John Devens, Sr. was interviewed on October 8, 2007 by Sharron Bushell in Valdez, Alaska. John's interview was conducted as part of Sharon Bushell's work on the book, The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster, by Stan Jones and Sharon Bushell. (Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press, 2009). In this interview, John talks about his role as Mayor of Valdez during the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, the reaction of the town of Valdez to the oil spill, the cleanup efforts by local residents, oil companies, and the government, and the impact the oil spill had on Prince William Sound, the fisheries in the area, and the people of Valdez, Alaska.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Oct 8, 2007
Narrator(s): John Devens, Sr.
Interviewer(s): Sharon Bushell
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Background of Valdez
Finding out about the oil spill
Early response to the spill
Day three of the response
How the town of Valdez reacted to the spill and the cleanup
Being mayor during the early days of the oil spill
The Syndicat Mixte
The psychological impact of the oil spill
Additional challenges of being mayor during the oil spill
Animosity towards Exxon
Running for U.S. House of Representatives
Some good things that came out of the oil spill
Impact on air traffic in Valdez
Exxon refusing to pay for mental health care
Impact on the children
Health effects of the oil spill
Impact on the population of Valdez
Further discussion of mental health issues
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
SHARON BUSHELL: So, I am interviewing John Devens. And this is my backup recorder. So...
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Good to have two.
SHARON BUSHELL: It's good to have two. And this one is gonna give....is only good for a half-hour. Okay. So, tell me about what it was like to be in your position when the oil spill happened.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, in 1989, I was mayor of Valdez. I’d been mayor for nearly five years by then. Prior to the actual event happening, we recognized that the promises we had about being able to respond in the event of an oil spill were exaggerated.
The, the industry, primarily Alyeska, didn’t have all of the equipment that we expected them to have. They had a contingency plan.
And the contingency plan indicated that within 72 hours they would be able to respond and pick up so much oil.
But in fact, we knew that they had one barge and it had a hole in the bottom and it was up on the beach.
The -- they didn’t have enough absorbent materials. They didn’t have enough skimmers. They didn’t have enough booming material.
So, Bill Walker, who was city attorney at the time, and I concocted an idea of what was called Zone 3. Valdez has three zones, taxing zones. And by law …
SHARON BUSHELL: Taxing zones?
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Zones that we can apply property taxes to.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh, oh taxing --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Yeah, okay. Yeah. We -- we had -- we have, well we still have three. One is downtown. One is out the road and alpine area, alpine wood area.
And the other just happens to be across the bay where the terminal is. Now it wasn’t necessarily set up that way. But it just happened to be that way.
And we use to have differential taxes for the zones, depending on the am -- the amount of service that was provided. Very little service out the road, so their taxes were lower.
More services in town. Well, at the time, just prior to the spill all tax zones were the same. As I recall, about 14 mills.
The State and Feds allow us to tax whatever oil property – and there’s only three municipalities that get to tax the oil property – the North Slope Borough, the North Star Borough, and Valdez.
The rest of it where the pipeline runs is called the balance of the State and the State gets to tax that. And that’s taxed at 20 mills, I believe. [
It was either 20 or 21 mills, but I think it was 20 mills. So the difference between 14 mills and 20 mills, of course is 6 mills. So, we went ahead and raised the taxes on tax zone 3 and took that extra 6 mills and banked it with the idea that we were going to build a terminal -- a -- a -- a response terminal.
We were going to buy skimmers. We were going to buy absorbent materials. We were going to have a lay down area. Because we recognized the potential of an oil spill.
So at the time of the spill, we had about 26 million dollars in the bank to do this. We hadn’t started doing it because the State challenged us and said "No, you can’t do that. That money's ours," meaning the State's.
Alyeska didn’t challenge us on it because they were going to pay 20 mills anyway. So, along with that, as mayor, I formed what was called the Mayor’s Ad Hoc Committee on what would happen in the event of a large oil spill. And I appointed people from all walks of life in Valdez. It was a fairly large -- a large committee. It was headed by Stan Stephens.
And the night of the spill, we were having our meeting. Stan was chairing it. I was there. And we were talking about what, you know, what would happen if there was a large spill.
As it turned out, we also had Riki Ott from Cordova tied in as -- to make comments. And Riki was on the telephone and said, “Gentlemen, it’s not a matter of if you have an oil spill, it’s a matter of when you have an oil spill.”
And just a few hours later, we had our country’s largest oil spill.
Now comes my part, other than being at the committee meeting. But about 6 am, Dave Hammock, who was head of public radio here in Valdez, and also is known for Alaska Running. Dave was a good announcer and he called me. And we were good friends. And David called me about 6 am and said "John, you better put -- get up and put your mayoral hat on, you’ve got an oil spill."
And I said, "David, what in the world. You’re calling me at 6 am to tell me we have an oil spill. We’ve had other oil spills. Why are you bothering me now?" And he said, "John, you’ve never had an oil spill like this. This is a real oil spill."
So, I got up and within an hour I had – of course, I was president of the college. Being mayor was very much a part-time job. I was -- my full time job was being president of the college.
So I got my media person from the college, got him down to -- and -- with cameras and put him on Stan Stephens’ boat. Stan was going to be the first one out on the spill.
And Stan took him out while I got a hold of another fellow that worked for me at the college who had been a reporter for most of his life, and his name was Michael Pelican.
And Michael and I started to look around to see if we could get a flight out to see what was going on. We finally got a hold of Chuck LePage, who is a local commercial pilot here. And he said he could take us out at 11.
By then, Bob Keller, who was on the city council, got a hold of me and so it was Michael, Bob, and I. And we got on the phone and we started making calls to the industry.
Now understand, at this point, of course, we were a little naïve because I was calling Exxon. I was calling people like Frank Iarossi and people like that.
Not getting a hold of anybody because they were all en route trying to come to Valdez. But I was calling and saying, "Hey, you know, the city’s here to help. You’ve had an accident. How can we be of service? What -- what do you need? We’ll help you financially if you need it," because I knew we were sitting on 26 million. I thought, well, if they need some skimmers. I didn’t realize that Exxon was richer than God and there wasn’t anything Valdez had that they really needed.
But at any rate, I make that point because the first few days, we were pretty friendly and trying to be pretty helpful.
I remember that day – that was a -- that whole day was just a --a -- a mad house of trying to get things done. Making sure that we called people. I called the mayor of Cordova, Irling Johansson, and told him there’d been a spill.
But Georgia Buck, who was the mayor of Whittier, I didn’t think to call Georgia. And Georgia didn’t know for a day. It was the next day that she found out that the, the spill had happened.
But I got a hold of Irling. I called Stephen McAlpine was the Lieutenant Governor at the time. And Stephen and I had served on the Valdez City Council together. We were good friends, use to travel together. So I called Stephen and let him know what -- what I knew.
Steve Cowper, the Governor, came in that day and I remember meeting him out at the airport and going into a conference with Steve and some of the DEC people.
And there was a lot of argument with the industry because the industry was talking about using dispersants and we had some environmental types that were very much opposed and of course, all of the fisheries were opposed to using dispersants. So I remember that as being a pretty big deal.
And then 11 o'clock, Chuck LePage took Bob Keller, Michael Pelican and myself out and we flew over it. And we saw one lone boat down there, pulling something behind it. And it didn’t look like we were was doing anything. And you had this big lake of oil that was off to the west side of the Exxon Valdez.
And we watched that for a while, and finally I said, "What in the world is that little boat doing down there?" And Michael, who is a reporter, said, "Well John, that...those are for photo opportunities." It wasn’t doing anything but press was flying out and flying over and they had to have a picture of something, so they had a picture of this boat just running back and forth on the edge of the oil spill.
So the rest of that day was watching people. The first wave of folks that came into the town really were the reporters. The reporters arrived very quickly. And then the agency people kept coming into town. And the industry people kept coming into town. By the end of that first day, there were, I don’t think there were any rooms left in town.
There were no rental automobiles available. The agency people had started to fight over office space. Everybody was here to help us, get out of the way kind of attitude that, that we were running into.
SHARON BUSHELL: When you say agency people, who does that entail?
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, it’s all of the Federal and State agencies that thought that they had some dog in this fight.
SHARON BUSHELL: I see.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: It was DEC, I want to say Homeland Security but we didn’t have that then. But it was, I’m trying to think of the -- there’s a federal agency that was involved with security at the time. I -- I can't remember all of them.
SHARON BUSHELL: That's fine. I -- I can dig that up.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Coast Guard -- you know -- It was all the regulatory agencies.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: That -- they all wanted office space and they all thought that they were most important. And during that week -- that first week, I know we ran into a lot of problems because we had governmental agencies coming in here and constructing things that weren’t in city code, so we had to worry about that.
We had the ongoing worry that, well, we went from a town of a little less than 4,000 people to over 12,000 people and a lot of the people were living in visqueen tents or -- if you found a place, if you happened to be lucky enough to have a motor home or a camper and you found a place to park it, you sure weren’t going to leave there to empty your -- your tanks.
You dug a little hole and hoped nobody noticed that you were doing that. And so, we were worrying a lot. We had a lot of concern about public health.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well that -- the evening of the spill, I had called a special City Council meeting because we had to decide -- we were sitting on, like I say, about 26 million dollars. And that evening the Council did appropriate to go ahead and spend a million of that to do things. Like, we had to have a place to put absorbent materials.
We -- we didn’t know much, but we knew that they were gonna have to put some sort of absorbent materials down and they had to have a place to put it because you just can’t lay it on the, on the ground or it absorbs into the ground then. So we did that.
And I remember a local fisherman who's -- pretty hard-boiled guy. He had been out and he had noted what was going on out there. And he came in and spoke to us that evening. And I remember him breaking down and crying in front of the City Council, which was not something anybody would ever expect.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: And even today, you can get people talking about it and their voice will start to quaver a bit. And it was a very, very emotional experience for everyone. I mean, to have fishermen break down and cry because they saw oiled sea otters when a -- a week before they’d have been glad to shoot the sea otters. But they really, really really felt that the Prince William Sound had been -- been insulted pretty seriously.
Well, the next two days -- well the first three days pretty much were the same. Industry didn’t have equipment. You had fisherman that were going out, cutting down trees and making log booms. And you had the City of Valdez trying to insert itself into the information and decision-making loop.
And we couldn’t get in. It was real hard to get Exxon and then later, VECO -- because VECO became the responder for Exxon. The way it works was, the first few days it’s Alyeska’s responsibility and it still is today, to respond until the shipper can get up and running and then they take it over from Alyeska. And then they do it. And in this case, Exxon then hired VECO to do most of the, the contractual things.
But here we had -- end of March when the weather in Prince William Sound can be harsh. And we had three days that it was calm. It was like a lake out there. There was hardly a ripple in the water.
And they didn’t have pumps. And if they had pumps they didn’t have anyplace to really put the oil because you have to have barges to pump the oil into. They didn’t. And it began to become kind of a slow boil.
People were really getting angry. We went from how can we hel" to what in the hell are you people doing? Where are the skimmers? Where’s the boom? Where’s the absorbent materials? Where are the barges to store the oil in?
And of course, Exxon had another serious problem because they had the Exxon Valdez up on rocks and they had to get it lightered and get the oil off. Now I will give them good marks on that. They did a great job of getting another Exxon ship in and getting it lightered.
Now, at the time, you also had -- it -- it was different in ’89 because we were, as I said earlier, we were really naïve. We didn’t know about, we just didn’t know how to have a good oil spill.
You know, we had people out there -- I remember I was talking to Stan Stephens earlier today and I was sayin', Stan, if I remember this correctly, I remember you telling how you turned on the pumps for your sea water, for your -- your -- your toilets in his boats, they were drawing from about 3.5 or 4 feet down.
And he turned them on to use the toilet in the boat and it was pumping pure oil. It was that deep. I mean, the - the oil was 3, 4 feet deep at that time.
You had all of the fumes and vapors giving off. And we had people complaining about, I don’t know what’s wrong, but I’ve got nasal congestion. I can’t breathe, my eyes are running, I’ve got these skin rashes.
And -- and I remember, I don’t know if it was Exxon or VECO, was telling them, oh, there’s a virus going around. Well, no, we know today you don’t even go near things like that unless you wear respirators. But -- but we didn’t know that then. We didn't.
You know, I remember the first team that came in. Now, I’m jumping kind of two weeks ahead.
SHARON BUSHELL: That's fine.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: But about two weeks into the spill they finally changed out some of the workers. They’d been out there for a couple of weeks. And they came in, and they came into the ferry dock.
And I was down there as a good mayor should. And I was watching them come off.
And most of them were in a big hurry to get to the bar. And they didn’t really want to stop and talk to the mayor. But some of them would and I’d say, hey are they providing you with personal protective equipment? Are you -- are you using anything out there to protect yourself? And they said, oh, no. We’ve got -- some of the foremen out there tell us not to be concerned. Its just oil. It’s not anything that’s going to hurt you.
Yeah, if you’re a wimp, we can give you something, but you don’t need it. Well, today we know, yeah, you do.
Other things that -- other screw-ups back then -- and it was an honest error, but we didn’t know any better. Or, I shouldn’t say we. Exxon or VECO didn’t know any better.
They used steam and hot water on those beaches because once the oil got up on the beach, somehow you had to get it off from the beach and back in the water where you could use a skimmer or absorbent materials.
Well, they plied it with steam and hot water which now, today, we know drove a lot of that oil down into the beach. And today, you can go out there, dig a hole, and it looks like fresh oil.
You can turn over a rock and it still looks like fresh oil. Where in the south, after 18 to 20 years, the bacteria would take care of that oil. But here, we don’t have very much nitrogen in our soil. And it requires nitrogen and it requires oxygen. And of course, if you drive it very far down into the ground, you don’t have a lot of oxygen down there.
And we have very, very little nitrogen. So, there isn’t biodegradation of this oil. It stays there for a long, long time.
So, I’m getting ahead of my story. So, about day three, there were a lot of us that had really gotten angry. I remember, I think it was like the on third day – it could have been the fourth day. It probably was the fourth day. I was invited to be on a -- a -- a press conference.
And it was, as I recall, it was Exxon, Coast Guard, DEC, myself and there was one other, and I can’t remember who the one other was. And it was kind of a scripted press conference.
And these press conferences were interesting because they were -- they -- it was like a circus often. I mean, one time we had some of the environmental groups had leaked information to us that there was a young woman that was going to come in and she had dead oiled birds in her backpack and she was going to throw them at Frank Iarossi as he stood on the stage.
Well, they leaked it to us, so we had the city’s finest out in the hall waiting for this young lady to come in. And of course we had a lot of -- you had fisherman, you had environmentalists, you had industry people, you had all of these folks. And every press conference it was just virtually standing crowd. I mean it was -- Everybody wanted to go to those early press conferences.
In comes a -- a young woman that was dressed for the part. I mean, long gingham dress, you know. Really looked like kind of ’60s-‘70s hippie type of young lady.
She came in. She has a backpack on. Two of our city’s finest step up to her and say, young lady we have to look in your backpack. And she raises hell and won’t let them look.
And of course, they wrestle it off and there was no bird in it. It was just -- she wanted the press attention. And of course the photographers are there taking pictures and -- but it was that sort of thing.
Well, on this particular press conference where we had the four or five agencies, if you can think of the City as an agency. We’re supposed to get up there and by then, I think, everybody realized that we were all somewhat culpable in this event.
Complacency had ruled. Now I think the City was less at fault because we were beginning to realize that things weren’t right.
And -- and I -- you talk about instincts and so forth. Well, this was more than an instinct. It was -- you could look at it and you could see where Alyeska at one time had a crack team that was suppose to respond to spills. They had reassigned them. And you didn’t have people that were on the oil spill response team. That was gone. We knew the equipment, they didn’t have enough equipment.
So we -- we knew all of that. But at any rate, I think the Coast Guard realized that, yeah, they should have been looking at those contingency plans. The State certainly should have been looking at it. The industry should certainly have been able to live up to what they had written.
I’ve often referred to the contingency plan we had in 1989 as ranking as one of the exceptional works of fiction because it was nothing in it was true. It was well written. It just, the practice part of it never occurred.
So, we were kind of scripted and it became apparent to me that the Coast Guard didn’t want to point a finger at the State because the State could point a finger back. And of course, they could both point fingers at the industry. And so everybody was supposed to get there and, as I recall that meeting, we were suppose to talk about how good everything was going.
And when you’re up on the stage at these press conferences, you have the first row -- there were probably eight or ten national TV groups.
Plus there was one that nobody knew until later in the -- in -- in the -- well, that mo -- that year, or that summer, Exxon had a film crew posing as a news crew so that they were -- they were videotaping everything because they figured they were gonna get lots of lawsuits. which they did.
And, they were -- I’m assuming that’s why they wanted to keep all this footage. But -- but you had them -- plu -- but you couldn’t look out there and say, oh, well, that’s from ABC and that’s from CBS. They were all guys and some gals dressed in kind of outdoor garb because they were going out on the islands and doing video out there.
And they'd all -- the whole front row were these cameras.
And then behind them was a mixture of -- could be some environment, some -- lots of fisheries people, some industry people. Well --
SHARON BUSHELL: And a smattering of the town? The town --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: And a smattering of the town, yeah. Because it -- it -- the room was always full. We always had lots and lots of people.
And I remember, I was -- was I -- I think I was -- maybe the third or the fourth speaker. But I know the first two or three speakers, they were saying "Oh, yes, it’s going well, we’re doing great."
And then -- and I’m thinking, oh, no, they're not. We don’t have the equipment. We don’t have what we need to respond to this spill.
And so I had my note. And I remember tearing it up, getting up, and blowing the roof off. I said, "This is BS."
I said, "They’re not responding. They don’t have equipment. They haven’t lived up to what they promised us." And when I got done, I get this standing ovation and truly, my life changed at that point.
From then on, I was the guy that was constantly calling Exxon and then later VECO to task on -- on what they weren’t doing. I was never invited to another one of their press conferences.
SHARON BUSHELL: Now, when you say Exxon and VECO, what about Alyeska?
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I tried to be gentle with Alyeska. I had to live here.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: And -- and it was -- when I was mayor 94-96% of our tax base came from taxing the oil industry which essentially was Alyeska. Now, I did -- Alyeska got very angry at me. In fact, I -- I keep notes all the time. My life is notes.
Well, I kept -- I -- I read this getting ready for -- this was my journal at the time. Because I knew when the spill happened, I called Bill Walker our attorney, our City attorney, and said, "Bill, we got to know, what are we suppose to be doing." And Bill tried to call around and the only thing -- you couldn’t find cities that had much information.
Nobody really knew other than, always the advice came back, keep good records 'cause you’re probably gonna wanna to sue them. As it turned out, Valdez never did sue.
But I kept really good records. And as I’ve gone back over today reading those records, I -- I had forgotten how mad some of this community was at me.
Just, oh, I mean. They had signs up over at Alyeska. Benedict Arnold Devens.
And I had City Council people coming to me saying "John, you gotta back off. We don’t like you roughin' up the industry this much."
I didn’t back off, but there was always, you know they were always threatening to hold a special City Council meeting to get me in line. They never quite did that, but there was always that threat that -- that they would.
The town was fairly divided. I don’t know if it was 50-50, 40-60. But it was divided from a strong element of the community that were very defensive and pro-oil industry. And believe me, this town benefited greatly from the oil industry. I mean, schools and hospitals and my college, and -- everything benefited from having the oil industry here.
So you had people that were extremely defensive on that standpoint and then you had the other side of the community that were totally incensed by the fact that -- not so much that they spilled the oil. Accidents happen, everybody realizes you -- you can have an accident.
But don’t promise you’re going to be able to respond to it and then not be able to do it. And I think that’s what angered people the most. And then there was a lot of sadness. There was a -- everybody was busy. My college emptied out. I didn’t have a student left. They all went out to the islands. They were earning a little over, well they were earning $17 an hour. Somebody said it was $16.95, but it was something like that. And then they got time and a half for overtime, and there was a lot of overtime.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: And so, the people who were left here in town, we -- we didn’t have -- you know, well if you were -- if you worked for say the local hotel, and you were earning minimum wage, you quit those jobs and you went and lived out in the Sound.
And you couldn’t spend any money, there’s no place to spend money out there. So what you ended up having -- or -- a -- a town that had -- the prices went up. I mean, everything was more expensive because the restaurants had to pay their people more money.
Therefore, they had to pass that on. And those of us who weren’t getting any money for working on the spill, we were kind of stuck paying the extra costs. Exxon, or as it turned out, VECO, would end up hiring almost anybody that wanted a job.
And the ones they wouldn’t hire were people who had known criminal records, were known drinkers, alcoholics, drug users, people like that. And they were what was left in our town for the most part.
And so crime went up. We had a lot more emotional kinds of problems. More family abuse kinds of situations. More alcoholism.
More drug use. I remember September -- the end of September -- when everything was over, we had a whole bunch of cars stolen in Valdez. Now, automobile theft is not a real issue in Valdez when the first crossroads that goes anyplace is Glenallen, that’s 115 miles up the road.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: You know, you’re not going to get away with stealing automobiles in Valdez. But we did -- we had a lot of them stolen.
We would go -- Exxon was pretty good about paying for extra costs. And I think that’s why probably Valdez -- partly because -- I think Valdez didn’t sue Exxon partly because they were very good about settling costs.
But also because Valdez is pretty much an oil town. I mean, we -- we have three industries here. We have the oil industry. We have tourism. And a small fisheries.
And so Valdez didn’t sue. But I -- I remember we could go to Exxon -- and there was a process for doing this. And you could go and say, "Hey, you know, there’s just too much junk piling up in town. We need more refuse workers."
And invariably they’d say "Okay, yeah, how much?" And they would pay for that. But when we would go and say, "You know, we need more mental health workers, we’ve got people that are just in dire straits," for some reason they never would do that.
They didn’t like to pay for mental health work. And I -- I have to believe that it was probably due to litigation. I can’t think of any other reason because they were very generous on "You need more cops? Sure, you can have more cops. Have what you want."
Another thing that was always disturbing during that period of time. Frank Iarossi, I felt Frank was a pretty good guy. I mean, he worked for a company that wasn’t very popular in Alaska at that time.
Frank probably wore a three-piece suit at home in Texas. But in Valdez he looked like Mr. Rogers. He wore a cardigan sweater and he was very nice and very gentle and he had fishermen calling him everything in the book.
And Frank never lost it. I think he probably caused Exxon some extra problems because he was a nice guy and I think he was honest, I think he meant what he said. But I remember him standing up at one of the press conferences, one of the early ones, and raising his hand and saying Exxon will stand behind all of the losses.
We will take care of you. We’re not going to let anybody lose money on this. You just submit your -- your invoices and your receipts and Exxon will take care of it.
Well, that was okay for Frank, but then when his bean counters came in, they didn't -- they weren’t reading from the same script that Frank Iarossi was reading from. They were -- they were not nearly as generous. Well, that left a lot of people, in all of these communities, thinking that they should have gotten more than they -- they did get.
And of course, you know, today we’re still fighting over the -- originally a little over $5 billion in punitive damages and now I guess the courts have cut it down to about $2.5 billion. But it’s been too long and there’s a lot of resentment about that.
But initially, I think if you were a fisherman and you could show your ‘88 receipts for what you sold your fish for, and then you showed an ’89 -- well, essentially they had no -- because it was a zero tolerance at that time so they just never did get to sell fish.
And theoretically at least, Exxon paid that difference. But that was only good for one year. How about ’90 and ’91? Because the fish that died in the oil spill, if they were pink salmon they were coming back in two years, and I guess if they were silvers it was three -- I don’t know what the life cycle of salmon is. But -- but there were years where it was a problem.
And then if you were in the tourist industry, and I don’t think Exxon did anything for the people that were in the tourist industry. But tourism ended that year. I mean -- probably the people that owned hotels and restaurants, they probably made their money because they had other people here.
But then the next year, they didn’t. And it took a couple of years before tourism built back up. So the economy was hurt.
That summer -- I had been working as mayor. I had been working for several years trying to get what we called reverse investments. And that was, Asian business people coming into Valdez and investing in -- in this community.
Reverse, I guess means 'cause we don’t have Americans going there and investing. But, I had a lot of Japanese investors that came to Valdez and we had no place to put them. We took them out to Growler Island, which Stan Stephens had a camp on Growler Island for his tour industry, and that’s where we had to put them because there were no hotels. There were no homes. There was nothing available.
And they had several projects that they were ready to finance and go with. They wanted a -- a mineral water project -- they wanted to bottle water. This was early. Now everybody is bottling water.
They wanted to buy glacier ice. And it just was the neatest idea. Because the Columbia Glacier, when it calves -- if you had your off months for your fishing boats, you could go out there and capture glacier ice --
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, Sr.: -- and bring it in. And every other day they wanted us to ship a 40 ft. container of glacier ice to Japan. That one sounded pretty good. And then we’ve got the grain terminal, which we’ve never found a use for.
They wanted to buy the grain terminal, or lease it, and put in a microbrewery there. And again it's the -- the Japanese really -- they have this thing about Prince William Sound. The pristine beauty, the cleanliness, everything.
Well, after you spill 11 million gallons of crude oil, it loses some of that pristine beauty and we lost all of that.
There were other people in the state, I remember even Ketchikan, lost tourism because the tourists didn’t realize just how far away Ketchikan was. Ketchikan never saw a drop of oil, but they lost tourism. And, you know, Exxon didn’t -- didn't cover those. There -- there were a lot of things they didn’t cover.
I remember, well, I was president of the college and I lived in a house right next to the college. And I had -- I -- I got -- I bought a Jacuzzi tub -- a pretty big Jacuzzi tub. And I was sitting on my porch because I was going to install it in the house.
And one day I came home and it was missing. And by then I’d turned the college over to Exxon for animal rehab. They had sea otters in my gymnasium. They had birds in classrooms.
And we were doing -- we were doing animal rehab there at the college. And I went up, and lo and behold, there’s my Jacuzzi tub -- they’re doing bird washing and such in my Jacuzzi tub.
I -- I got a little upset about that. Told them to get that thing cleaned up and back on my porch. But it was that sort of thing that --
And I think the town suffered from this stress of having so many people descending on us and you know, we’re all heroes in our own comic strip. And they were all heroes in their comic strips.
And they didn’t realize that there were lots of others things going on here. And everybody was just outraged that they couldn’t get the office they wanted or --
I remember, it was --the first -- couple three days after the spill, being out at the airport and listening to people. People would be out there and somebody would get off the airplane and often it was the press because they had a little more money to spend. Well, industry had lots of money to spend. But they’d get off and they’d see somebody and say – well, first they’d go over to the automobile rental area and want to rent an automobile.
And find out no, we’re out of automobiles. And so they’d see somebody and say, "do you have a car?"
"Well, yeah." "Do you want to rent it?"
"No, I can’t rent you my car." "I’ll give you a $100/day."
"Well, I don’t know." "I’ll give you $125/day."
"Here are the keys and do you need a place to sleep?"
"Well, you know, I think I can put the kids out in the camper and you can have the kids’ room. How about another $100/day for the kid’s room?"
It was that sort of thing. It -- it was -- it was very disturbing. I mean everybody was --
SHARON BUSHELL: Just the -- the sheer volume of people on the street I would think would be --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Oh it -- it was. And -- and --like I say, well, I was telling you about the visqueen tents. People were living in visqueen tents or maybe their campers. And some people didn’t even have that. So nobody ever locked their doors in Valdez.
Most people didn’t even take the keys out of their car.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right. JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I mean, you know, it was that kind of place. And I got to where I had to lock my car every night or you’d get up in the morning and go out and there’d be two or three people sleeping in your car because they’d want to get out of the weather.
People talked about people getting under their porch and sleeping there. You know, it was -- the press of people was horrible in Valdez. I mean it just was -- just too much.
SHARON BUSHELL: Now, tell me -- tell me the type of person who would be inclined to come to Valdez at that point?
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, Channel 13 had -- I used to think it was Channel 2. My memory always told me it was John Tracy. But turned out it wasn’t John Tracy. It was the Channel 13 newsman. He had a big -- a big thing at the civic center.
And it was suppose to be a panel of us. I was in DC. And I was testifying before Congress. And beginning fighting with Don Young, when he called me and said he had to have me back here for this meeting. So I -- and it was tough, I did get back and I got there in time for the meeting.
And I looked out and the auditorium -- it’s a sloped floor auditorium at the civic center, seats 550 people.
And every one of those people swore they were a resident of Valdez. And I only knew a handful of them.
It just -- it was people from all over. There was work in Valdez and they were there and -- and there was preference shown to hire locals, so they all said, "Oh yeah, I live in Valdez." Well, no, a lot of them didn’t live in Valdez.
A lot of them were well meaning. We had a lot of people that came to Valdez and wanted to volunteer. And I can understand why Exxon and VECO didn’t want the volunteers. I mean, there’s a liability issue there if you’ve got volunteers. It’s better that you pay them and they’re covered by workers’ compensation and so forth.
But we had a lot of people. And they did use some volunteers early on in terms of the bird rehab center. And I -- they may have used volunteers longer in bird rehab. But I don’t think they used any volunteers on the cleanup.
You had, oh, what would have been a week or two after the spill -- that was -- well in fact, it just pre-dates this -- this Channel 13 interview or well it was news conference, but it was a huge panel news conference.
I had been in DC and I was testifying and I had been invited to speak at a press conference breakfast at the bi -- at the National Press Club. And in fact the night before, they had the Cherry Blossom Festival, which is a big deal for Alaskans that are in the DC area. And I went to it. And Don Young was there. And Don and I had words. And he told me to be careful or I was gonna get in trouble.
And he says, "The President is gonna make an announcement tomorrow and it’s going to fix everything." So, the next day, I think that was when I was having breakfast at the Press Club and the announcement was made that George Bush was gonna send 5,000 military people in to clean up this oil spill.
And I mean, it was ludicrous. I -- they wouldn’t have known where to begin. And so I remember being asked what did I think of that and I said, "Well, seems to me that if any of our local people want to get compensated for what’s going on here they better join the military."
And I said, "I don’t think its feasible and I don’t think it’s a good idea at all." And later it was called off and I don’t know if it was because of me or not.
I remember in those days a lot of my time was spent trying to get a national declaration of disaster. Ted Stevens opposed it and I’m inclined to believe that Ted was right and I was wrong, but I did -- I spent a lot of time doing that.
And getting the Small Business Association to come in and make low interest loans. Because we had people that weren’t going to survive. You know, if you’re a fisherman and you’ve got a million dollar boat and you’re making payments on it, and you don’t have any fishing that summer, and you have to wait until the end of the summer and until you get your receipts in to Exxon and hope you get your money, in the meantime you could lose your boat.
And -- so we got the Small Business Association -- when I was back in DC we worked on that. To get them to come to Valdez and meet with these folks and make low -- very low interest loans to see them through until they could get some settlement out of Exxon. So there was an awful lot of that.
I know my days were full. There were days I probably was interviewed fifteen-sixteen times by various press. I don’t think there were many days during the first month that I wasn’t interviewed at least six or eight times.
Good Morning America liked me because I was righteously indignant about just damned near everything at that time. And so, to do Good Morning America was like at 3am. And today it would be a lot easier but back then we had to go to -- up on the hill behind the animal shelter where they had all the equipment for the satellites.
And you’d sit up there in this little tight cramped room with electronic equipment and you’d always have something plugged in your ear. And you’d be watching this tiny little monitor and you’d be hearing scratchy voices and you’re trying to guess what they’re asking you. And -- and you know, because they always call you before you do this, to find out are you’re gonna be righteously indignant enough for them.
And -- so you’re always encouraged to be a little more indignant than you might not have even felt like. The last time Good Morning America called me to see if I would be on, they wanted -- it was the Joe Hazelwood trials. And they really wanted -- I -- I knew what they wanted. I just couldn’t give it to him.
Because I don’t think Hazelwood’s drinking was the ultimate cause of the accident.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I think it was the system. I think it was the system of asking a captain to be on the bridge for 36 to 40 hours and every one of them went down and went to bed as soon as they got rid of the pilot -- they went to bed, turned it over to the first mate. And of course, in this case, their first -- his first mate, was down in Seattle doing something and he had Cousins who was second -- second or third mate.
And I'm -- I -- that’s what caused the accident. I mean, I’m pretty sure Hazelwood drunk could have gone through a ten-mile wide space. I remember Yost saying his -- I think he said his kid was 10 years old at the time, and his 10 year old kid could have driven a tanker through there.
And I believe him. I mean, it’s -- it's pretty wide once you get through the Narrows.
So --but a lot of the days were just taken up doing things like -- the first day, we could see, oh my God, we’re gonna have -- we're gonna have air -- airplane collisions because we had so many take-offs and landings and people coming in here, industry, reporters, everybody all wanting planes.
And so I got a hold of the FAA and said, "Hey – we've gotta re-open the Valdez tower." We have a nice tower out there. And -- and they did immediately.
The next real emergency we had, and I think any city that’s going to have something like this would run into it, in fact they did in Louisiana for the hurricanes -- and it's communications.
You know, for a little town of less than 4,000 -- well, all of a sudden you couldn’t get a -- a line out of here or in 'cause it was so jammed up.
That’s when I met Tom Jenson, and I’ve known Tom and Tom’s even been on my board since. But Tom came into town from the telephone company -- I forget which one it was at that time. But at any rate, Tom came in and put all these extra lines in so that people could communicate because it was very frustrating. You just couldn’t do it.
Trying to fly in and out of Valdez was a nightmare because the planes were all taken up from oil workers and industry people. We formed what was called at that time the Oiled Mayors.
And, the Oiled Mayors are made up of mayors and village leaders and every Thursday we would meet in Anchorage and we would have a meeting and discuss the spill.
And then Friday we would have a press conference 'cause Friday's a great day for a press conference.
And I was usually the spokesperson for the Oiled Mayors and I would meet with the press and we would again beat Exxon up as much as we could. Because we found that Exxon tended to respond to legislation, litigation, and press. Now, I don’t know that that is as prevalent today because obviously litigation hasn’t gotten very far with Exxon because they’re still holding out on the punitive damages.
But, and the press, they don’t seem to be as concerned about public relations. But in 1989 after the spill, the world was mad at Exxon and they really wanted to do what they could to get rid of that horrible image they have.
I remember I had to hire somebody as mayor to help answer -- I was getting thousands of letters from all over the world. And we wanted to respond, but there’s no way that I could write responses. So we had a person or two that would respond and thank them for their input.
And some of them were just cute as could be. I remember there was a lady from Ohio that wrote just trying to be as helpful as she could, telling me that at the Ohio State Fair, when they have oil spills, they throw sawdust on them and maybe we should get sawdust and we could clean this mess up with sawdust.
And -- you know -- the --then there were others, artists that wanted to do -- there was one that wanted to do a huge sculpture of an oiled bird and present it to Valdez -- and I respectfully declined that. The timing wasn’t exactly right for a huge oiled bird sculpture in the middle of Valdez.
But -- but the communication -- I mean people were just -- the world was incensed by this. Because Prince William Sound was viewed as a pristine beauty that had been violated.
I was trying -- there was something else I was gonna -- another story along that line, but it’s kind of slipped my mind now. But -- but we had a lot of communication --
SHARON BUSHELL: As I was driving from Palmer this morning, I was thinking about how choked those roads must have been at that time.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: I mean they were in every so much better shape eighteen years -- later.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Oh, the roads have improved considerably. There’s still some room for improvement. But yeah, they are much better today than they were back then. And I got to the point where for those Thursday meetings, I always drove. It -- you just couldn’t count on being able to -- you’d get bumped from the plane. And I couldn’t afford to get stuck in -- in Anchorage because there were things happening here that required my attention. So --
SHARON BUSHELL: So you drove?
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I just drove up Thursday, drove back Friday.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh, that’s so far.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I -- Idid that almost every week. We had another guy from out -- one of the villages out of Kodiak. His name was Charles Christianson. And I was so proud of Charles. I mean --Charles really took it all very seriously.
And he came to all of our meetings. Now, it wasn’t a problem for me. I mean, Valdez was fairly wealthy. We had a road. You know, it was a little taxing. But I --I noticed that I didn’t sleep much in those days.
I was eighteen years younger and I was able to do it. I was gettin' along on three hours of sleep many nights. But Charles was much older than me and he made all of those meetings. I was really proud of him. Because he once said to us -- he -- he was thanking the Oiled Mayors for the support they gave him because he said,"I -- without your support," he was a Native fellow. He said "Without your support," he said, "I wouldn’t have known how to done this."
But he was always there. Then he was on the board and when I came back and applied for a job, they said, "Well, Charles has been on the board for several years and hadn’t said a thing."
And when I got interviewed and they said after I left the room, Charles says, "We’ll hire him." And that was -- that was what -- that was the last -- or the only thing Charles really had said.
He liked me from the days when we were fighting the big battle together.
I haven’t mentioned the Syndicat Mixte. That was kind of an interesting time.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay, tell me that.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, about -- again, it -- it was early on. It was well within the first month of the spill. In fact, it would have -- yeah it would have been in May.
The, I was in Anchorage, probably doing one of these Thursday meetings. And the City Clerk called and she said, "John --" the -- I think you turned that over once.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh, oh you're right. Thank you for telling me that. That's why I have this one standing by. Okay.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: The -- the City Clerk called me --
SHARON BUSHELL: The City Clerk called you --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: City Clerk called me and she said," John, we’ve got a couple of Frenchmen here. And they don’t speak very much English. But I think they want to help and there’s nobody for them to meet with."
And she said, "Could we send them back to Anchorage and could you put something together?"
Yeah, I’ll do that. So I got a hold of whatever the French representative is in Anchorage. It wouldn’t be a consulate because it isn’t that big. I – at any rate, she was was part-time, former French National -- and she lived -- and she was a real estate lady, so.
But I found out who it was and called her and said, you know, we’re going to need an interpreter. And at the time, Josephine’s was still in operations at the Sheraton and I always stayed at the Sheraton.
So I set up dinner at Josephine’s and that is when I met Senator Alphonse Arzell and Jean Batiste Aret.
Senator Arzell was a French senator and Jean Batiste was his assistant well -- and head of what was called at that time the Syndicat Mixte. Syndicat Mixte was a French group similar to the group I now head, but they came out of the Amico-Cadise spill.
And they spent years fighting with Amico trying to get money from them for the -- the injuries the Brittany Coast suffered. So they were here -- they wanted to help us.
And so, through all of that, we set it up and a couple of weeks later -- it was -- I think there was like twenty-six representatives from the Syndicat Mixte -- there was a lot of Frenchmen -- came to Valdez.
And I’d set it up to where we chartered one of Stan Stephens boats and we were going to -- the first day we were going to go out and we were gonna visit some of the oiled beaches. And then the second day we were going to have a conference where we had -- and also I had all of the Oiled Mayors invited to this. So we had twenty-six Frenchmen, and almost that many Oiled Mayors.
And we -- we did the conference up at the civic center and everybody gave their speeches. And by far the very best speeches were some of the Native leaders who really spoke from their heart, whereas those of us who were more sophisticated we sat down and wrote our speeches and they were dull and not very exciting. But the -- but the Native leaders talked about what was happening to their society, their fear of using subsistence foods.
What was going on with their youth. The youth were earning too much money and they didn’t think they could keep them in the village after this was over. The -- well, one of them quote -- or coined the term “the death of water” and he said he’d never thought he’d see water die, but the water is dead. It -- it was very, very moving.
But when we took Stan’s boat out, we pulled into one of the bays out there and we had, somebody got on the radio and said, "You can’t come in here." And Stan radioed back and said "By whose authority?"
And the guy didn’t know by whose authority. So he says, "Well, you just can’t." And Stan says "Well, be ready because we’re coming." And we went in and it was funny. It was kind of like the -- the -- oh, the photo op for the planes that were flying over the spill -- they had this big photo op for us.
They had a boat pulling a skimmer around in circles, but there was no oil there. It was so we could take pictures of it. And they didn’t know exactly who we were. And then we did, we got off the boat and went on the beach. And we saw the oil.
But that was -- that was quite a day. That was a day I realized that if you’re gonna have twenty-six Frenchmen with you, you better have some wine too. Before we got back at the end of the day, I had called and told my staff, I said "Get some wine and meet us down at the boat dock 'cause these guys are cooked to rebel."
But then the next day we had that and the French gave us their advice. And we have stayed friends with them ever since. We still meet with them.
About a year ago, Patience Falkner, who is currently the President of RCAC, and Linda Robinson, who is my outreach coordinator, went to France. It was -- I think it was their thirtieth anniversary or something and they went over and gave speeches. and -- but It’s-- it's no longer called the Syndicat Mixte. It's called something else.
But it’s still a group of primarily French politicians that meet and try to keep an eye on the oil industry. But that -- that was kind of -- kind of nice. They’ve been back several times and met with us, and we’ve been over there and meet with them. And it’s kind of -– since then we’ve tried to develop communication systems. And of course, our electronic communications have improved immensely.
You know, eighteen years ago we were relying on fax machines, if you happened to have one. But today we have web sites and we share information and we have national conferences where a lot of us get together and we hope that no community will be in the same sad shape that Valdez was, or Cordova or Whittier or any of the rest.
There was no place to turn.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right. JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Nobody you could talk to and say," Hey," you know, "What do we need to worry about? What do we need to do? How do you respond to this?"
Coming out of the spill, or it was during the spill, a researcher -- a sociologist from I think Picou from Alabama, one of the universities down there -- he came up and he worked with us and we developed a program in terms of counseling.
Because we found that the a natural disaster affects people in a different way than a man made disaster. If it’s a hurricane or a tidal wave or an earthquake, it brings people together. You’re helping each other.
But with the man-made disaster, this kind of disaster, you have people pulling apart. You have finger pointing. You have the haves and the have-nots. And it’s very different.
And so we have a two-volume set that we’ve published and we’ve shipped them all over the world. If anybody’s having a man-made disaster. Well, we’ve even sent them where it’s a natural disaster. But it --it gives --it gives instruction in terms of how to be a good listener.
I mean, most good psychologists really are just good listeners. And we teach people how to listen and let people talk their troubles out. But then we also have a section that talks about things like, how do you deal with the press. How do you deal with the regulatory agencies.
What should you be telling the -- the person that’s caused this problem. And so, it's all -- the things you need to know to deal with a man-made disaster and that’s been very popular. And that came out of this. And a lot of it came out of the work that Picou did in Cordova.
Because we had problems in Valdez, but I think Cordova had much more serious problems. They had the loss of livelihood. We had a lot of money flowing into Valdez that year.
There were a lot of people made a lot of money. And of course, there were always the stories about somebody would have a $500 or $5000 skif -- say a $5000 skiff -- and they’d lease it and they’d get $100,000 or more just for leasing it that summer. I mean, the money just flowed rapidly to some people.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right. JOHN DEVENS, SR.: But not to others.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Now, in my case, I had a pretty nice boat, but I didn’t have the nerve to lease it to Exxon because I was -- it would -- I think it would have inhibited my ability to deal with them, if I was receiving money from them. So I didn’t do that.
And I have could probably, I’m sure I made half a million dollars, maybe more that year on just using my boat. But -- but I never did. And there were other people for similar reasons that didn’t.
Then sometimes it was real hard to be resentful -- not to be resentful if you see your neighbor who’s getting rich renting their boat or whatever.
So there was an awful lot of that and -- and I think maybe in terms of social problems, Valdez might have had more social problems because you had a large segment of our population which constituted the oil industry and then the other section of our population which were really feeling inundated and hurt by all of this. So --
SHARON BUSHELL: It sounds like an overwhelming and complicated set of dynamics. I -- you getting three hours of sleep on average that summer, I just can’t imagine how you got through that time.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I -- I don’t either to be honest with you. I don’t remember being terribly exhausted, although I think I must have been. But I’m older now and I couldn’t do it now.
But back then, course, you were running on adrenalin. I remember a funny story. Maybe -- this is --might have been the one I was going to tell you before I got -- my mind my mind went up some place else.
But it was during this time when we were just getting these bundles of mail in and we had to answer them. And -- but I had one guy that kept writing to me and he kept calling me. And I -- at one point I was thinking he was talking about chicken feathers and then I read my notes and it was duck feathers.
But like the lady from Ohio that used sawdust, he was sure that bird feathers would pick up oil. And that’s evident from the fact that we had a whole bunch of oiled birds.
So he kept calling me and writing me and I kept saying, "Well, you might be right but what are you going to do, just scatter feathers? Then you have to pick up the darn feathers."
And then he got back to me and he said, "No I figured out a way." He said, "We get this fish netting and we put the feathers inside then and we make feather pillows. And you can throw the pillows on it and they’re a lot easier to pick up."
And I said, "Geez, I said it might be a great idea but the mayor’s office really isn’t in charge of this." This isn't -- well, can’t you help me with Exxon? Or the Federal government? And I kept saying, look, right now, I’m fighting with all those guys.
And I don’t think - I don't think you want my help. So one night, that summer I ate over here at Mike’s. I don’t know if you’ve been around enough to, but Mike’s is an Italian restaurant.
Mike’s Greek, but runs an Italian restaurant like most Greeks. But Mike’s is a good place to eat and it was open until late and -- and I’d go in there and he’d bill me monthly because I ate there so much he just sent me a monthly bill. So I was in there almost quitting time and there were a lot of reporters in there at the time.
Cause everybody was just you know -– you just didn’t get dinner until 10 or 11 o'clock at night in those days. I’m sitting there eating and I remember I had a big plate of spaghetti. And -- and I’m sure I had a nice glass of wine.
And in walks a guy and I see he’s got a pillow full of feathers. And I'm thinking Jesus, I know who this guy is. This has got to be my correspondent.
And -- and he’s walking around. Somebody had told him, oh yeah, Devons eats over at Mike’s every night. And so he got in there and asked a few people and they pointed at me. And I thought, Oh God, you know. He comes over, flops that feather pillow down in front of me.
I have duck feathers falling all over my spaghetti. And he starts in on, "You’ve got to help me. I know this is going to work."
And I said, "You’ve got to believe me, I can’t –- I just -- there’s nothing I can do to help you. You’re going to have to go see the Coast Guard. Go see Exxon." And I at least -- I gave him the names of the people.
But I said, "They’re so mad at me right now," I said, "If I say anything in your favor it’s gonna to hurt you. It’s not gonna to help you."
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, you telling that antidote makes me think of something that -- that -- in all of the other interviews that I’ve done, of course the oil spill is a huge impact on people’s lives, etc. But in your case, it seems to me like you literally couldn’t get away from it.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: No, no, no. It was --
SHARON BUSHELL: I mean, that -- that’s almost mind boggling to think there would be a topic so dominating that you couldn’t even go have a meal without having people ask you questions, and you’re the spokesperson for the community so they think that you --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: No, and it was just the whole summer. It was just the whole summer. I’d wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning. Some nights, looking at my notes, I realized there were nights when I would have to stay up until 3 so that I could record for east coast talk television, and then I’d be back up by 5 or 6 because there were meetings that I had to go to. It was just constant that way, I mean it was -- the whole summer was -- everybody wanted a piece of your time.
I had, my office was at the college. And my secretary -- and thank goodness, I mean Karen was a good, tough lady that -- she could draw the line. But she would have to head the press off because they would be standing outside my office clamoring to get -- I mean, it was like you’d see on television.
I -- it -- some of those shows are not exaggerating at all. There would be literally dozens of press. And I had to prioritize it.
I said, if the local media --that would be local public radio or the local radio station or the local newspaper -- wants to talk to me, I said, make time.
That’s -- that's important, I need to talk to them. And I said the next priority would be statewide. And then I said national. And the lower priority is the international.
Because I said, I have a responsibility to this community and to this state before I do to the -- to the world. But you had German and French and British and the world’s media were here. And I remember talking to the City Council, saying, "Gee, do you think we can keep this alive for -- until the end of the week?" Well, that was no problem. It was alive until well into -- well -- well into September.
SHARON BUSHELL: And September was just the end date for the cleanup for that year.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well and, that was kind of a sad thing for a lot of people. I remember spending a lot of time talking on radio and television, trying to warn them that as the summer wore on, that hey guys, come September this is over.
They’re not going to come back next year. The industry didn’t want to say that. But -- I mean, Exxon implied that, oh yeah, they were going to be here until it was all cleaned up.
But we had, actually we had got an internal -- somebody had leaked an internal memo and we could see that no, they were shutting down. They were going away.
And so, but you had people that – you know, it was so lucrative for some of the boat owners, that you had people going out and buying extra boats because I guess they thought it was going to be a lifetime occupation for them.
And so, the -- after -- you know -- after a couple of years, there were a lot of boats for sale because had bought boats in anticipation of this. So we used the media very well in terms of trying to warn people.
The other one was early, very early in the spill. Both the state and the federal health agencies came out with the dumbest thing I had ever heard. It was called the see, smell, and taste test. So for our subsistence users, they were telling if you can’t see, smell, or taste oil, then its safe to eat.
And as soon as I heard this, then I got on radio and television and also some of the print media and said, "This makes absolutely no sense at all. We know there are lots of harmful elements that you can’t see, smell, or taste."
Then it was later that they decided that yeah, they had a made a mistake and the food needed to be tested before you knew it was safe to eat.
Another one was -- incinerators are regulated by the tonnage. And if you want to get in under the regulation, then you have a smaller incinerator.
So they wanted to set three incinerators up here in Valdez to burn the oily -- well the absorbent materials, the booming material that wasn’t any good anymore, and that sort of thing, well and the dead critters.
So they put three incinerators in. And we knew at the time what they were trying to get away with. They didn’t wanna to have to go through any of the regulations or permitting. And I was a little annoyed about it but it was mainly that I'm thinking, well, this is kind of a bull and, you know, you’re gonna end up with smoke and it’s not going to smell very good.
Until Green Peace called me and they wanted me to co-sponsor an article that they were doing about burning oiled items that had been soaked in seawater.
The byproduct is dioxin, which is very carcinogenic. Well, at that time, with my limited popularity, at least in Valdez, I said, "I don’t think I want to get on the list with Green Peace at this point." But I said, "I will run this one to ground."
So I called Denny Kelso, who was the commissioner of DEC at the time, and said, "Denny, Green Peace just called me and they said if you burn oiled stuff that’s been soaked in sea water you get dioxin as a byproduct. Do you?"
He said, "God I don’t know," but he said "I’ll find out."
Within a couple of hours Denny called me back and he said, "John, it’s true."
So, at that point we raised, again, a lot of fuss in the media about those three incinerators and they took them out. They -- but we learned to use the media extremely well.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. I should think this would be a testing ground, like you say, the first day of the oil spill trying to contact people around the world to figure out what to do, when in fact, that’s the position that you were in and that Valdez --
JOHN DEVENS SR: Yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: -- was in, was the -- the people to learn it so that then that knowledge could be passed on.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, and I’d say, you know, one of the better depository of information like that now is the RCAC web site. I mean we -- we’re trying to make all of that available.
And -- and I think Alaska as a whole has done pretty good about collecting and being able to distribute information. And certainly we got enough press on it that when there’s a spill, or any kind of tragedy, we'll -- we will frequently get called and asked for our input and our help.
And -- and it's -- and if -- I don’t know if you have ever -- you probably have looked at our web site, but it’s -- it's a pretty intense complete web site.
We’ve won -- we've won awards for it. But it’s mainly because we don’t want to see anybody go through what the communities in Alaska went through. And like I say, Valdez -- Valdez had the impact of too many people, too much pressure. But Cordova lost their economy.
I mean, Cordova really suffered. Kodiak suffered. A lot of the small -- smaller communities, island communities, I mean they -- they it just changed their culture. It was just a --it was so hard on everybody.
Valdez -- Valdez changed, but not drastically. You know, Valdez is pretty much what Valdez was before this spill with a few more agencies.
That was -- well that reminds me of another interesting anticdote. I was talking about this mayor’s ad hoc committee. And one of the things that came out of that meeting, besides just Riki Ott saying it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, was, we decided that probably we needed another DEC person in Valdez to help oversee the oil industry.
A few hours later we have the nation’s largest oil spill, all hell is breaking loose. I’m out at the airport waiting for Steve Cowper to come in.
And the head of Alyeska is there. And he comes over and just chews me out. What do you mean you want another DEC person in this town? And I said, "I don’t think you quite grasped the situation. You’re going to have an awful lot more regulators in this town forever more."
I said "You just spilled an awful lot of oil." And -- and I -- I don't know, maybe he was in shock. But it was -- it was ludicrous to start complaining about the committee recommending that there be one more DEC person in Valdez.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS SR.: He -- he was -- he just --
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah, that -- that's pretty hard to grasp alright.
JOHN DEVENS SR.: And so we have a lot of DEC people in Valdez now.
SHARON BUSHELL: So how safe is it for you to roam the streets of Valdez these days?
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Pretty safe. I -- I’m a fairly popular guy now. Well, the thing happened on March 24th. March 31st is my birthday.
And I was feeling a little bit down on my birthday that year. I was pretty busy. I had lots of things. I even had a meeting that even went up to 9:30 or 10 o'clock. I’m thinking, well, it’s my birthday, maybe I’ll go out. And I’m thinking, where can I go? Because they have these signs out -- Benedict Arnold Devens.
And people were threatening people’s lives. Though I don’t know that I ever had anybody threaten my life. But it was -- you know, there was a lot of tension. So I went out and I went to one of the bars and I walked in and they’re all applauding me and, you know, and I though, well, they’re not all mad at me. But there was a significant bunch.
And then, you know, Frank Iarossi, who I’d said earlier, seemed like a genuinely nice guy. It’s not always popular in Alaska to talk about anybody in Exxon being a nice guy, but I liked Frank. I think he really meant to do the right thing.
But people were always threatening his life. And I remember going on radio and saying, "Hey, I know you’re -- you're trying to help but this is hurting the situation. You’ve got to quit making these damned threats."
And then, I use to think it was Stephen McAlpine that called me. But I guess, in looking at my notes, it was Jay Kertulla who was our senator at the time – called me and said, "John, who’s trying to kill the Exxon people."
"And I said, "Well, Jay, I don’t know that anybody is."
He said, "Well, they found a bomb under the stairs where their officers are."
I said, "I hadn’t heard this." So I said, "Let me run it to ground I’ll see what it is." Well, they had found a couple of cans of gasoline that was under the stairs -- which is terribly dangerous, I mean shouldn't be. But when we finally ran it to ground, all it was was some well-meaning Exxon employee noticed that he was going to park the pick-up for the night and there was a couple of cans of gas in the back of it and he decided somebody that was going to steal it, so he took it in the building and stuck it under the stairs.
Next morning somebody comes down and says, it’s a bomb. They’re going to blow us up. But I think a lot of those stories -- you know, we’re not basically a very violent bunch. I remember, we had -- we had an RCAC board meeting.
And this would have been one of the anniversaries of the -- of the oil spill -- probably the fifteenth. And -- but our board meeting in fact was set up to coincide with as close to March 24 as we can do it. And for some reason – and we often have the industry, all the oil industries represent -- all the oil industries represented. They come keep their eye on us. But that time, there was a reason we were meeting up where Josephine’s is -- is in the Sheraton.
And we were in there and for some reason Exxon needed to be there. And one of my board members is Marilyn Heddle from Whittier. And Marilyn and Pete were both in the state troopers. Pete was very high up and Marilyn I think ran the state crime lab or something.
So they had a lot of in-- inside information. And Marilyn nudged me and said, "John, you see those two guys standing over there."
And I said "Yeah, who are they?"
And she says, "Those are the security people guarding the Exxon people because Exxon is a little worried about being here."
We’re pretty non-violent but there -- there was a lot of paranoia, and that was at least fifteen years after.
SHARON BUSHELL: Wow. That’s some -- some pretty amazing stuff. So, despite all of the earlier antagonisms, you -- you -- you stayed on. You were never tempted to leave Valdez? This is your home?
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Oh, no. I actually did. After the spill, I was still President of the college, I took a -- a sabbatical and I ran for Congress, I ran against Don Young. And I came within a couple of percentage points of beating Don. And, you know I had no money. I mean, it was all on a shoestring.
My -- my daughter, who was a teenager at the time, and Mike Pelican who was the guy who worked for me at the college, he -- he resigned to come and work on my campaign. He had the -- our only computer. And Janice was out hustling what little money we had.
And to come within 2% of taking Young out was pretty good.
SHARON BUSHELL: I should say so.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: So I went back and I continued to live in Valdez for another year. Stayed at the college. And then I resigned or retired and said, nope, I’m going to go beat him this time. And I went back out and I was way ahead of Don right up to the final week. I mean like 22, 23 percentage ahead of Don.
Last minute – of course that was the year that Clinton ran, and Alaska got very worried about Clinton and you had all these guys who had never voted before. You know, when you do a poll, you’re looking at likely voters. And in this case, we had a whole bunch of unlikely voters that turned up that were worried about Clinton shutting the oil industry down. And so it skewed it the other way and I lost by 2% again.
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, maybe your time is coming up John.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I don’t think so, I think I’ve about done enough of that. I think Don, and I think Ted, are possibly vulnerable. But I don’t think they’re going to get beat. I don’t think the State of Alaska cares if you do things that aren’t entirely ethical, as long as you bring the bacon home to Alaska. And --
SHARON BUSHELL: Boy, what happened to the days of when you couldn’t even have the -- you couldn't even have things look improper.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I agree. I don't -- I -- I just -- you -- you know, the two times I ran against Don -- there was some real interesting stuff out there. And you know, again, I did better than anybody who’s ever gone against him. But it’s very difficult cause there are people -- there are people that are going to vote straight party line no matter what. And then others that say, well, you know, maybe he’s not doing everything right, but he got us this, or he got us that. He got us a bridge.
And you know, and today I get along pretty well with Young. I go back to DC. There are some that think, oh God, he’s going to hate me, but he doesn’t at all.
He always welcomes me in his office and we share war stories. And if I ever end up at an event that Don’s at, he invites me to come over and sit with him. And then if he gets a chance, he tells everybody that he beat me.
But -- but you know, there’s not a lot of hard feelings there. But I look at, you know, there’s going to be some people that are going to be running against Don this time. But it’s, you know, unless he and / or Ted get indicted, I don’t think anybody’s going to beat them. I just don’t -- don't see it.
And I don’t know, if Ted gets indicted, he might still win.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh -- heaven forbid.
JOHN DEVENS SR.: Well, Remember, Mark Begich’s dad, Nick Begich. Nick Begich won the election against Don Young.
Nick was the incumbent, Don was running against him. Nick won that election after everybody was darn sure he was dead. Now, he and Voltz, the congressman from Texas, were up here flying around.
Their plane went down, we think probably out in the Gulf of Alaska. Days after they’d lost them, the election was held, and Nick still won. So it’s hard to get rid of the incumbents.
So, it ought to be interesting to see what Mark Begich does.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah, it surely will.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: If Mark goes, he’ll go against Ted and he won’t do that unless he's he thinks he's gonna win. Mark’s a pretty good politician.
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, so, in closing are there any sentiments or thoughts that you would like to express?
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I think, you know, there were a lot of good things that came out of the spill. And certainly a lot of bad things. And we suffered through those.
But if we look at what we have today, we have the finest system in the world in Prince William Sound. And without the oil spill, we wouldn’t have that.
It’s unfortunate that it takes a disaster for any real change to happen. I go all over the world now, the state department sends me to other countries to talk to them and they would all like to have what we have. But unless they have a disaster, a real disaster, our governments don’t move on improving things.
Industry doesn’t move on improving things unless you’ve had a spill. But today we have more equipment, we have more training, we have better programss. Everything is in place.
And -- so we’ve made an enormous amount of progress.
Our job, with RCAC, is to continue to demand more and better. And -- and we do that. I know that a person with the shipping industry once said," You know, RCAC isn’t hostile, but boy are they demanding."
And we’re not hostile. You know -- we get along reasonably well, but recognize that there are just going to be issues that we disagree on. We have, we all have the same goal.
Our priorities differ. But the goal is the same. Nobody wants to spill oil. And -- we’re just not willing to take as many chances as some of industry is willing to take.
But -- but things are better today. We have better eyes keeping an eye on what’s going. Better equipment. Everything’s has greatly improved.
I don’t think today you could have another accident just like the Exxon Valdez. I don’t think that -- I don't think that could happen today because we have two tugs. One of them is tethered to the tanker. You’ve got all those extra sets of eyes. You got the Coast Guard with much better radar than they had back then.
But there are other accidents than can happen. Certainly there are accidents on the pipeline. The pipeline is ready to have something.
You’ve got ice that comes off the Columbia Glacier that is a real problem. And then you’ve got Seal Rock area and out there, and then -- a ship loses power in a storm, we know there is a gap problem. The gap problem is, from the time that they let a tanker sail – or the weather conditions when they will allow a tanker to sail, are more severe than we know we can make a save in or respond to a spill.
And, so that’s something we’re still concerned about.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay, well I'll turn this off and --.
Okay good. We are recording. It's the 9th --
JOHN DEVENS SR.: Today is the 8th.
SHARON BUSHELL: Today is the 8th of October and I'm in Valdez once again with John Devens, Sr. And I just wanted to add just a few things back and onto the record about the story that I missed the first time around. So -- no one has told me -- I know that there was a dense air traffic at the time but I had never quite heard the precise figures and I read them and they were startling so tell me please about that.
JOHN DEVENS SR.: Well it was very frightening the first -- the first couple of days. I mean the first day of course we were just innundated with so many just problems that we'd never thought about before. But it was brough to my attention early on that we had like maybe as much as 700 takeoffs and landings and people coming -- the press and all kinds of observers coming and flying light aircraft over the site. So I got ahold of the FAA and Valdez airport has a flight tower but it had been deactivated years before. And I called the FAA and said "We've gotta get it activated we're gonna have to have some flight control here or we're gonna -- we're gonna kill somebody." And they did. And fortunately we didn't have any accidents. But it was - was a miracle we didn't because there was just so much traffic.
SHARON BUSHELL: It boggles the mind --
JOHN DEVENS SR.: Yeah. SHARON BUSHELL: -- to -- to think of that little airport being able to handle --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, and aircraft, you know, everything from Hercs to single engine Pipers --
SHARON BUSHELL: Uh-huh. JOHN DEVENS, SR.: --they were all coming in and going out and they were trying to bring equipment in by air as well as bringing in by water and by road and it was just a -- a -- it was a circus here for several days. And then you -- you had great amounts of trouble communicating because we only had so many lines coming into Valdez so the phones were totally jammed up.
SHARON BUSHELL: Uh-huh.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: And the air waves were getting jammed up because you had so much radio traffic going on so. Yeah, those -- those few days it is a wonder we didn’t have more personal disasters then -- then we did have.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right. And you said a thing to me that had not been said yet and that was about Exxon’s refusal to pay for mental health care.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Yeah, ah, that was something that was very confusing to us to begin with. We were trying -- Exxon -- well Frank Iarossi immediately stood up in front of God and everybody and said we will take care of all the expenses. We're gonna stand behind this, nobody's gonna lose anything and I think Frank really meant it.
I think Frank was basically a pretty good guy. But when his bean counters came in, it was a different story.
And I could ask for additional garbage men and, you know, refuge collection, they understood that and they would do that. But if we asked for any kind of mental health experts -- more counseling. If we indicated that we had -- there was a drug problem, because there was a drug problem, and there was an alcohol problem and there was a lot of family abuse problems and there were a lot of crime rate went -- went up during that period of time.
SHARON BUSHELL: The divorce rate.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: The divorce rate. We had lots of people that broke up that went out and they’d spend weeks out in the Sound and suddenly relationships would fall apart and they would just cease to exist because it was the stress as well as just the temptation of being out there on a boat with somebody strange.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: We had an awful lot of that going on.
SHARON BUSHELL: And then that would trickle down to the children.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: The children -- I -- I hate to think of the problems that probably occurred with the children because you had families where maybe both the husband and wife worked and maybe they were in lower paid jobs.
Suddenly they had an opportunity to go out on the Sound, stay out there for weeks at a time at $17 an hour plus time and a half for overtime and you couldn’t spend money out there because all of your --
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: --your accommodations were taken care of. So I often wondered well what happened to those kids. Were they dumped on grandparents or neighbors or what happened to the -- the children that belonged to the working couples or in some cases maybe the -- the wife stayed in Valdez and the husband went out, but then all of a sudden she was faced with doing everything and taking care of the kids on her own.
SHARON BUSHELL: That in itself is problematic.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Yeah. And it wasn’t always that way. Sometimes it was the wife that went out and worked out there and the husband stayed here because may he had a little bit better job, but then you still had those children that at least during the day when the husband was working they were kind of on their own.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: So, I know I’ve made mention of it before I mean the number of automobiles that were stolen in Valdez in September was remarkable considering that the first crossroads where you can actually go any place is 115 miles up the road.
Automobile theft has not been a real big problem in this area, but it was that -- that fall. And then, of course, you had the -- the problems of so many of our boat owners not necessarily fishermen but anybody that had anything that floated.
If they played it right they could get it on the spill and get money and a lot of those people lost their sense -- I mean they -- they were buying bigger and more expensive boats. It was like oh, I’ve got a whole new livelihood. This is a new profession for me.
I’m going to be Prince William Sound cleanup crew. And I would go on the radio and I’d even sometimes I would be on television saying people this is over. Come September they're going home and you’re not going to have this anymore. Don’t invest all of your money into these big boats because next year -- and everybody thought they would come back the next year, but those of us who were kind of on the inside we knew and in fact there was a memo that was leaked to us that was from some of the Exxon officials who were saying to -- to their foremen that no, this is it.
We -- we will close down in September and October and that’s it. We are all going -- going home.
SHARON BUSHELL: Now one other issue that I would like you to speak to. I've -- I’m trying to run down a -- a woman who currently works at the hospital and was working at the hospital back then and she was -- she was telling Donna this story that they -- the hospital’s census went from two beds to a hundred beds in the matter -- in a space of just a very short period of time.
And yet the common perception is that there weren’t any -- there was no illness from the -- the oil spill. So, I figured as a mayor you would have some insight into what was happening with -- with the hospital and that -- that part of the whole civic readjustment.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, Exxon likes to say and VECO would like to say that there were no deaths associated with the spill. That’s not entirely true.
There were some deaths that did occur, but there were a lot of injuries and there was a lot of sickness from exposure to the chemicals, both the fumes from the oil as well as some of the dispersants and the -- what was -- I’m just trying to think of the name -- Interpol.
SHARON BUSHELL: Interpol.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Interpol. There were lot -- there was a lot of sickness from that. There was a lot of injuries. We weren’t very smart or we weren’t very knowledgeable. I guess we were just as smart as we are today, but we weren’t very knowledgeable back then.
And I remember -- I talked to some of the -- the workers when they back after the first go around out there which was weeks long they were out and they were pulling nets -- or booming material. In fact, I had a picture a reporter gave me of my son John who was a foreman out there and he was covered in oil.
He was waist deep in the oil and he was pulling a boom and I have often wondered, you know, will someday we'll see some -- some problems come along from his exposure to the oil, but we have a lot of people that -- the foreman out there would say to them this is just oil. It is nothing going to hurt you.
SHARON BUSHELL: Uh-huh.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well today we know, yeah, it can hurt you. The -- the first people on -- at the site of the-- of the -- well the -- where they were taking the oil off from the Exxon Valdez.
There was this huge, huge lake of oil out there with fumes and the early people I mean they had respiratory problems, their eyes were bothering them, they were getting rashes. Today, you know, you wouldn’t let anybody in that area unless they had respirators on and they had protective equipment.
But back in ’89 we didn’t -- nobody realized the -- the harm that could come from exposure to all of the chemicals they were exposed to and then, of course, we had the -- the additional problem of literally thousands of people that had come to Valdez. I mean we went from about 4,000 people to some place between 12 and 15,000 people.
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, right, that was the -- that was the thing that I wanted you to say. I -- I -- I was interviewing Shanna Anderson earlier and I -- I wanted to speak with her primarily about her work with the incineration of the animals.
However, she did mention that in her other duties she -- she was around town taking, you know, care -- addressing parking issues and also the -- the camping thing and she said a kind of startling thing that there were -- in her words she said that every -- every square inch of Valdez was populated by someone and that it stretched for miles.
I mean -- I don’t know if she said six or eight miles out the road where people were camping.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Oh, yes, it was -- the -- people were camping every place you could find any square footage and if you happened to be one who was lucky enough to have have a motor home or a camper and you got that thing parked some place you didn’t move it. So that meant that you dumped your tanks right there.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: And we had open sewerage around town that it is a wonder we didn’t have major outbreaks of diseases. I mean we had some cases.
The hospital picked up on some very communicable diseases, but either we were just lucky as the dickens or we handled it well, but we didn’t have any major outbreaks, but there were people that were -- were sick.
You could -- well, nobody ever locked their cars until that summer and then we would -- you’d have to lock your car or you’d get up in the morning and go out to go to work you may have two or three people sleeping in your car.
If they could get a hold of pieces of Visqueen they would make tents and you might have people sleeping in your yard or under your porch if you happened to have a porch.
I mean any place that they could go. It was -- it -- the impact that Valdez had was more of a people impact. We never really saw much oil here. A little bit came back in on some of the boats when they came in, but mainly our impact was people and -- and trying to work with them and then the agencies that -- everybody was coming here to help us, but, you know, the old story I’m from the government, I’m here to help and then they broke laws and ignored our zoning ordinances and it was a nightmare just keeping things in order.
Finding office space for people because there just weren’t places for everybody. You know, and I think I’ve told you before I mean how they literally took over the college and willingly I gave it to them until finally we had some people from the university’s administration come down and our property management people and they were here for a few days trying to get something done with Exxon because they were using -- they were using the college. Well, we lost all our students.
The students all went -- went out to work on the spill. So what we had was an empty college so we turned the college over to them for animal rehab and then they could use our computers because we had a lot of good computers at the college and they might as well be using them, but the deal that I had made -- verbal deal was that yeah, you’re gonna have to pay for this and you're gonna have to put everything back right when it’s done.
Not that we were trying to make money from them, but we didn’t want to lose money on it either. Well after people from our lands management group came down and they got totally disgusted and borrowed a car and drove back to Anchorage. That’s when I wrote a letter and I -- to Exxon and it said I am holding you in criminal trespass if you don’t sign a contract here in the next two days and -- and they did.
SHARON BUSHELL: And that was at what point in -- that was --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: That would have been several weeks into it maybe -- maybe even a month.
SHARON BUSHELL: Uh-huh.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Because at first -- at first everything was so -- so disorderly. It was just not possible to get -- get things squared away --
SHARON BUSHELL: It seems -- JOHN DEVENS, SR.: The paperwork just -- just wasn’t flowing until --
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Until we started to get our feet on the ground.
SHARON BUSHELL: It seems to me having talked to quite a few more people since the last time we spoke.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: This is John. Yeah, Greg, let me call you back. I am being interviewed. Okay, thanks.
SHARON BUSHELL: That the most have been times especially in the earlier days when this really felt -- I’m going to close that door --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: --that it felt -- JOHN DEVENS, SR.: It’s distracting me.
SHARON BUSHELL: --that it felt impossible to handle. That it was -- it was just too big to -- to -- to take control of.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, it was. I think we made a lot of good decisions. Some of it was because we called other places that had similar emergencies and got some good advice. We had a lot of people that were helping us in those days, but it was overwhelming.
I mean I couldn’t do it today. I require more sleep than I required then. But just all of the -- the assortment of things. You have thousands of people descending on your city. You have all these aircraft that are flying around. You have the problems of public health. You have the mental health problems.
You have the contracts and at the time everybody said, you know, well you're gonna want to sue them so you gotta keep all of these records and then throughout all of that you’ve got congressional hearings and I was flying back to Washington, DC to testify.
You know, so it took us a good four or five weeks before we really got our feet on the ground and -- and got things stabilized a bit. And, of course, it helped a little bit when they started moving people out of town and out to the islands where they were working so it took a little of the pressure off, but also took all of our support services out.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: We didn’t have anybody to work the restaurants or the hotels and --
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: And like I say, I didn’t have any students.
SHARON BUSHELL: So just a final word here and back to the issue of mental health and Exxon’s refusal to pay for that and you -- I don’t think we got this on tape about your -- your thought about that was that Exxon did not want to set itself up for the liability of -- I guess I need you to articulate that?
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I think probably Exxon’s legal counsel and I have to say probably because we never got an explanation, but I know that they were very generous about a lot of things. If we said we needed more police officers, more refuge collectors, those we were never denied.
But any time we asked for anything about -- that had to do with mental health, we couldn’t get that and as I talked to other mayors, they had similar kinds of problems.
And our conclusion was that probably the attorneys have -- have said, you know, you don’t want to admit that this event was causing mental illness. You don’t want to admit that people started to drink alcohol more or started using drugs or became abusive in their homes and that was the only thing we could think of because it was very, very obvious to us that they were not going to fund any kind of mental health.
SHARON BUSHELL: My own thought about that is that that’s a Pandora’s Box.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Yeah. Well, I think it is a Pandora’s Box and I supposed that’s why their attorneys are saying, you know, it is one thing if somebody comes in with a broken leg. That’s pretty objective.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right. JOHN DEVENS, SR.: You can measure that and you can fix it. But if somebody says, oh, you know, I was a teetotaling sober guy and your damned oil spill drove me to alcoholism and now I’m an alcoholic for the rest of my life.
SHARON BUSHELL: Now I’m just a loser.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: How do you pay for that?
SHARON BUSHELL: Right and -- and then that sets a precedent for all these other people in the same boat.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, it -- and, you know, there were a lot of things like that. Like, you remember all of the controversy following the spill in terms of what’s an otter worth? What’s a bird worth?
What is the loss of the use or the loss of the appreciation for the -- the animals or the -- the beaches that were ruined? And so there’s an awful lot of legal implication which here 18 years later we’re still -- still fighting over it.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: And, of course, there’s a lot of lawsuits or pending lawsuits with regard to health problems that were caused and I don’t know anybody that is talking about mental health problems, but we know that there are a lot of people that have physical problems, but it is so hard to prove it because --
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: There are so many other things that could cause it.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yes.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: You know, it is just very hard to --
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Now you say well geez I've got this terrible lung condition and it started when I was breathing your damn fumes and, but yeah I’m a smoker and --
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: I -- I worked on a boat and yeah, there were fumes there too and, you know, it is just getting it down. I know Riki Ott has -- has tried to promote this and at one point it looked like there was a law firm that was ready to take it on as a class action, but --
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: But it is real hard -- real hard to prove it.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah, especially when you’re -- when you’re wealthy enough to hire the finest --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, that’s right.
SHARON BUSHELL: Attorneys in the world.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, it was always interesting as mayor here. Before the spill I had to deal with the three majors. At that time it was Exxon, Arco, and British Petroleum and it was interesting that when we would get into arguments over tax because Valdez always said you’re undervaluing the oil property because Valdez tax didn’t -- a huge percentage of our tax base, I mean by far the lion’s share of our tax base came from the oil property.
Well, the oil industry would negotiate with the state. Now you or I if we have property that is going to be taxed by the municipality or the state, we don’t really get to go in and negotiate it, but if you’re a big oil company, you get to negotiate it.
Well, they would negotiate it and then we would always go in and it was Bill Walker, who was our city attorney, and I would go and we would argue our side of the case, but it was always Exxon’s attorneys.
Exxon’s attorneys top drawer, very well paid and very, very difficult to deal with, but it was always Exxon. Arco, they were the nice guys. BP, they tried to be the nice guys and Exxon I don’t think ever gave a damn and they still don’t.
SHARON BUSHELL: Man, great.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: They just don’t, you know, public relations is not a big issue for the Exxon Corporation. It never has been.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: And they handled it -- in ’89 I couldn’t imagine a company handling public relations worse than Exxon did. Everything they did seemed to be wrong.
And, in fact, I understand there are classes today being taught in universities of how not to handle public relations in the event of a disaster.
SHARON BUSHELL: With Exxon as their model.
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: They use Exxon as the example, yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay, well, is there anything else that you remember from the interview that you wish you had said, um --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: No, now I’m having trouble remembering what I did say in the interview.
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, suffice it to say that once we get it transcribed and send it to you, that you, you know, you can add on or we’ll -- we'll figure out a way to --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Seems to me that the interesting thing in terms of my role was just the -- the confusion and going from one day having a community of 4,000 or less people to within a day being up to 12 to 15,000 people.
And trying to keep order and keep everybody functioning and then, you know, and I’ve always complained and I think that’s where the Oiled Mayors came from and where RCAC came from was the citizens couldn’t get into the decision making or information loop.
It's like somebody coming in your home and spilling some nasty substance on your carpet and telling you to get out of your house they’ll take care of it and tell you when you can come back.
And that was pretty much the way we felt. We didn’t feel that we were listened to and that’s what forced us into forming the Oiled Mayors group and then different people have different stories in terms of how RCAC was formed, but essentially it came out of that kind of -- we want the people that live in an area want to have some sense of control over their lives.
And if you got -- and if you’re the one that is going to lose the most from something like an oil spill then you certainly want to have the ability to make decisions and to oversee what’s going on and we didn’t feel that we had that.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yes. Okay. Well, great. I -- my --
JOHN DEVENS, SR.: Well, I’m excited to see --