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Pick of the day: Lessons from oil spills past

By Brigid Schulte

Our Story Lab colleague Theresa Vargas traveled to Alaska -- where in 1989, the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound -- with a group from Louisiana, hoping to learn what their future may hold after the massive BP oil well blowout dumped an estimated 205.8 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.

The story takes us beyond environmental and ecological disaster zones and into the lives and psyches of the people affected, the villages and chronicles their forever altered oil-altered lives. Her opening was what initially grabbed me:

"IN CORDOVA, ALASKA He'd just met her, but Evan Beedle wanted Rosina Philippe to know how his life changed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, how pieces of his identity slipped away, one label at a time.

Husband. Father. Fisherman.

Philippe and about a dozen other Louisianans traveled more than 4,400 miles last month to talk to Alaskans like Beedle. They expected advice. Less anticipated was how often it came with confessions. As Beedle and Philippe stood talking in a Cordova parking lot, he told her how his wife left him after the spill, how she took their child with her, how he went from being a man who never doubted he'd be a fisherman to one who grudgingly created a life away from the waters where he grew up.

"They tell you, 'Move on,' " Beedle said. "But when this is all you know, how do you move on?"

The story goes on to tell the story of a herring fisherman who has struggled to hold on even after the herring, once called "the grass of the ocean," developed strange lesions and began to die off. It tells of once-isolated villages where people lived off the deer and wild salmonberries now ordering pizza from Anchorage. The pizza arrives via bush plane 45 minutes later.

"Before 1989, she and other children would play on the beach, picking salmonberries from bushes, prying gumboot chitons from rocks and digging clams. But after the spill, she says, she was no longer allowed to walk the beach, let alone eat what she found.

"We couldn't eat the deer, because they ate the oiled seaweed," Dermer says. "And we couldn't eat seal, because they were swimming in it. Only recently have people begun eating clams again."

To compensate for the loss of such staples, Exxon started shipping in processed food. Suddenly Dermer was aware of Twinkies and Spam and Cheetos. She tried beef for the first time at age 10.

"That was the year I started to gain a whole bunch of weight," Dermer says.

Online, a video Theresa shot along with stunning photographs by Nikki Kahn, make this a deeply-felt, haunting and not-to-be missed piece. In the video, when a fisherman is asked to give advice to those in Louisiana? "Expect the worst. Hope for the best. Just don't hope too much." Good to remember now that the oil has stopped gushing and the klieg lights of daily national media attention has faded, the story, for some people, is only beginning.

By Brigid Schulte  | September 7, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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