wrapping up their work in Alaska when Deepwater Horizon happened. Ritchie said that for communities in Alaska, seeing coverage of the 2010 spill was like experiencing Exxon Valdez all over again.

“Most of the people that we talked with up there in the summer of 2010 were not able to bring themselves to watch the coverage of what was going on down in the Gulf Coast. It was like a sort of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Ritchie said. “It was still that close to them emotionally. There was 24/7 coverage of the oil still gushing out and they just couldn’t handle it.”

Fissures in a Community

A newspaper clipping with the headline "Tanker breaks open on rocks."
The local newspaper in Valdez, Alaska, first reports on the Exxon Valdez’s grounding and oil spill on March 24, 1989. Image credit: NOAA.

Ritchie noted that when it comes to psychosocial stress — the interrelation between social factors and individual thought and behavior — the more deliberate an act is, the more time the effect will last. With human-caused disasters, Ritchie adds, there’s a “loss of control” that people experience.

“There’s nothing you can control with natural disasters, but with a technological disaster we have this notion of ‘We thought we had things under control, we thought we had the technology we needed to make things safe.’ But instead we see we have beliefs about a loss of control,” Ritchie said.

The community of Cordova, where Ritchie spent the majority of her time, was not hit directly by the oil from Exxon Valdez. But areas used by the community of Cordova for recreational, subsistence, and commercial fishing were hit, in addition to areas where people were culturally active.

Ritchie recalls in particular an interview with one man who said he hadn’t been out to Prince William Sound since the oil spill happened.

“What people described most was the silence,” Ritchie said. “Animal noises, bird noises, marine animal noises … if you didn’t live there you wouldn’t notice it was missing.”

People in yellow uniforms cleaning up oil.
Shoreline cleanup of Prince William Sound, Alaska. Image credit: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

Ritchie said that the cleanup activities also had an impact on the town. A divide was created between those who were able to get contracts to work on the cleanup, and those who didn’t. People were also impacted by a constant influx of outsiders — responders, media, officials, scientists, and researchers were all converging on the scene.

“It created fissures in the community, the fragmentation and the social disruption of having people come in and disrupt normal community routines,” Ritchie said.

For many, the litigation and compensation process was equally as disruptive as the oil spill itself. In interviews with community members, Ritchie discovered on overall sense that the people were tired and wanted to move on but that it wouldn’t be until the litigation was complete that they would finally have closure.

Ritchie said there were some who were extremely active in the process of compensation and litigation, but that others simply couldn’t handle the stress of experiencing the trauma again and again for the purpose of documenting it. The process involved a lot of paperwork, and repetitive efforts to document, over time, the impacts people were experiencing.

“One gentleman in particular told me he made a bonfire out of the dozens of file boxes he had after the settlement went through,” Ritchie said. “It was very touching and heart breaking going there to Alaska and seeing how deeply the people were affected. The place there really captured my heart, it was really beautiful in scenery, but also socially.”

Social Impacts for First Nations

In the aftermath of the spill, Ritchie and other sociologists worked to apply what they learned during Exxon Valdez to social assessment impact work in other communities. Ritchie and her team were contacted by the Gitga’at First Nation in British Columbia, Canada. The Gitga’at were concerned about a proposed pipeline project, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, which would have brought increased maritime and ground transportation to the the area. The passageways where oil would have been transported were treacherous and highly risk averse. The tribe was concerned about how this project could impact their way of life, and requested a social impact assessment.

The project would have drastically changed the viewscape for the tribe — turning a fairly quiet, scenic area into a crossing for supertankers. A spill in Hartley Bay would have the potential to damage the way of life and the culture.

In a community such as the Gitga’at, Ritchie said an oil spill or other tanker event could wipe out the community entirely. The tribe sits about a four hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert, a port city and the nearest major town. Traveling to Prince Rupert takes the better part of a day.

“They [the Gitga’at] are a very heavily subsistence-oriented people, but they don’t use that word, they find and refer to their lifestyle as one of being rich in natural resources, and that they thrive in the context of harvesting those resources,” Ritchie said. “They rely very heavily on that not only for their food, but also their culture, their way of life, their rituals. They see themselves as keepers of the land and water, for themselves, their children, their grandchildren, and future generations.”

During her time with the Gitga’at, Ritchie discovered that their levels of stress about the potential risks of the pipeline were comparable to those experienced by communities in Alaska during Exxon Valdez. During survey work, she found the stress levels were equally high, in part because they had seen what had happened during Exxon Valdez.

A woman in a pair of orange fishing overalls on a boat.
Liesel Ritchie in Cordova, Alaska.

“People in Cordova had a similar relationship with the area as the Gitga’at had, but there’s still variation in how they use and rely on the natural resources,” Ritchie said, adding that these variations are why a “cookie-cutter approach” to preparedness and response can’t always work.

Ritchie said the most important thing for communities to keep in mind when they’re concerned about a risk of marine pollution is that they shouldn’t get complacent about preparedness and response activities.

Ritchie’s research into the social effects of oil spills from both Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, as well as her social impact assessment work for the Gitga’at, have continued to inform other communities how best to prepare for oil spills — at both a physical and psychosocial level.

For more information, you can view the presentations given by Liesel Ritchie and other scientists from the Sea Grant workshop here.