Robert Benda was interviewed on October 7, 2007 by Sharon Bushell in Valdez, Alaska. Bob'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, Bob talks about how marine wildlife suffered in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, the response efforts taken to rehabilitate injured animals, and his involvement in the oil spill response and wildlife rehabilitation.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Oct 7, 2007
Narrator(s): Robert Benda
Interviewer(s): Sharon Bushell
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
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Volunteering to help with the wildlife rehabilitation
Working with the otters at the otter rehabilitation center
Raising money for the effort and other related projects
Encouraging and discouraging parts of the rehabilitation process
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SHARON BUSHELL: Hello, hello, hello. Okay. We -- this is the 7th of October. We are in Valdez. I'm talking to Bob Benda and put that one closer to you. That’s Old Faithful. This is new and expensive and I’m scared of it. But -- so Bob, tell me about your time on the oil spill and particularly with working with the wildlife.
BOB BENDA: Okay. When the oil spill happened, we at the college had just moved that semester into the new building we occupy now which was a old grade school.
SHARON BUSHELL: And you were a college teacher?
BOB BENDA: Yeah, I am a college professor. Yeah, I’m still a college professor.
SHARON BUSHELL: Good.
BOB BENDA: And I had, I think, it was Keith Edmunds or somebody at that time who was the dean said you hear there was -- there's an oil spill, you know, and I went well, okay there’s an oil spill and not knowing, you know, what -- what was going on and he basically said, you know, we probably should start looking at, you know, maybe for wildlife.
He actually was coming up with these things and I said fine I -- I’ll be glad to -- to work with them. And what happened was the college actually had an empty -- all those three buildings that are -- well are dorms now were actually that was the entire college.
And so we had one actually open building that they hadn’t emptied out yet that we -- cause we had moved over and we had had our offices still there and (phone ringing) we were kinda transferring stuff over.
We had an empty building and he said, you know, so theoretically I don’t know how long it took actually and they were -- they basically had that building available cause it was -- it was a couple of weeks.
I would say probably more than a couple of weeks after the oil spill actually occurred that they got going and there was actually a -- Mike Lewis was a guy and his wife who worked for the college were -- they were extreme environmentalists is what they were.
And they got very involved in trying to work with the wildlife and at the time nobody was actually talking about the wildlife. They were -- all the press conferences and that nobody was saying anything. And I can remember everybody was going up to the -- to get the updates and that.
And I would happen to be up there one time when they had that and this when Larossi was in town and a girl from actually Fish & Game came in, you know, and she literally -- she had on hip boots, waders and that and she essentially just said she broke -- I mean she literally just said, hey, the otters are dying out there by the hundreds.
She said we got a real problem out there and that was the first time that anybody really addressed the fact that the wildlife was being impacted.
If you listen to Exxon and all this stuff there we just don’t know, da, da, da, anyway. You know, we’re -- our main concern is, you know, contain the oil and which I mean this is again I look now at contingency plans and everything else and that’s the first thing you do is -- you basically don’t want it to go anywhere.
So they did set up at the -- it was Cordova Hall and I think it was Cordova Hall or Copper Base, whichever hall it was, and they literally set up a bird and an otter and they actually split it up and basically our offices which they weren’t supposed to be doing anything with they were just going to use the bigger rooms they essentially just took everything out of our offices.
I don’t know -- I have no idea where half of my stuff even went, you know. It was like all of a sudden it is like somebody came in and cleaned it out. I lost stuff off the walls and everything else.
SHARON BUSHELL: So you were science --
BOB BENDA: Yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: -- professor, okay.
BOB BENDA: I mean in science, but I am just saying, you know, this is how actually the first otter -- the otter bird rehab center was set up was in that one building which is across from the -- the grocery store.
SHARON BUSHELL: Uh-huh.
BOB BENDA: And so anyway I basically, you know, everybody was kind of running. I said well fine, you know, I’ll volunteer. So I was just volunteering. I happened to have a schedule so I could over there. I’d get over at six in the morning and I would go over and I was a volunteer because the -- the Mike Lewis’ wife and I can’t remember her name now, she basically was in charge of organizing volunteers -- local volunteers.
And what happened I just said okay I can work from six to, you know, I couldn’t work a 12 hour shift, but I could work from six to -- to twelve or something like that. And I would come in every -- every day and there was a group of people and we would actually work with the otters.
And I mean it was sanitary wise and that it was probably -- I mean nothing was working. The plumbing was always, you know, they tried to retrofit stuff and everything else.
The otters I mean it -- it was hot, it was messy, it was stinky, it was, you know, it was -- it was horrible. And so I worked at that for quite a while and, in fact, there's -- there was was a video made -- Randy actually, who was hired by Exxon to come in and Randy -- names are starting to lose, you know, I’ll think of it all of a sudden, but he was there and that and they were actually setting this up.
Well at the time where the new -- the college had moved to Growden Harris they actually had an open gymnasium. So they went ahead and they -- they set up the otter center in the gymnasium and they turned over the -- the building for the birds.
So the birds actually had -- they had quiet rooms and everything else. So that became the bird which was a lot easier to work than the otters. The otters are much, much more demanding of space and things like that.
So I would shifted over and was working shifts over at the -- at the gymnasium over at the college which we like to say is Growden Harris Grade School.
And so I worked there for quite a while and then I met Nancy Leftcor (phonetic) and at that time they had a Prince William Sound Environmental -- I can’t remember the name of it now. Conservation whatever it was and she was -- it was -- so I had actually became they -- by pushing they actually got a seat on the ISCC which is the Interagency Shoreline Cleanup Committee.
And so she asked she said would you be interested in, you know, in working on that and we will eventually pay you and stuff like cause I was just, you know, I was a volunteer. Oh, I said I’ll go ahead. I’ll get employed. It was summer. We’re done with school. I was, you know, I had no job in the summer and I said, yeah, I would go.
So I would go to meeting there every day and this was again when I got tied up with the ISCC, and -- but as far as the otters, like I said, my main input like was probably from April through at the otter rehab center April, May, probably into June and then I actually was picked up by DEC and -- cause I would go from the -- from the ISCC meeting I would then go over to the otter rehab center which was then set up at the -- at the college.
And they had it set up out. They had the pools there. They had a pretty good operation going at that time and --
SHARON BUSHELL: So describe -- describe that otter center for me and -- and what you guys -- what the procedure was for dealing with otters.
BOB BENDA: Okay, what -- what had happened is when we had the old place -- when we were at the -- at the -- at the small building. I mean they would literally every morning they would be bringing in otters.
They would bring them in pet carriers. They must have cornered the market on pet carriers in the Northwest I mean.
And they were bringing -- and that is how they brought birds in also. And they would bring in -- we would have otters actually oiled otters stacked in pet carries out in the hallway and they had a procedure set up, you know.
First thing they do is the vets would look at the otters to see, you know, it is like a triage. They basically had a triage set up and to see, you know, how -- how bad they were. Then they would go through the washing process.
They would actually have it set up and the vets and that would essentially sedate them and get them all prepped up and then, you know, sometimes they -- if they were depending on which shape they were in, they -- they might let them stay in the cage for a day or so.
I, you know, depending on what it was. Then they would actually go through the water -- the washing routine and they would go through the entire washing. You know, it was pretty primitive what they had over at the -- the college dorm over where are dorms now in the old building.
Once they got the other one at the gym fixed up at the college they had -- it was much larger. They had a much better procedure, but again what they did was they brought them in, they had triage, they essentially, you know, washed them and that, got them all done, they put in a cage, you know, our job --
SHARON BUSHELL: Now as I understand they washed them with Dawn soap, is that --
BOB BENDA: Dawn -- actually Dawn soap was found to be the best soap. It was the best dishwashing soap that they found it would actually emulsify the oil off of them.
SHARON BUSHELL: And it was mild enough for the birds?
BOB BENDA: And it was mild and they would actually put, I think, they would put Vaseline or something around the eyes and that. They would sedate them because, you know, I mean these are wild -- these were wild animals.
They were -- I mean they can -- they could do a lot of damage to you. And what we would do then is basically once -- once they were done with that they were put into a holding cage and they were like using one or two per -- per cage.
And what we had to do is we essentially had to take hourly temperatures on these things -- what you’re saying, you know, you did rectal temperatures and it -- it -- there -- I mean it’s like I don’t like, you know, I don’t like anything like that myself as I get older I have to go through all these little, you know, invasive what I think, you know, procedures to check if I am living or not.
And -- what -- no, he’s not dead yet, but, you know, hi, put the gloves -- I don’t want to do that, but anyway and so we got and you really got pretty good at actually because we had heavy gloves and that and we would have to grab these things and literally we had pillows and, you know, they had actually stuffed bags to hold them down so somebody could get the temperature because you had to be like the temperature was if it was too low then you had to basically warm them up.
If it was too high, you had to cool them off. When we were at the old building, we would actually take them out and they would, you know, in the snow. We would give a snow -- we’d take them out -- not in the snow in the cage. We’d have them in a cage, but they would be out in the sunshine and stuff like that.
And I remember one particular one. This is actually the one made the video that -- that Randy Davis is his name -- Randy Davis was filming for this for minerals management actually.
And we had one that actually went into convulsions. The otter, you know, was --was fine. All of sudden it literally went into convulsions and the vet at that time came in and gave it a shot of Valium I think, you know, and he gave it a shot and that and we basically took it out in the sun and it was fine.
That is actually the one little segment that is in that video for me, you know, was the fact that, you know, I’d go yes, you know, this is the otter was fine, da, da, da. And we had to keep track, you know, everything we kept track. And it was on like notebook paper.
You know there was no water -- waterproof paper or anything. We would keep track, you know, and stuff got wet and crap on it and everything else and they lost the records, you know, because somebody threw the board somewhere -- whatever it was. It was chaotic.
It really was and once they got over to the -- to the -- to the gym, it was a much more uniform, you know, they actually had the organization.
What happened was there was a lot of people came up and wanted to volunteer and this is again my take on it. It is what I heard from other people is basically Exxon hired people.
SHARON BUSHELL: Uh-huh.
BOB BENDA: They said they did not want volunteers.
SHARON BUSHELL: Uh-huh.
BOB BENDA: And the reason that was given was because of the fact if you’re a volunteer, you know, they had a liability thing whatever happened to be. What it basically said -- what the real crux of it I always heard was the fact that they had no control over the mouth of these volunteers.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh --
BOB BENDA: And they could, you know, and they basically they literally they paid them and said you talk to the press you don’t have job. You don’t make your sixteen ninety some an hour whatever it happens to be.
Okay. And that was, you know, that is when we started getting into this whole corporate thing and that. I never got paid a dime for any of it. I volunteered the entire time I was there and it was -- it was really an experience. I mean you never saw such emotion from people.
I mean you could really, you know, you -- you -- these were again, you know, these were victims of the oil spill. They’re wild animals and that, but you get attached to these, you know, and they seem to be getting better and then all of a sudden you saw -- and literally there were people that emotionally broke down and left.
They could not actually -- you came in your otter died because you -- that was your otter. You were responsible for that otter and, you know, when they did actual studies later on, they found that, you know, the initial -- the initial otter -- the initial number of otters coming in the mortality of very high.
I went to a necropsy. They actually had a -- they set up over where the fish -- fish freezing place was. In fact, the college loaned them some microscopes and that so they could actually have -- the vets could have scopes and everything else.
And I went to one of the necropsies over there and literally when they cut this otter open, you know, you look at liver. You know what liver looks like. You could pick up the otter’s liver and it ran through your fingers. It turned to mush.
SHARON BUSHELL: Oh.
BOB BENDA: I mean basically because that -- the liver is for detoxifying. It would -- it cleans out the blood stream. They just literally -- I mean these animals didn’t have a chance.
The initial ones did not have a chance no matter what kind of care they got, they died. I mean their internal organs were like, you know, it was like soup. That is how it got, you know. I didn’t go to a lot of them.
I went to a couple necropsies and that is what I got -- I got to see and so, yeah, and they got -- they actually as the spill was in and of course the toxicity of the oil was diminishing it wasn’t nearly as -- as the otter survival was starting to increase.
And then we were getting some going why the hell did you bring this on it, it is not even oiled, you know. Well, I was catching it we will throw it in, you know. And so again it got -- and they had -- what they had over the college they actually had a very -- it was set up very well.
Then they started going out and they were actually setting up satellite. Valdez was the main one and then they were setting up satellite ones. I think Homer may have even had one there. I know that Cordova. They were setting up places where they could if nothing else they could actually go through some of the early parts of the -- for transportation stabilization.
And so again it got to the point where they had a lot better chance of survival and that was shown in the statistics the survival rate was much greater as the spill time went on is what it was.
And, but that is essentially with the otters. I mean I spent a lot of time with them at that time as a volunteer and I got to really learn a lot about them. I mean when I was, you know, I’m from Indiana. I don’t even know what an ocean looks like, you know. I mean here I -- I was always the laughing thing going here I am, you know, working with sea otter which I -- I mean I remember land otters, you know, but I had never seen -- I had never -- I had never seen a sea otter, except a few that I saw there.
And it was, like I said, I laugh when he said I really got to the point where, you know, I could really fake one out so I could grab it and that. But I mean you really felt very -- very strongly that they could turn their enter body inside the fur and bite you.
Because their head and everything went somewhere else, you know. You are holding onto the fur. I mean I have never -- they were the squirmiest things. I mean it was really amazing trying to hold these things down.
SHARON BUSHELL: Did you get bit often?
BOB BENDA: I got bit one time. I mean I had gloves and that, but I -- it’s like the (inaudible) with the teeth just caught me right on the edge of the thumb and just -- I had a big blood blister where it crushed -- I never had -- cause actually I went on after the entire oil spill and that I went into -- I train -- I work with otter and bird rehab -- capture, stabilization and transportation.
I taught courses in that for quite a few years from the college our training through -- to the oil industry. And I had never felt that kind of pres -- you put two teeth together it’s like -- kind of like stiletto heels, you know when they make holes in tile and dents in tile.
And the only time I had that feeling again was once I captured -- because I capture eagles out here a lot of times and one of them actually got my -- in the gloves, where she -- but it pushed down on the talons just literally pushed and my hand went numb.
I have never felt the pressure of those. It is amazing the strength.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: And that’s the same with the otter, you know, they can crush urchins and stuff like that. I mean it’s a very powerful bite.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: And you have to be very careful, you know, with them and you always had to wear protective stuff because, you know, there -- there was stuff flying. There was crap flying all over the place.
Urine flying all over the place. I mean it was a mess, you know, at the first -- the first facility. The second facility it really was -- they -- they were able to contain. They were able -- they found what they could feed -- not feed so on and so forth is what it was.
It was a learning and I had never heard this before. And this actually came from Exxon. It was the learning curve. They were using the learning curve was, you know, cleaning up out there.
The learning curve for the otters and that was like, you know, from chaos to order is what it was. And again the first time is like what am I supposed to do with thing, you know? Nobody knew what to do. Nobody had really worked that much and then Randy Davis came up and basically helped to organize and he was from at that time I think he was with Sea World or something like that and he is down in Texas now I think.
He actually continues to come up here. They still have the -- they have refresher courses for people to work with otters. It is mainly through the -- the Seward -- through the Sea Life Center and that because I have been down there for a couple of refreshers. So they actually have a whole list of people who are qualified -- certified actually to work with otters and that.
So that's continued on. Pam Toammies (phonetic) was another vet that was here and she is -- she is a private vet, but she also works with the -- the otter center and she was instrumental I think in working with Exxon, or not Exxon but Alyeska, when they set up the emergency.
Now they have an emergency unit they can put the whole thing together which is supposed to handle like 200 otters or something like that.
SHARON BUSHELL: How many otters were you guys capable of handling at your various locations there -- here in town?
BOB BENDA: I would say initially at the -- in the -- in the college dorm building we were probably taxed doing 10 or 15. I mean we -- there just wasn’t any room. We had them stacked on top. You know, we had carrier on top of carrier just stacked up.
I would say with the gym and I -- I -- I could -- I can’t really estimate what they were handling there. I would say they could -- they were handling at the time coming in, you know, they could take in 15, 20 otters, you know, because the washing process is like a three hour process for one otter.
SHARON BUSHELL: Uh-huh.
BOB BENDA: And I think they only had -- they had like at the gymnasium they had maybe four or five washing tables. And you had a crew of probably four or five people that would work with these, you know, washing this otter, you know, and just washing it and washing it, you know.
There was washing and rinsing and washing and rinsing and washing and rinsing until basically you got all the oil out of the --
SHARON BUSHELL: (Sneeze) Excuse me.
BOB BENDA: Pelt, you know. And cause that was actually the problem you run into why especially the initial ones had so much problems because they groomed.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
BOB BENDA: And when they groomed, they ate all that and that was fresh oil and just like I said, you had to be at the necropsy to see what it really did to internal organs.
You couldn’t treat -- you could have done everything you want it would have died. I mean there was just no way they were going to survive.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: It was kind of amazing, but like I said, I -- I -- I learned to respect the otters, but they -- they’re incredible animals, you know, and (inaudible) because the otter actually became the symbol of the oil spill.
None -- none of the birds and that, but the otter did. I remember the North Shore Animal League from New York came here when I was still working at the -- as a volunteer and they actually at that time they went to John Devens who was the mayor, of course, and he also the president of the college and they wanted to -- they wanted to -- to donate or do something.
And I remember this -- John asked me he said could you work with these people. You are at the otter center and that, and this guy’s request was he said if you can get me in there to take a picture of me with a pup, he says I can triple, you know, my money. Hey, I get emotional [Inaudible] just to --
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, yeah.
BOB BENDA: And I remember -- I -- I went over there and I talked to the vets and that and they went ahead and they got the picture and they could publish it and I think -- they actually bought a boat.
They came up with like $50,000 or something and bought a boat, you know, because -- and it really made no sense.
They bought the college a boat to go out and rescue otters. Well, we weren't even part of it. We were part of the rescue thing and that. I think the college actually rented a boat to D -- to somebody they made money off the boat as far as I know, you know.
The boat went out. It was a big Boston Whaler they got. It was a monstrous boat, you know, 20, 20 some foot Boston Whaler. And then I think they sold it after the oil spill. There were a lot of things going on, you know.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: But anyway that was -- but it really was -- the -- the baby otter, you know, the orphans of Valdez as they called them because most of the parents died or they were abandoned, you know, or they actually gave birth in captivity and they actually they were like I think total like 16 or 18 actually were -- were shipped out to different places cause they could never go back to the wild.
They -- they were stupid. They had no learning whatsoever.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: You know, nobody was going, you know, and this is what they would always talk about now when people bring in an otter pup. That’s a 24 hour a day seven day a week six months. Cause you have to have volunteers working with it. It is just like having a little baby.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: And, you know, they don’t know anything, you know. The mother -- cause -- I mean I was out -- I actually got tied up in a project out of Fairbanks for Institute of Marine Science and I would do a lot of survey stuff for them in the winter and one of their graduate students was doing a thing on otter behavior.
So I would be out there literally looking at otters. I had a tape recorder like you have here, you know, you know, dove and I’d time it. Came up -- it turned to the left turned to the right, like stand up sit up, fight fight. You know, it is like you had to record everything it did.
What it was eating and things like that and so I -- I got to know, you know, a lot -- got to see a lot. And it's eerie because the otters, you know, people in Port Valdez -- the original otters in Port Valdez are all males. There were no females here.
SHARON BUSHELL: Huh.
BOB BENDA: Now, of course, these weren’t affected by the oil spill. The oil spill was out there and was in, you know, because the otters actually never -- they really don’t spend -- aside from mating they actually just have like a singles bar.
They got the guys’ bar and the women’s bar and they basically they don’t -- the only -- and the way -- and the female selects the male. The male comes cruising in and the female will select him and they will play around and so on and then they’ll mate and then its gone because a male actually if the female has a pup he’ll drown the pup just to get at the female.
I mean these are totally a behavior thing and so it was -- I got to learn a lot about them, you know. I didn’t -- I really I mean knew absolutely nothing about otters back in the 80’s when I first came here, you know, I did --
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. BOB BENDA: Learn an awful lot.
SHARON BUSHELL: What a lesson.
BOB BENDA: Yeah, it was, like I said I was teaching how to actually, you know, stabilize them and transport them and everything else. I went to several conferences on -- on oil -- oiled wildlife and things like that and so I -- I mean I feel -- in fact I was on another video the crew came from Australia and Dave Beck at the time, you know, was here with the -- and he said -- he called me, say, Bob, you worked on the oil spill, we have this crew from Australia here.
He said would you like to, you know, go out with them and give them -- and I said, yeah, I’ll go out, no big deal. It was in the middle summer. Bob never does anything in the summer you know. And so we went actually out there and they did -- they did a video of -- it was supposedly seven years after -- six -- whatever it was after.
They were doing -- it was a four part thing and they were going to four different locations around the world on environmental matters and we went out there and I became part of the video, you know. I was walking down the beach and they had like Bob Banta was called upon -- Dr. Banta at the time, you know.
They’re very, you know, they were title wise. You know, it was the first day and help -- I didn’t really -- oh, fine you want to say that I don’t care, but actually I went through the process, you know. It was kind of inter -- because I had to do everything in metric, you know. I mean it is like I had to convert things in my mind and stuff like that.
And I had to make sure I said -- cause it wasn’t going to be on for another year so I had to make it another year. It is like oh this is how they video people do things I guess.
And it was really funny cause actually what came up was my dad actually -- it was on Animal Planet. Actually it was on Animal Planet and my dad actually made a copy of it and he sent me a copy.
He said, you know, my mother -- my son made Animal Planet or something, you know. My goodness. It was funny cause I had a friend of mine in Michigan he said he was in his garage -- he was dentist guy and I knew him through motorcycle trips with all the time.
And he said -- he said yeah I was -- I was working in my workshop I said I heard your voice on TV he said. I couldn’t believe it. Here you were out in the middle of nowhere walking around a beach.
And I was just like I am now. I had on a sweatshirt and hip boots and that, you know, and I just looked like I do right now. I -- it was totally ad-lib. I mean this was like totally unplanned, you know, and when they had put in a video. So I like, you know, out of a 15 minute video I probably had like, you know, three or four minutes of, you know, something like that.
So yeah my -- yeah, it’s like my 15 seconds of fame or something like that, you know. They made a big thing out of it. Little guys in the community college, you know, or whatever it was.
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, so what do you -- what -- what did the statistics or the head count ever prove about how many otters were -- were able to be saved?
BOB BENDA: I think -- I don’t have the -- these are just guesses. I can remember the actual total number that were rehabilitated and released because they did tag a certain number of them and the tagging project never really gave a whole lot of data.
It was probably like a little over a hundred otters. I mean it came out -- this actually was an article in the paper. It is like every otter, you know, per otter was $100,000. I don't know what it was.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: Some astronomical --
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
BOB BENDA: Amount, you know, for actually each otter and it -- it really cause I knew it cause I used to work for Fish & Wildlife Service. I used to work for the Forest Service and, of course, Fish & Wildlife Service were responsible for the otters.
That’s their group. And I remember to talking to a guy hey off the record he said for the -- he said let them die. I mean he said it is not, you know, he said if you really look at the time. He said it will never happen. Nobody will ever be able to say that, but he said, you know, the rehabbing is something that just is not, you know, if you look at a cost benefit, it just isn’t there, you know.
Even the ones they tagged they had, you know, they -- they tagged them, they released them, they had a big hullabaloo releasing them. I think they released them in Cordova or something like that and I don’t think they actually tracked, you know.
Most of them were gone. They lost -- they lost cause they had -- they radio monitors on and that. I don’t really think what they got back was almost minimal that they -- that they survived, you know, going back.
And I realize it is kind of interesting the guy just said he said hey this is, you know, off the -- he said -- I -- he said it is not worth the effort. He says you really can’t, you know. Birds are different. Birds you can. You get them in. You get them out. Bang they’re gone.
Otters it is such a long-term thing and they’re mammals and the effect on them is much, much greater.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yes, it’s a cancer or something.
BOB BENDA: Yeah and so it was, like I said, it was an interesting -- for me it was. I mean for me it was a thing that I got involved in it accidently. I mean I didn’t have no plans and like I said I eventually worked for DEC and I was on the ISCC through the entire thing all the way into the following year and then eventually they moved to Anchorage and they said well if you want to keep working, you know, you are going to have to move to Anchorage.
I go, well, that’s the end of my job. I have a full time I’m teaching at the college, you know, and I was doing that. I mean I was like -- it was like, you know, 16 hour days seven days a week I mean and I was in my -- what was I -- in my late 40’s or something like that when I was doing that, you know.
And it's like, I remember I was like -- it was like you just ran on adrenaline forever. Whether it was the otters, whether it was the ISCC, you know, it was -- I mean my mother actually came to visit me during that time cause -- and she was -- it was just like she must have saw -- she flew in on ERA flight and got off and here I am headed out in a heli -- for a helicopter trip out to the sound dressed in mustang suit and eds.
It's like -- my kid -- that’s my son on CNN there he is. Yeah, it was funny. She was -- she laughed about it. Yeah, just like we’ve been seeing on TV, you know.
So yeah, she was -- they were -- my parents were quite proud of the fact that, you know, I -- it was just a total accident and really for me I got on the RCAC on the TOEM Committee which is Terminal Operation Environment Monitoring and I think like the second year that it was around and I’ve been on it ever since and I’ve been chairman or co-chairman or a member for all that time.
I have been chairman probably for the last four or five years of that one committee. It -- it’s -- what the oil spill for me was is like taking -- it took me -- say my Ph.D. took me three years to do it. It was like you cram a Ph.D. program into like a few months.
I mean that’s literally how intense that was. It was kind of like Berlitz, you know, learn a language that fast. Well, it is the same thing here and no, I just and it changed -- it changed my entire direction of -- of science from what it was cause my Ph.D. is in ecology.
I look at systems and how all the organisms interact and that -- keystone species and the otter is a keystone species out here. And I have really just essentially gone, you know, the whole change. I mean I spent so much time now looking at impact of oil on ecosystems.
I am in big on another working group on non-indigenous species. I work with non-indigenous species all the time and that, you know, so. No, it -- for it has been -- it has just been a tremendous learning experience for me and I am a lifelong learner.
I’ll never ever stop learning, you know. My [Inaudible] tell people, no, hey, I’m eligible for Medicare. I made that -- and no, I -- I just thoroughly enjoy learning things. I’m just fascinated by knowledge, you know. I think, you know, that’s I -- my thing is, you know, the thing I will most regret when I do pass on which I hope is not for another -- I have a 90 year old dad so there’s a chance for --
SHARON BUSHELL: Alright.
BOB BENDA: To live on. The guys live long in our family. The females die early, but the guys live long and when I -- when I do pass on it will be my biggest regret not that I’ll even know about it, but it will be the fact that what I don’t know -- what I will never learn, what I will never see.
I’m like the ultimate liberal arts major. I love -- I have so many different interests. I’m just fascinated by knowledge.
SHARON BUSHELL: Cool. Well, of -- during the time of your most intense otter work, what -- what was the most encouraging and the most discouraging thing that you saw?
BOB BENDA: Well, we go back I think the most discouraging thing is to see the otters die no matter what you did. It was just --
SHARON BUSHELL: And otters make a -- make a sound when they’re in pain, is that right?
BOB BENDA: Oh, yeah, there’s -- there’s a definite -- well, not -- they’re not -- it really wasn’t so much pain. I think it was just massive stress. They -- they -- and there was -- there is, yeah, they -- they do make a sound.
SHARON BUSHELL: Like a baby’s cry or something?
BOB BENDA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, especially the pups. The pups just have this -- this kind of irritating, you know. You can hear it. You can hear them and you could see the same.
I think another thing is very discouraging is just to see how lethargic, you know, I mean these, you know, no matter what you did they just, you know, they didn’t act like otters.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: They did -- they basically and -- and you realize, like I said, when you go to necropsy, these were just destined to die. That’s all there was to it. No matter what you did and, like I said, I mean I saw women -- women and I mean guys -- I said I get -- I still get emotional talking about it -- just literally collapse on the floor when their otter died.
I mean it was like they lost a child.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: I mean that’s -- that’s how -- that’s how intense the feelings were for people to save these animals and especially like I said with the young ones those were very important, you know, for especially like I said it became -- it was a symbol. It was actually the symbol of the oil spill and what oil can do to wildlife.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: And the most encouraging, of course, was, you know, and again by then I was not there any more, but it was the fact that they were saving more and more because of the fact that, you know, that the oil was weathering and so on and so forth so the otters were not being as impacted nearly as much as those first.
But I think like I said that I go back I don’t know who the lady was for Fish & Game, but she basically broke the whole thing open in that one news conference. She just literally walked in. She had oil on her and that. She just said, hey, they’re dying by the hundreds out there.
There is no, you know, it’s not like, you know, we have to ask. It is happening out there. And that essentially shifted the whole thing right there and I don’t know who she was, but she literally just came on stage and said that's it.
SHARON BUSHELL: Huh and that was in the very early -- very early --
BOB BENDA: It was very early during the Civic Center when they would have the nightly whatever the heck it was, you know, news thing -- the updates and that and everybody would ask. What about -- well, we don’t know. Exxon had, you know, they had their PR thing. And I mean there was actually a thing.
Years later there have been several studies done on how Exxon mishandled the public -- the whole thing. It was -- I mean they actually use it in classes and that -- the fact that this is not how journalism is.
This is not how you should do this. Yeah, it was -- I remember it was really interesting because very early on Iarossi came and he was at that time head of Exxon Shipping.
SHARON BUSHELL: Shipping, yeah.
BOB BENDA: And he literally said it is our fault. We take responsibility and I actually had an inter -- I was actually with a guy -- cause at the time John Devens would say, Bob, I want you to meet this guy. I want you to meet this guy. I want to talk to this guy.
John was a poli -- he is a politician and so I actually met this one guy. He actually had been to -- he said the worst thing that Exxon could have ever done was accept responsibility for this.
He said that rumbled through the oil industry like -- he said it drove up the cost of all -- he just said that was the worst thing Exxon could have ever done was -- and this guy worked as a consultant all over the world for the oil industry and he said it just, you know, the tremors just went through when that was announced he said.
He says you don’t accept responsibility. That’s, you know, you try to figure out ways not to be responsible.
SHARON BUSHELL: I want to know if Iarossi -- if it -- if somebody else had been the head of Exxon Shipping rather than Iarossi, who I have heard did have a heart.
BOB BENDA: Yeah, yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: If they -- if they hadn’t been willing to accept the blame for that?
BOB BENDA: I -- I don’t know. Like I said I -- my general impression is the ground troops for Exxon were good scientists. I worked with them. They were -- I had a lot of respect for those guys.
I have never seen the higher level of management turn out. They were the biggest jerks I have ever seen in my life. And I’ve met, you know, you -- they could have told me the sun was shining I would go out and check. I would not believe anything they said.
That’s how they were. I mean, we had all these -- the ISCC when I was with DEC we had all these set asides for study, you know, and literally Exxon came in after having agreed to everything and essentially just said, nope, we’re not going to do it, but you signed.
That’s too bad and the guys that were on the ISCC said -- they literally said I don’t -- we -- we can’t do anything. We -- I don’t know it came from up above us that was it. We can’t and you know they were ashamed. These guys actually were ashamed of what the heck had gone on.
Yeah, it was just and I had one and one of the ones out there they literally washed the whole beach into the intertidal. Oh, the hose broke. Ah, give me a break, the hose broke, you know. You guys are hosing it yeah I’ll tell you.
Yeah, no, I -- I have -- I came out of that I have -- I came out with no respect whatsoever for Exxon. I had no respect for Alyeska and it has taken a long time.
I was probably one of the most vocal critics of the entire oil industry and Exxon that first four or five years I just was -- was just -- I had no -- I had no faith whatsoever. I felt like a lot of people did. The oil industry essentially just -- just -- they essentially deceived everybody up here.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. BOB BENDA: And you know I think -- I’m probably with half of the people you talk to.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
BOB BENDA: Yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: Hey, you’re lucky you didn’t your phone tapped too.
BOB BENDA: Yeah. I would have retired a long time ago. I’d have got a good settlement.
SHARON BUSHELL: Well, is there anything else you want to add, Bob? I think we have pretty much got our story here.
BOB BENDA: No, no, like I said, I -- I had -- for me like I said it was -- it was both good and bad, you know. I could add my son actually had his poem published in Ranger Rick on the oil spill.
A published author at age -- in eighth grade or something like that, you know. He wrote a thing on the black tide or something. I don’t know what it was. He made a -- but, yeah, it was -- it was quite an experience.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
BOB BENDA: And I’ll never -- I don’t anybody will ever. It is like every once in a while they have the anniversary. It is like an oil -- it is like a class reunion.
You start saying oh, who died? Whose not here, you know. It like already we all, you know, we’re talking this is almost 20 years ago now.
SHARON BUSHELL: Right.
BOB BENDA: And it is still fresh. It is kind of like -- it is kind of like I remember where I was at when Kennedy and that got assassinated. You remember -- I can remember this oil spill.
I can remember all the events that went on during that oil spill, you know. It was -- it was another one of those big things in your life is what it was.
SHARON BUSHELL: Another -- a lot of people say it was -- it was one of the most significant life changing events.
BOB BENDA: Yeah, yeah. Like I said, for me it totally changed my entire direction as far as my academic and professional type thing that I do or I did I should say. I don’t know how long I’ll be with RCAC.
I mean I’m looking at, you know, you figure I started with ’92, you know. I got my 10 year clock. I’m looking to get my 20 year clock now.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay.