Native Americans and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


The Exxon Valdez oil spill is the second largest oil spill in US history, following the Deep Water Horizon oil platform spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The Valdez was an oil tanker that spilled an estimated 260,000 to 750,000 million barrels of oil in Prince Williams Sound, Alaska in 1989. The spill affected 1,200 miles of coastline.

Much has been written on the Valdez oil spill and its detrimental environmental consequences. Less has been written about the effect of the oil spill on Native American peoples who live in the Prince William Sound area where the spill occurred. These Native Americans largely depended on the Sound for their livelihoods and subsistence food needs. Thus, the spill has widespread effects on their lifestyles and health. Approximately 20 Native Alaskan communities were directly impacted by the spill (Davis, 2010).
Palinkas and his colleagues (Palinkas et al. 1993, 2004; Palinkas, Peterson, and Downs 1993) studied the effects of the spill on Prince William Sound residents from various racial and ethnic groups. Especially relevant to Native Alaskans was the spill’s effect on subsistence-based economic activity and food gathering. Faced with this significant threat to their traditional life styles, other studies indicate that the extent of the spill also impacted the physical and mental health of Alaskan Natives in the area (e.g., Picou and Gill 1996; Picou et al. 1992; Dyer, Gill, and Picou 1992). These studies also indicate that the spill produced other effects. These include a decline in traditional social and community relationships, and increases in drug and alcohol use.

The importance of the spill’s effect on Native Alaskans’ mental health should not be underestimated. Dyer (1993) found that declines in mental health and the emergence of mental health issues among the affected population were produced both several factors such as the long-term consequences of the spill on local traditions. Moreover, public health warnings related to the need to avoid seafood lead to a decline in subsistence activities, and eroded traditional and social support networks that were established around these traditional subsistence activities. A decade later, Palinkas et al. (2004) found that these psychological effects were so strong that Native American residents exhibited mental health states similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (for additional discussion, click here).

One of the unusual studies that was conducted was an off-shoot of an existing research project that was on-going among Prince William Sound Natives. That study, which had begun in 1986 or three years before the spill, was examining the social life in the Alaskan villagers in the Prince William Sound area (McNabb 1992). The study revealed that residents perceived a significant decline in the availability and quality of natural resources, and that these perceptions were related to a community’s proximity to the spill and the extent to which communities relied on local natural resources for subsistence and their livelihoods. Of particular concern to native people was the effect of the spill on employment in the fishing industry.

Fishing industry effects were explored by Fall and Field (1996: Fall et al. 2001) among 2,200 Alaskan Natives in 10 of 15 affected Native communities in the Prince Williams Sound area. They found that fishing catches declined up to 77 percent after the oil spill, and that the decline was linked to fears concerning the effect of the oil spill on the health and safety of local fish populations. Following the release of a three-year study by an oil spill task force that found fish but not invertebrates safe to eat, Native Alaskan reliance on subsistence fishing increased despite continued fears. These fears appear be well founded: more than a decade after the Exxon Valdez spill, evidence of the spill remains both on beach surfaces where weathered or hardened oil can be found, and below beach surfaces where liquid oil deposits are located, waiting to be unearthed by erosion (Short, Rice, and Lindeberg 2002).

Given the enduring nature of the problems faced by Native Alaskans and others following the spill, local peoples form an environmental group to address these issues and concerns (Native American response). Like other Native American issues reviewed in this dictionary, there is little discussion in the academic literature of the effects of environmental disasters and toxins on Native American communities and their responses to those problems.
Further Reading

In this dictionary see:”Toxic Towns” entry


Davis, Nancy. 2010. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Alaska. Pp. 231-272 in J. K. Mitchell (ed) The Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster. New York: United Nations University Press.

Fall, J., and L. Field. 1996. Subsistence Uses of Fish and Wildlife before and after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. American Fisheries Symposium 18: 819–36.

Fall, James, Rita Miraglia, William Simeone, Charles Utermohle, and Robert Wolfe. 2001. Long-Term Consequences of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill for Costal Communities of Southcentral Alaska. Technical paper #264. Division of Subsistence, Alaskan Department of Fish and Game: Juneau, Alaska.

McNabb, Steven. 1992. Native Claims in Alaska: A Twenty-Year Review. Études/Inuit/Studies 16, 1-2: 85-95.

Palinkas, Lawrence, John Peterson, and Michelle Downs. 1993. Community Patterns of Psychiatric after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. American Journal of Psychiatry 150: 1517– 23.

Palinkas, Lawrence, Michelle Downs, John Peterson, and John Russell. 1993. Social, Cultural and Psychological Consequences of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Human Organization 52: 1–13.

Palinkas, Lawrence, John Peterson, John Russell, and Michelle Downs. 2004. Ethnic Differences in Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 19: 102–12.

Palinkas, Lawrence, John Russell, Michelle Downs, and John Peterson. 1992. Ethnic Differences in Stress, Coping and Depressive Symptoms after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 180: 287–95.

Picou, Steven, and Duane Gill. 1996. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and Chronic Psychological Stress. American Fisheries Society Symposium 18: 879–93.

Picou, Steven, Duane Gill, Christopher Dyer, and Evans Curry. 1992. Disruption and Stress in an Alaskan Fishing Community: Initial and Continuing Impacts of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Industrial Crisis Quarterly 6: 235–57.

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