John Devens, Jr. was interviewed on August 15, 2007 by Sharon Bushell in Copper Center, 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) After the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, John worked as an oil spill cleanup “scrounger” for VECO. In this interview, he talks about his experiences performing that job. He also talks about the lack of resources available for cleanup activities, his perception of the effectiveness of the cleanup process, and why he chose to eventually leave the cleanup efforts.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Aug 15, 2007
Narrator(s): John Devens, Jr.
Interviewer(s): Sharon Bushell
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Signing up to work on the cleanup of the oil spill
The ineffectiveness of the early cleanup efforts
Getting promoted to foreman
Job duties as foreman
Illegal disposal of oil boom
Getting another promotion
Cleaning un-oiled beaches
Quitting the job
Other people who worked on the oil spill cleanup
Exxon and the ethics of the oil spill cleanup
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SHARON BUSHELL: This is the 15th of August. I am in Copper Center with John Devens, Junior. John, I know nothing except for the few little things that you have just now told me about your involvement with the oil spill, so if you could tell me your story, I am here to hear it.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well, the oil spill hit. And --
SHARON BUSHELL: You were living where?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: I was living in Valdez. Commercial fishing the year before and had been out of work all winter, so the oil spill hit just right before long-line season was suppose to kick off.
It sounded like a really good job, so we all showed up at the courthouse for -- to sign up two, like two days later. And I think fishermen were out there laying boom before that, but they hadn’t sent a crew out yet.
And, um, So they came, they signed up, oh -- a little over 100 of us on that first group.
SHARON BUSHELL: And -- that -- you’re talking about VECO?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Yeah, for VECO.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And of course then, because of the situation, you know, he cracked up on the rocks because, you know, he’d been drinking kind of thing, we all got UA'd.
Well, in Valdez in the winter time you can pretty much count on anybody who hasn’t been working for Alyeska or the City isn’t gonna pass a UA. So we were all kind of a little bit worried about that.
The first few days we just sat on a bus. And then you know a bunch of reporters started getting pictures of us just sitting on a bus all day, so then they decided, well, they’ll get us out on a boat. So we went out on the Glacier Queen. But then we just rowed around for a few days.
SHARON BUSHELL: And what's the reason for that?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: We didn’t have anything to work with.
SHARON BUSHELL: I see.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: There was nothing we could do. Other than --
SHARON BUSHELL: There was no response equipment.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: There was nothing for us to work with. And so -- but they had to get us away from the reporters in town. And they were very adamant about it. If any of us talked to a reporter we were finished that moment.
Those were clear and explicit orders. If we talked to a reporter we were finished for VECO. So, then they got us out on the Glacier Queen which kind of curtailed that because none of the reporters were really making it out there.
And so we just cruised around for a few days. And then, but then -- they started getting -- the reporters especially started getting out on helicopters and charter boats and started getting pictures of us doing a bunch more of nothing.
So the best that they could come up with was they came up with a bunch of oil absorbent material rags and they put us off on Naked Island. And we started wiping off rocks and bagging up all this stuff. It was, you know, incredibly ineffective.
We weren’t really getting anything done. We were just killin' -- killin' our days. But it was almost $17 an hour, so however they want me to kill days and $17 an hour, in the ‘80s, that was just fine.
But, but, you know, we weren’t really getting anything done. You know, we were just sitting on the beach cleaning, just wiping rocks off with these glorified paper towels basically.
SHARON BUSHELL: And then the tide would come back in.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And then the tide would come back in. We tried other experiments. They took a crew of us, I was on that crew -- they took a crew of us over and we had -- the idea was -- cause the oil had gotten whipped up into this mousse and it looked just like chocolate pudding, about two or three foot thick, you know, it was rolling up on the beaches like that.
So somebody had the idea we would, we dug several ditches about 100 or so foot long. And the idea was, the waves would come up, fill these up with that stuff, we would scoop it into these oil containment bags and get it all cleaned up and clean up a lot more oil that way.
Well, that didn’t work. Every wave brought in ten times more than we had cleaned up in the last two hours. You know, so that got pretty frustrating. So we quit that. We did that like one day.
And then we quit that. And then did a bunch more riding around and just rock polishing, you know, kind of thing. But the weather out there in the Sound in the spring can be you know, pretty hit and miss.
And it got nasty out there a few times. Once the task force really started getting built up -- and every night we were going back into Valdez. But then they got some cruise ships in that we could stay on. And that was pretty good duty.
I mean, you know, those were pretty plush accommodations. You know, these are these tour ships out of California. And so, once we started staying out there, then you know, they started making a lot more of a show out of it.
But we were staying out there and then just going out to the job sites and polishing rocks just from those cruise ships until the very first landing craft came on and it had a Duetz pump to the -- bolted to the front of it. And we’d pull up on a beach and we did the first test with the hoses.
SHARON BUSHELL: The hot water hoses?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: No, at that time we weren’t using hot water then. It was just straight seawater. We were pumping out of the ocean up into these Duetz and shooting it through these manifolds that everybody got a hose and you just stirred the sand up on the beach.
SHARON BUSHELL: Just -- for -- out of curiosity, how -- how -- how do I spell Duetz? Is that --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Deutz? It’s D-u-e-t-z.
SHARON BUSHELL: That's what I was thinking.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: It's a brand name.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay, good.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: It’s a two-cycle water pump. They run generators, stuff like that.
You know, whatever you hook to them. And um, and so the first crew, and we did that for a couple of days. And you know, it looked like, well, you know, at least it was making a big show. I mean that whole project was simply evaluated on how bad a spanking Exxon took.
We really never cleaned up very much out there. French skimmers didn’t work.
The French steamers didn’t really work. When we hit it with hot water we were basically doing as much or more damage than the oil ever did because we cooked everything that was still left alive on the beach.
And washed it out into the -- into the tide. And, you know, so, yeah, we really -- but as long as it was a big show.
You know, I mean as long as the helicopters could go by and there was all kinds of activity and stuff goin' on, most people didn’t know whether it was effective or not. You know, and so --
SHARON BUSHELL: And Exxon could --
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: --as long as we were way busy.
SHARON BUSHELL: Exxon could claim they were doing this big cleanup.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well, yeah. That whole thing turned into, just, you know, it was evaluated on the amount of dollars and man-hours that were spent, not on the actual results of the, of the -- of the cleanup.
Because I don’t think we cleaned up very much at all. And then towards the end, we were just, you know, we were just making more of a show. That’s what we always called it. Especially once I got up towards foreman, it was just the show.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: And you made, you made crews just walk back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth. Because when they’re getting surveyed from a boat on the beach, nobody really knows what they’re doing.
They’re just active. Not a big crew just standing around doing nothing, you know --
SHARON BUSHELL: So at a certain point you became promoted to foreman.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Yeah. Well you know, it became obvious that we didn’t want to be regular beach workers because that was going to fairly tedious, grueling work. And I had a knowledge of the Sound. I grew up down there. You know, and my dad was a licensed skipper.
And ran a charter boat. So, you know, the Sound was something I really knew. So I kind of weaseled worked my way into a position where I was -- I had a lot of freedom. I didn’t have to work -- I got a skiff because I knew how to run a skiff. And most of them that hit out there really didn’t.
And so with that skiff then I could zip around between all these other landing crafts and I just kind of filled my own role in keeping everybody working. You know, there was never enough stuff. Especially in the beginning. There was never enough rain gear, gloves, rubber boots.
People were working without protection. And it was just drizzling and cold and horrible. And so I was, what they called a scrounger. I had a skiff and I would go, and when people had extra stuff if they didn’t want to trade, when they weren’t looking, I just took it to where it was needed.
Some of the boats would get stranded, you know, because they were trying to pull up on the beach. And if they got stuck and had a bunch of equipment there, and they weren’t gonna get out for a few days, then I’d take the skiff and tools by and I’d strip the, I'd strip the whole ship. Everything that wasn’t welded to the deck.
The pumps, the fittings, the hoses. Everything.
SHARON BUSHELL: And that's --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And take it over to another boat and get it going. And supply them. Tools were in real short supply.
And um, so when I got tagged for foremanship, it was, it was based on actually one particular day. Some of the, somebody from Houston, the powers that be, flew over the task force and was fairly unimpressed. Because those big landing crafts, they were paying $100 a foot, you know, and some of them were 100 and something feet, a day, you know.
And so they were making, you know six, eight, ten thousand dollars a day. And they’re just sitting at anchor all week. So he flew over and he said, any ship that wasn’t working by, I don’t know, he gave whatever time it was, it was like next week, their contract’s cancelled. So then everything hit high gear and everybody is just screaming for stuff.
But there just wasn’t enough stuff, and the stuff that there was, there was very heavily guarded on the barge. And I was constantly sneaking on and, and, and pilfering rubber boots and raincoats and, and gloves for the crew and stuff like that. And, um -- to the point where the bargeman said, if I see you pull up empty again I’m cutting you loose Devens.
But this one particular day, to get one boat working that a friend of mine from up the road was,was a, he was foreman of. I hadn’t even made foreman yet. I was still just running around doing my thing.
And he needed a banding gun to put hoses together. And with it, cause we construct our own hoses right there and they ran out onto the beach and then they could get to workin and stuff. But there was only three banding guns for the whole entire task force.
And there’s 100 ships out there. You know, bow pickers and everything else. But yeah, there’s only three banding guns in the whole place and they were jealously guarded by everybody. Well I found out who had one.
But I didn’t have anything he wanted to trade. What he really wanted was a bunch of pipe wrenches. Cause those were in really short supply.
And you can’t, you know, tighten up all the fittings and stuff on those Duetz pumps without a bunch of that kind of stuff. I actually knew where to get some of those. But he wasn’t interested in the least in a banding gun. What he really needed was gasoline. Cause almost everything out there ran on diesel. So there was a lot of diesel out there.
But all the skiffs and those Duetz pumps ran off of gasoline primarily, and there was never enough gas. Especially for the skiffs.
And so I had to do a little rigamarolling and I went over to the barge. And went up and -- the VECO barge had just been vacated by Price, or no, Norcon. Had just been vacated by Norcon. There was a big fight. Norcon was the, was the uh, union side of the task force out there and VECO was the non-union. And so there was a lot of friction and stuff going.
So I went out and talked to Bob and told him I really need to you know, get this squared away, how can I possibly do it? And he says, I don’t know. You know, Norcon when they took off of this barge, they took all that crap with them.
And stuff, and I thought, well, if it’s over on Norcon, how do I get up on the Norcon barge.
He had no idea, but he did say, the only thing I can help you out with, he says, here in their break room, which was a Conex, they had left a bunch of those patches. Norcon patches that go on your hard hat. So I took one of those patches and I peeled it off and I put it over my VECO patch.
Got back on the bow picker, went over to the Norcon barge. And just, mostly nobody out there knew who had authority at all. If you acted like you had what they called “the stroke”, then, they acted like you had, you had “the stroke”.
So I just walked up, had a lot of papers in my hands. I don’t even think they were anything. I think it was mail from home actually. And I pointed at the two drums of gas there, and they loaded it for me with their own crane.
And I got that on board, took that over and I traded that for the Knack box that had, a big Knack box, that had all these pipe wrenches in it.
So I took those pipe wrenches and I took a few out cause there was a lot of pipe wrenches in there and Donny didn’t need all of them. So I took a few of those out cause I was trade those later.
Took that Knack box over and traded it to Donny, still a buddy of mine down in Valdez, for the banding gun --
SHARON BUSHELL: Spell -- spell knack.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: K-n-a-c-k.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay. Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: It's a brand name. And um, and so then I took the banding gun over to Dan Sailors on the Skelak and gave it to him. When I got to him, he said -- well, they called me JD out there cause there was like six Johns.
And he says, I don’t know what you did, I don’t want to know what you did, but you’re bleeding like all over the radio. He said, go find a nice quiet cove and take the rest of the day off. The next day they called me up and they said, wow, you got a boat running in one afternoon. That’s pretty amazing. And so they made me foreman.
And um, and then after that, it, it did, it got even more interesting. But --
SHARON BUSHELL: So, um once you got to be foreman, what -- I mean, I know, you would probably, just tell me quickly what types of legitimate activities you were in charge of.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well, at first as foreman, I eventually made general foreman. But it was, on task force 1, what they were doing was they were developing one crew that just laid boom for everybody.
Up until -- up until right when I made it there to that point, all the boats were doing their own booming. You know, and they’d boom off an area, and then they’d shoot the beach, try and collect the oil, bring a French skimmer in, try to skim it off.
You know, they ended up with 500 gallons of seawater and that was basically it. And um, so they were gonna have, and, and so it was gonna be more controlled. And then you’d have skiff people that would open and close these boom gates, you know, for traffic back and forth and we’d get more beach done.
Or that was the -- the plan anyway. So they were forming up a boom crew. And it turned out to be the largest crew on, on task force 1 and we set boom for all the, the entire task force.
And then when we broke down from a work site, then we had to collect all that boom, load it and move it over to the next work site. Nobody could really get working until we had boomed off the beach that we, we got working on.
SHARON BUSHELL: One quick question. What, do you remember approximately what time it was that you made foreman?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Oh, it was after the bad weather. The seals had just, or the sea lions had just started hauling up and it was after we were on Seal Island.
SHARON BUSHELL: So maybe like --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Cause I almost quit, you know, because I thought -- I saw a lot of people that were making foreman ahead of me and it was kind of bugging me.
You know, because some of these people I had trained, you know once they got out there.
SHARON BUSHELL: So if it was just after the bad weather, then we’re talking like a week into the spill?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Oh, no, no. More like a month --
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay, Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: -- at least.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay. Well that gives me a timeline. Okay.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: Yeah, at least that. And um, you know, like I said, I’d been running around for a couple of tours. I skipped an R&R. I didn’t want to go out on an R&R because I didn’t want to take another UA.
You know, we were all worried about that. In fact, at one point they called us up and we were digging those ditches and working real hard on the beach like that, they called us up.
And I – I don’t want to go into that. I thought I was fired that day but I wasn’t. I was just being sent back to the boat because they figured I could work without being supervised.
But I thought my UA had come in and I was canned.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. I know --
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: Actually they didn’t can anybody because of their UAs.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. Okay.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: They couldn’t because they would only had out of that first 127 that we sent out, they’d had, well, 97% failed their UAs --
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay, well that's good to know.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: -- on that. And --
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay. Alright so -- okay so now you’ve roughly described what your job description was. So what else did you do?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Pretty much whatever we were told. You know, you get kind of caught up in it and if they like you, if they like you, you can write your own ticket and you can do whatever, you could do whatever you wanted to.
I mean, there was no curfew for me.
You know, there was security on the ships, but, you know, once I kind of got in, in with those guys and they liked me, they liked my work, I could get things done if they just gave me enough rope.
SHARON BUSHELL: Sounds like you --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: You know, kind of thing. It was a chaotic situation. You know. And it was no place -- you know -- the task force out there was no place to play by the rules. If you played by the rules you got nothing done. You just sat around doing nothing.
You know, you had to -- you had to really scramble and they liked that. You know, they liked that about me.
And um -- you know, so, and it is, it’s kind of cool, you know. Now I look back on it with a little bit regret, but, you know it was, you get caught up in it. You know, you do a better job -- you know, you, their kind of job. And um --
SHARON BUSHELL: And hey, you were 18 years younger.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well yeah -- yeah, I was only like 21 or something like that.
But, you know, and all of a sudden I’ve got a 120-man crew. And, you know, I’d never been in a position like that before. And then of course, you know, the regular beachcombers, you know, they were herded like cattle, you know, I mean from one boat into the next boat and onto the beach and strung out, you know.
And I didn’t want to work like that. You know, I’d grown up in Alaska commercial fishing and you know I wasn’t really much of a factory worker type. So I really didn’t want to end up on the beach. So I did a good job with a bunch of other stuff.
And like I said, it’s like, I don’t know, when you get taken under their wing, then, you know its -- you know it's kind of, um, comfortable. You know, you just, you know you can go in the kitchen and pilfer. Whereas anybody else caught behind there, they’re heading back to the beach um, back to Valdez, you know, kind of thing. You know, security didn’t mess with me.
After I got into it a little while, I came back from R&R and they just randomly singled me out to search bags and Warren, the second highest guy on task force 6 came in and said, oh no, you don’t have to, you don't have to mess with him, his bags.
And she was like, well, I’m halfway through it we might as well finish. And they sent her back the next morning to Valdez. I don’t think she got fired. She just got re-assigned though.
But, you know, stuff like that.
SHARON BUSHELL: The second high --
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: -- I got my own room. I didn’t have to bunk with anybody. Um, you know --
SHARON BUSHELL: The second, the second highest guy that intervened. The second highest guy in what?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: In the -- on the task force.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh, okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: There was Big Bob. I don’t remember his last name. But Bob was the head of our task force.
And split off onto the, you know, the other task forces too. And then right under him was Warren. And he was the only man that I answered to.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And -- and I don’t remember Warren’s last name.
SHARON BUSHELL: So there came a point in the summer when, on top of all of these other things that you needed to do, you were asked to do -- to buy some, move around some booze?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Ye -- well, because of the ti -- yeah, that, actually that is true. And it was because the task force ended up --
SHARON BUSHELL: I mean, I don’t think that’s even illegal. I mean, I --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well, it was, it was definitely against the -- suppose to be against the rules out there because of, you know, the whole Hazelwood --
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: -- thing. But actually, you know, if you’re a maritimer, Hazelwood didn’t do anything that isn’t being done every single solitary day. He left a third-mate in charge. And that is perfectly acceptable.
Drinking at dinnertime on a ship is still -- it’s a hundreds and hundreds of year old custom that officers in the Navy I think even still get to do. You know. So I mean, his big mistake was, he didn’t follow the rules and he ran up on a rock. He should have just stayed there.
That’s the number one rule. If you hit a rock, you don’t move. That may be the only thing holding you up.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: You know. Anyway, so yeah, because I had the boom crew, most of the boats were assigned to me.
Or to my crew and stuff. And so, yea, we would, we would go in and just load up in Whittier. We didn’t even go near Valdez for that action. We went into a little quiet place in Whittier. And there’s a little place right down by the harbor - Joe’s.
And um, a Korean guy named Joe owned that. And um...we would go in there and we would load up and then bring it out, put it in these cargo nets. You know, like fishing web for seiners or whatever.
Put a 55lb. hook on it and sink it down. And then about five or six feet from the top, where the buoy is, we would shackle that cargo net so it’s down underneath the water until after work. And then it just looks like anchor buoys.
Cause when we were set up on a -- on a site -- you know the boats would, would just set down a permanent anchor buoy, you know so they didn’t have to pull their anchor every day.
And then they’d just come in and tie off to their buoy at night. And also pull it up about 5 feet and get out what you wanted to drink that night and then throw it back down.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right. And -- for whom -- for -- who was the booze for?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: That was for the, for what we called the white hats. That was for the Exxon guys. Well, and for me. I got to hang with them. When we were far into the oil spill a lot of the girls got to hang with them too.
And we -- we -- we had formed a special detachment for the good-looking girls out there. Because they didn’t want them holding hoses all day and coming in all -- all crapped out from the beach. So we put them on skiffs, opening and closing these gates.
It was real nice easy duty. They got to tan a little bit while they were doing it. And they weren’t too wore out and grubby to go party in the evening. And um -- so, in essence, well the guy that was -- I had a foreman that was in charge of that. But he was basically running the harem.
SHARON BUSHELL: Very good.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: --The girlfriends.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And so -- Yeah, I think, I think we mostly probably partied every night.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure that uh -- It makes total sense to me.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And that’s why, you know, security, when they saw one of us come in, they just looked the other way.
And if they ever said anything, it’s like that one woman that searched my bags, she’d end up on the beach.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. OK, now tell me the story of the illegal disposal of batteries.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well, it wasn’t batteries, it was boom.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh, Boom. Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: It was boom. When we left, oh, I think it was Sleepy Bay. We’d done a 27-hour shift that day. We had to pull in all -- a mile and a half or two miles of boom.
And you couldn’t drag any of it anywhere. You know, you couldn’t just hook on and tow it. I mean this stuff floated pretty good. And we loaded and loaded and loaded. Like I said, I had -- I personally had a 27-hour shift in that shift.
Then I left it to one of my foremans to get the last little bit out and I called it a day and went in. Well, they called me up the next morning and just threw a shit storm.
And um -- there was still some boom left in that bay and we were suppose to be de-mobbed completely and the Coast Guard were on their way. And it was a big huge fat jam.
And it was all my fault basically was how they were looking at it. And so -- we had already, the whole task force was over at this other site. So I took a bow picker with, with another general foreman and two -- uh, an Exxon supervisor and a fisherman that was running the -- the bow picker. There were four of us on that boat.
And we went over there and sure as hell, there was a bunch of boom still. It was all bundled up but it was all still there. And it was just more than we knew what to do with.
And um -- so they said, we have to, we have to get rid of this shit right now. Don’t care what we do. Somebody better come up with something right then and there. And so, we had enough anchors that we strapped anchors to it -- and -- but see, that stuff floats.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: And it was made to float.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: So we had to take our knives and slice it all open. And we just kept piling anchors and hooking anchors and hooking anchors and hooking anchors onto it until we ran out of anchors.
But most of it sank to the bottom.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: And we just kept filling up. And -- but then like I said, we still had a whole crap load of it left. So we were going to have to do something there.
SHARON BUSHELL: How much of it -- how much of it was -- how much was there?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: I don’t know, I mean, we moved 90% of it. You know, we got onboard and stuff like that. Um, you know --
SHARON BUSHELL: But I mean, origin -- just give me an estimate of how much material there was that you dealt with?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: That we dumped?
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: I don’t know. I’m thinking, as -- if memory serves anyway, a dozen bundles.
SHARON BUSHELL: A dozen --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And I don’t know how far a bundle went anymore, but that was, I mean it was hundreds of feet.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay. Each, each one?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: No, each one was maybe -- you know, in the sections that they came in, and then you hooked 'em together, was maybe 100 feet.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: You know, and there --but there was a dozen or fifteen bundles maybe, left --
SHARON BUSHELL: So we’re talking about a hundred, up to a hundred and fifty feet of boom?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: More like 1,000.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Yeah, about 1,000.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh, Okay. Yeah, yeah. Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Um -- of, of that.
And so -- but then we just ran out of anchors and there was still boom to go. And so at this point, the Exxon white hat, um -- he knew had to bail. He already -- he, he, he was so far over the line, you know kind of thing at this point. Shit I knew I was over the line at this point. I knew I shouldn’t have been sinking that crap.
So -- but anyway, then we stuck -- so another boat came up and rescued him and the other general foreman and they left me there to deal with the rest of it.
And so I shackled the rest of the boom to the back of the bow picker that I was on and we headed for the new task force.
We just had to get there without getting seen by the Coast Guard. You know. And that was all. Which didn’t happen.
A C130 flew right over us and we were right out there around the point and we’ve got, I dunno, three strands of maybe 300 foot long, two 300 foot long strung out behind us and we’re towing it. And they did a circle around so we knew they saw us.
So I’m thinking, Okay, well I’m going to jail. You know, at least I won’t spend any money while I’m there. This last check will last me.
And um -- but anyway, I was, you know, at that point, in charge of the boom crew. So -- and we had, we had a couple of these party boats. You know, these bass boats. You know, those platform kind of pontoon boats.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: You know, and we had, I -- I called Alida and I said, look, don’t ask me any questions, I’m in a big huge deep jam here. Course, she owed me a big fat favor anyway or she’d have been back on the beach.
But I told her, I said load up that party boat with all the oil absorbent boom you can get. What we called sausage boom.
I said, get it loaded up with that. And I says, you start heading toward the old task force, or the old work site where the task force was. And um -- I said Just steam away baby. And get over there.
SHARON BUSHELL: So she was a skipper?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: No, she was a -- she was a foreman.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh, okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: She was a foreman and she had a driver for that boat. And so they loaded it up and they headed out. And -- cause I knew the Coast Guard was within moments of swooping down on me.
SHARON BUSHELL: So -- so that was like an alibi with her coming to rendezvous with you?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: What we did was -- yeah. I swooped into a cove. Dumped that oily boom and she started playing out a mile of that sausage boom and I played like that’s what I’d been towing from the other, from the other task force --
SHARON BUSHELL: I see --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: -- when the Coast Guard swooped down on us.
And it’s like, that was the only, that was the only boom that was legal to tow around out there was that oil absorbent boom.
And yeah, so I didn’t get caught for it. I dumped that stuff in up in behind in a cove behind the Skelak. Boomed that off.
Hooked in all that that Alida had brought out to me and I just started towing that around like I’d been doing it all day long.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay. Um --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And I got another promotion.
SHARON BUSHELL: So, Okay, then you got, okay, then you got promoted to general foreman.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: -- to general forman. That was when I made general foreman.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah, see. Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: It's -- you’re rewarded. You’re rewarded for everything.
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, hey, you were an extremely clever guy. You know. Exxon needs extremely clever guys at this point. So this is like at what month in the summer that you made general foreman.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: We got to be into July now for sure.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay, Okay. So --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Maybe even toward the end of July by then. We’d moved over in front of Mummy Bay. And that’s where, you know, there’s an old lodge down there. You know, and after this and my general foremanship, then not only did I get my own room, but then I got my own skiff driver so then I could go over and stay at the lodge with Bernie.
We weren’t suppose to go near the lodge, but after work, I’d go over there cause I knew some people over there, Marv Enofky and stuff. And so I’d go over and party all night and stay the night over at the lodge.
And this real lazy kid -- he made no bones about being a real lazy kid. And I said, I got the job for you. You got to get up at 4 o'clock in the morning and get over there to the lodge with the skiff and pick me up so I’m back on the ship before I have to get the crew ready.
And then I said, you can go screw around all rest of the day. That's the only thing -- that’s your only job. So, yeah. They’d let me stay over at the lodge.
SHARON BUSHELL: And he was making 19 bucks an hour to do that?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: 16 something an hour.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. So tell me the part about seeing Exxon or VECO, I guess, it would be crews hired by VECO cleaning beaches that were not oiled.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well, I almost have to take responsibility for that idea.
SUSAN BUSHELL: Okay, hold on just a sec I have to flip this tape -- Go ahead.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: At, at one point there in the late summer -- and it had to have been mid-July. Big Bob had made a -- a -- a --a just a screwy statement. And they, cause they were talking about, you know, this is gonna take years to clean this up at the rate you guys are going.
And he said, we’re going to make a half-mile of beach a day. Which was insane.
We weren’t making 100 yards of clean beach a day at that point. You know, and there was no way to make that up. I mean, there just was no way. If we’d have had ten times more people out there we couldn’t have made a half mile of beach a day, it's just, or a week or whatever his timeline was, but -- yeah, it was just some astronomical thing for the press, you know.
And but there was no way we were ever going to hit that. So, what we started doing was, and, we would boom off clean beaches next to oiled beaches.
And we boomed off a hell of a lot of them. And then I would take a beach crew out, and, and in fact, Matt still lives down the road from me, we’re still kind of close.
He was my, my lead man for this. And I’d give him about 18 or 20 guys and because, all they had to do on these clean beaches was march up and down 'em and make a crap load of tracks.
And bag up everything. Driftwood, sticks, seaweed. Because once it went in those oil containment bags, nobody ever looked in them. They just went right straight to the incinerator.
You know, so, there could have been anything in there. You could have stashed bodies in there. You know, and so I just had them walk up and down the beach and just bag up anything, anything that they found. Make a lot of tracks. Make it look like somebody had run over the place.
You know --
SHARON BUSHELL: Anything. You mean, driftwood, rocks --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Driftwood. Rocks. We put a lot of rock, had them put a lot of rocks in that. Lots of seaweed.
You know, just, and -- and -- and just make it look like there had been a crew there. You know, lots of tracks. You know, all that kind of stuff. Boomed off. Leave some rope around. I mean they purpose --
SHARON BUSHELL: And what was -- Oh, I'm sorry. What was their attitude when -- I mean, was that surprising or was that just kind of taken for granted that stuff like that would go on? When you, when you gave that order to the crew to do that, were they surprised?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: No. No. Not by this point. No, no, not at all.
SHARON BUSHELL: So the level of corruption --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Cause we had, we had already been through the Indian crews. And, you know, the State slaves. That’s what we called them.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay. Let's -- um -- let’s remember to go back to that. But finish telling me about the, the cleanup of non-dirty beaches. And then we’ll go back to the --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well, yeah, we just started booming off beaches that had never been, never been oiled.
SHARON BUSHELL: Never been oiled.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And, and we just made a big show. You know, put a lot of commotion out there. And made a lot of tracks. Bagged up a lot of crap. You know, just made a big pile of, of bags. Um --
SHARON BUSHELL: Give me an estimate of how much, how many dirty beaches you cleaned up.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well, we started making our quota.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay and that --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Which was ten times more than we were before. And the Coast Guard would come in and sign off on these beaches.
And if they couldn’t tell a beach that had been oiled and shot with the hoses by then, then they were pretty new still.
SHARON BUSHELL: So you can’t, you -- you can't remember specifically what that quota was?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: No, I think he said we were gonna make a quarter mile or a half-mile a day. A quarter mile a day is what I think he said. You know, and you know it filtered down to us. Because then everybody, you know, just shit bricks. And we’re like, you know, how are we going to do this?
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: You know, and, and that was the only way. Because there was no way that we were gonna make --
SHARON BUSHELL: So how long were you guys able to run that scam?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Oh, the rest of the summer. The rest of the summer.
SHARON BUSHELL: So that’s a good six weeks?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Oh yeah. Yeah. Till the beginning of September. Now, I quit before they de-mobbed task force 6. Yeah, I’d pretty much at that point I'd pretty much had enough.
And I wasn’t as poor as I was when I started that spring after being out of work all winter.
And, and then some buddies of mine from the Aleutians said hey, we’re putting a crew together, we’re gonna go fishin, you know, fall fishing. Why don’t you quit that oil spill crap and get back to work.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay, so --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: So then I did. I jumped. I was, you know, even as comfortable as I was at that point, you know, there on the task force, I didn't want, I wanted to get out of there. I couldn’t wait. So when they offered me a fishing job, I was done.
SHARON BUSHELL: Was it about feeling slimy, or was it about feeling fear?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Oh no. No. If I had run into a policeman or law enforcement at that point it would not have been the first time in my life.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: I was just sick of it.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: I was just sick of doing it. I was sick of those guys. And you know, I mean, if you were in with them, like I said, it was just about the most comfortable situation you could. But you, you know, you had to crap on a lot of other people.
SHARON BUSHELL: And you had, and you can only take so much of sleazebags.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: That was it. You know, it was just -- well, see, at one point I’m hauling all this booze out for them or having it hauled out for them, you know, kind of thing. But then and you see, all these guys are you know, good ol' Southern boys.
And we had a couple -- Matt was one of them. He was my lead man. In fact, I tried to just get him out of the way. But they were Rastafarians. And I'll tell you, those Tennessee, Texan, Louisiana oilmen could not abide a Rastafarian to save their life. Their very existence on the task force irked them.
And we were tossing their room constantly cause they were on my crew. So we were trying to get rid of em. You know, they submitted them to lice checks and to, uh -- I mean, they had to have their hair checked for lice on a weekly basis.
They searched their room every week, you know, kind of thing. I mean, they were just constantly harassed.
I never know what, knew what happened to Leon. But Matt I knew wasn’t going to last very long and I really liked Matt. Still do. We’re still friends. He lives about 15 miles down the road here.
SHARON BUSHELL: So that's the --
JOHN DEVENS JR.:So I hid him out. I said, Matt, you deserve to be, you know, a, a, a crew boss foreman.
You know, but I said, you know, every time Warren sees you, it chaps his ass just a little bit more. I, you know, so that’s why Matt was running the beach crew for me. Because it was out of the way. And --
SHARON BUSHELL: This is the slave thing you were talking about?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: No, no. That was the Indians. About halfway through the oil spill the -- I don’t know who handles that, but somebody came up and told all these upcountry Indians that if they didn’t get down there and get a job on the oil spill that they were going to cut off their assistance.
And these guys couldn’t winter, you know, without their assistance.
SHARON BUSHELL: And when you say upcountry, you’re talking about?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Well, it was everything. There was a bunch from here. All the way up to Minto. We had a bunch of guys out of Minto village and stuff like that. And -- and -- but you couldn’t get them to do shit.
You know, they were there under duress. You know, they were there because, they didn’t want a job there. You know, they wanted to stay up in the village.
But you know, the ultimatum was, you either go down and get a job there or you're -- we’ll cut you from, from assistance.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: And, which there’s no way that they could live through the winter --
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: -- you know, like that. But, so when you got them on there, you couldn’t fire them. You know, you couldn’t weed it out and find the ones that were actually willing to work or anything.
And we were always getting in trouble for them. You know, as soon as you sent them back to Valdez they just got reprocessed through and you saw them again three days later.
You know, and so they just ended up riding boats back and forth. So you couldn’t, you couldn't fire them and you couldn’t do anything with them really.
One guy I had was so bad, and it was bringing the rest of the crew down, you know. But he wouldn’t do anything. And, so finally, course like I said, it’s all about perception out there.
And all the white hats, none of them ever hit the beach. You know, of course, by the end of the summer I wasn’t even wearing rubber boots. I was wearing my cowboy boots cause I never hit the beach either.
But, um -- unless I absolutely had to. But anyway, this guy I just couldn’t get anything. And I was getting a bunch of crap. And he’s just standing there smoking cigarettes, you know. And -- um -- so, but all the white hats, all the supervisors are out on the water and they’re just scanning the beach.
Like I said, they don’t even really know what anybody's doing.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: As long as they're just not standing around smoking a cigarette or eating a sandwich all day long.
So I took a poly line and I tied it to a rock. And I took that line and I swung way out in the water. And I gave it to him. And I said, all you have to do is stand here and hold this. Smoke all the cigarettes you want. Eat sandwiches. Drink soda.
Just stand here, every once in a while, tug on this line a little bit. End of -- end of the problem.
He got what he wanted. And they got off my butt because he wasn’t standing around. You know, as they scanned the beach, they saw an Indian holding a rope. They didn’t know it was tied to a rock.
Out there --
SHARON BUSHELL: So, so -- in -- so what’s your best guess, why were the, why were natives so lazy? Is that just the, the nature, or their whole dislike of, you know, of this -- this tragedy that had happened, virtually in their backyard.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: They couldn’t have cared less about it out there. You know, they just didn’t want to. That’s not their lifestyle. You know, they hunt, they fish,and they live in the village.
You know, we were sandwiched between several villages. And I do not want to sound bigoted. Half my family are Alaskan natives -- (indiscernible - talking over each other)
SHARON BUSHELL: Well exactly. That’s why I asked, because I want to frame this so that it, so that it actually flatters them. They were made --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: They were made to do this. That was not their lifestyle. They didn’t want to go out and work for those oilmen.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: And, um -- you know some of them really got into it, you know kind of thing. But the money was just the same and the money was not important to them.
Their lifestyle was what was important to them. So when you drug them out there and made them do all that crap, they were just pissed.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: You know, they didn’t like it.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: They were -- like I said, they were there under duress.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. Okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: It was either, you go do that or we cut you off from all your income through the winter.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay, we’re on the same page with that. That’s great. So -- tell me about the Rastafarians. What -- what in the hell were they doing there in the first place? Or was that just --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Making money.
SHARON BUSHELL: That’s just in the scope of so many different types of people volunteered. I mean, by volunteered, I mean came to Valdez to get jobs.
JOHN DEVENS, JR.: Yup.
SHARON BUSHELL: And so um --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Most of the people that went out, at least, even on the first crew, you know, weren’t from Valdez. Maybe half of us. But that dwindled down really, really fast too as they found better jobs.
A lot of people wanted to go back to Valdez and work, You know, cause then you got to stay at home and that kind of thing.
I wanted to work out on the Sound. I loved the Sound, fished out there, commercially and sport, you know. You know -- you know, so that was just my general environment, you know.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. Right.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: But most of the people who worked out there weren’t from even anywhere near Valdez.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: The original foremens and stuff that they brought up were a bunch of the oil rig guys out of Homer and Kenai you know, that had al -- you know, had lots of experience running crews and -- not oil spill cleanup, but at least, you know, you know ship mobilization and you know, running crews and stuff like that.
SHARON BUSHELL: So what, what was the predominant ethic or point of view or way of being? That you, how you could characterize one of these Exxon white hats.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: They just had to keep the show rolling. You know, I mean, that was it. Their, their -- the -- the, the Exxon supervisors, their deal was to just keep the show rolling.
You know, I mean it never had anything to do with the effectiveness of the program. None of it did. And, and you know, we got that right off the bat.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: You know, it was just to make a big production. One day, just one day – I mean and we were, at ... towards the end we were dreaming up all kinds of silly shit to do.
You know, one spot on Seal Island, we had a million dollar airlift one day. We spent a mill -- Just a bunch of us. I got pictures of it too. We just got together and we were like, oh, nobody can get up to this side of Seal Island.
And we can’t clean these rocks, and blah, you know, all this stuff -- so we just dreamed up. It -- one of the guys, he was a, he was a Exxon guy that they’d brought up from down south.
And his name was JW. And, uh -- he got up every morning and as we were mobbing up and he was like, let’s spend some Exxon money.
And that was all, you know, that, that's what it was. Was just a big, it was just a big production. Just a big show.
Yeah, so we, we helicoptered all these pumps up onto the beach and we had boats standing by and we spent a million dollars that day. And uh --
SHARON BUSHELL: And didn’t accomplish anything?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: No. We cleaned up maybe a quart of oil. Was all. But it didn’t matter.
They were getting pictures of helicopters bringing in equipment left and right. We’d mobbed up the beach like it was Iwo Jima.
And ran people all over the place and, yeah, everybody got a, a hell of a lot of good footage out of it. Went back happier than crap. And we got our -- our quart of oil.
But that was only a million bucks that day.
SHARON BUSHELL: And what, what beach was that do you recall?
JOHN DEVENS JR.: That was on Seal Island.
SHARON BUSHELL: Seal island, okay.
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Yup. That was on Seal Island.
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, um -- it sounds to me like we got the story here John. I mean, we can, see I have to cond -- I have to condense all of this down to about 1200 words and, and believe me --
JOHN DEVENS JR.: Holy moly.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. So-- so, I -- I’m sure you’ve got a lot more to tell, but I think that we’ve got, what we’ve got here is a great story. So I’m gonna turn it off, okay?
JOHN DEVENS JR: Fine.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay.