Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Jerome Selby
Jerome Selby

Jerome Selby was interviewed on September 17, 2007 by Sharon Bushell in Kodiak, Alaska. Jerome'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, Jerome talks about the impact the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill had on the town of Kodiak, the personal conflicts caused by the oil spill, and important lessons learned from the spill and the subsequent cleanup efforts.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-26-04

Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Sep 17, 2007
Narrator(s): Jerome Selby
Interviewer(s): Sharon Bushell
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Resources Library & Information Services, Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council
Alternate Transcripts
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Finding out about the oil spill

Trying to work with Exxon to perform cleanup operations

Impact on the town of Kodiak

Personal rifts caused by the spill

Important lessons learned from the spill

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SHARON BUSHELL: Alright, today is the 17th of September. I am in Kodiak and I am interviewing Jerome Selby. Alright, so this is the sophisticated mic, recorder and this is old faithful.

JEROME SELBY: Yeah, hopefully one of them will work, huh?

SHARON BUSHELL: Yes. So, tell me about yourself in relation to the oil spill, Jerome. I understand you have been as my -- the gal who just gave me a ride, you’re mayor forever.

JEROME SELBY: Well, not forever, but for a while, so, yeah. So I've been mayor a total of 18 years. I was mayor during the oil spill, elected in ’83 originally, so I had been mayor for six or seven years before the spill.


JEROME SELBY: And continued to be mayor until ’98, took a sabbatical until 2004 and then was elected mayor again so.

SHARON BUSHELL: So, you undoubtedly got a phone call about the oil spill or how did you --

JEROME SELBY: Actually, we were in Juneau at the time at a mayor’s conference when we first got word that there had been an accident in Prince William Sound and, you know, quite frankly we didn’t think too much about it at first.

It was that there was a tanker in trouble and Prince William Sound was kind of the orig -- original message. And so we went on with our meetings for part of that day and then the next day I think it started sinking in the severity and the scope of the thing.

SHARON BUSHELL: Was John Devens at that meeting?

JEROME SELBY: I think he was, yeah. I think -- I think most of the mayors that were involved in the spill were in Juneau at the time as far as I know. I don’t recall exactly who all was there.


JEROME SELBY: Or if somebody was missing, but we were at an AML Mayor’s Conference in Juneau working on legislative priority stuff and that’s where we were when the big event began and came home and for Bob Brodie and I, we came home thinking, well, you know, the Prince William Sound folks have a problem.

At that point it hadn’t sunk in that it was going to be a problem for a lot more people than just Prince William Sound. So we came home and then only in ensuing days did we start to realize just what the scope of this thing really was and that we were going to get impacted as well, so --


JEROME SELBY: As well, so.

SHARON BUSHELL: So what happened then?

JEROME SELBY: Well actually we -- we started -- when we realized we had started having we called a public meeting and we had a lot of interest. The Coast Guard was actually very cooperative here from this base initially before they got reined in by the command out of Juneau, but so they actually were flying C-130’s out to look at the front edge of the spill and see where it was and there were a lot of folks in private planes flying out and whatnot so.

We were getting a lot of input about what was going on and where -- where the leading edge of the oil was and what was happening with it. And actually a lot of our fishing boats got involved early on.

Some of the draggers immediately went over and started trying to boom -- help boom and contain and get involved in trying to stop the thing before, you know, all of us were novices.

We -- I guess we all thought that somehow you could stop this thing and prevent a lot of the damage, but we early on one of the first things we did is we had a boom expert -- brought a boom expert down to talk to us about booming techniques and what he could and couldn’t do with boom and that was pretty revealing that, you know, a boom is a good thing in a swimming pool.

You can probably catch most stuff in a swimming pool, but when you have any kind of wave action then boom starts -- and the more -- the bigger wave action, of course, the less effective the boom is.

And so he could -- he could just look at the bays on the map and say you are not going to keep oil out of this bay or this bay or that bay. And you might have a chance here and you might be able to boom off this portion of this bay up here in the corner, but the rest of it you are not going to be able to protect and he just kind of ran through that with us which was pretty devastating for a lot of people because you folks realize that basically it wasn’t a whole lot you’re going to do about this, except clean it up after the fact.

And so that’s what ensued. And actually enough the wind caught it by Gore (phonetic) Point and actually held it up there up for about three or four days which was actually in retrospect a really good thing because it was emulsifying, of course, and mixing with the water and turning it into the mousse.


JEROME SELBY: Which was a lot easier to deal with and clean up then the raw oil. It didn’t sink into the sand nearly so bad if you got to it right away. Now if you left it set on bare sand and the sun got on it, of course, the water evaporated out of it and it went back to more like oil and sunk down into the sand.

But the mousse paddies would pretty much set up on top of the sand on the surface if you got to them.


JEROME SELBY: Right away and got them picked up, so it actually helped a lot that -- that it being held up there for a few days. It caused a lot more emulsification to take place and, of course, the evaporating stuff pretty much was gone by then, so the benzenes and a lot of the bad stuff was pretty much gone before it got down to us, but you still had the mess.

I mean and some of the beaches got like 18 inches of mousse emulsified oil type stuff stacked up on them and -- and that’s where we were then trying to get the Coast Guard to put more cleanup crews on.

And, of course, Exxon didn’t want any -- have to pay for any more cleanup crews and so it was a daily battle. We had two meetings every day. One was a public meeting at 10 o’clock in the morning and a lot of the public came and Exxon was there and we tried to do any public information stuff that we could there, but we also had a meeting at five o’clock every day which was just us, the Coast Guard, and Exxon’s folks trying to get work done and finding out what was really going on.

And -- and we kept pushing -- pushing for more cleanup crews and had a hard time gettin 'em -- a really hard time gettin 'em, but we --

SHARON BUSHELL: What kind --

JEROME SELBY: We finally ended up with about twice as many cleanup crews as Exxon wanted, but we had to go over the head of the -- of Admiral Ciancaglini, who was the officer in charge for the Coast Guard for the cleanup.

And I had to go Admiral Yost, the Commandant three different times directly to get more cleanup crews and we got them. He gave them to us, but it was -- it was a lot of pressure at those meetings to try to get more people out on the beach because we were -- we could see that if we could get it off while it was still mousse type stuff that they could scoop that stuff into the garbage bags and pretty much contain it and get rid of them.

But if we waited a day or two and the sun got on that stuff and sunk down into the sand then, you know, it was -- the work was much harder trying to clean that stuff up so.

So that’s what -- so that’s for the next few weeks that’s kind of what it was on a daily basis. We had a lot of different people that tried to do a lot -- do a lot of different things and the other thing that we got -- we got into a big to-do over using the fabric that absorbs the oil.


JEROME SELBY: And apparently Exxon got into some mess with the manufacturer of that and I never did quite understand that, but all of a sudden Exxon didn’t want anything to do with any more fabric being used to collect oil.

SHARON BUSHELL: The absor -- absorbent pad, is that --



JEROME SELBY: Uh-huh. And, but we -- but the folks, particularly the fishing boats, found that that was the most effective thing. If they put that on the seine and surrounded some oil, they got it.




JEROME SELBY: And got it out of the water.


JEROME SELBY: But Exxon was saying no, they wouldn’t pay for anything they had anything to do with that stuff because of the side fight that was going on and I never did understand what that was about.

If they had somehow encroached on -- on the patent or what the deal was, but we just went ahead and got a bunch of it and built some booms out of that stuff and we sent out a bunch of our seiners who obviously couldn’t fish because all the fishing was shut down, except for one bay on the south end. And they took that stuff out and picked up a lot of oil with that absorbent cloth stuff, but --

SHARON BUSHELL: So you had a -- even Exxon wasn’t coming up with it, you had a way of tracking it down?

JEROME SELBY: We just, you know, we -- we tried to get Exxon to do everything we possibly could.


JEROME SELBY: But the stuff that the people in the community told was effective that Exxon wouldn’t approve -- some of that we just did anyway. And we later, you know, we billed them for it. Some of it they paid us for. Some of it they didn’t.

And anything that had to do with that material if they got wind it had anything to do with that, they wouldn’t pay for anything that had to do with that which, you know.

SHARON BUSHELL: I wonder what --

JEROME SELBY: You know initially the first go around they -- the first bunch we put through they paid for. Then all of a sudden this thing blew up and I -- we never could get the straight on what the problem was with it, but it wasn’t -- and they would tell, you know, they would publicly say oh, it is not effective so we are not going to waste money on that kind of stuff.

And yet our people who were out using the stuff, you know, this stuff -- the oil just -- it grabs oil like glue, you know. And so it is the best stuff we got out there, you know, is what they were telling us and so we were getting this totally different story from, you know, Exxon and VECO, the supposed experts that were supposed to cleaning things up and the people that were out in the field, our people from the community out in the field, were totally opposite stories, you know.

And so some of that we just went -- and since we had already bought a bunch of it, we figured well we will use it up anyway, you know. And we don’t really care what they think because a lot of what they -- we used they had paid for in that first go around because we ordered a whole slug of it.

Unfortunately, that bunch went through and we got paid for that part, but then the time of putting together the booms because they were making about 18 inch to two foot booms that the seiners could put out like a seine.


JEROME SELBY: And pull through the water.


JEROME SELBY: And so they could go up to a head of a bay and then they would get three or four of them alongside each other and they could just come down through a whole bay and pick up anything that was in there. It glomed onto this fabric and so they got a lot of -- you know because the mousse got into little paddies. In fact, some of them got, you know, the size of your fingernail.


JEROME SELBY: And it was real effective at picking up that -- particularly that size of stuff because if it came anywhere close to that cloth it sucked it right up so, but -- so it was pretty -- pretty interesting.

But so anyway that’s for the next three or four weeks -- two months that’s -- that was a daily routine of two meetings every day, the public PR meeting where Exxon, of course, was telling everybody how wonderful things were and --

SHARON BUSHELL: And I bet the public was not quite so trusting on --

JEROME SELBY: No, no, no and some of them, in fact, we got concerned. A couple of times we had the police officers there because we had some public members who were pretty upset.


JEROME SELBY: Appropriately so and of course the attitude of Exxon was hard for everybody to take, but, you know, but they kept telling us, you know, how fortunate we were and blah, blah, blah, but, you know, it just -- everybody was concerned and everybody’s fishing was shut down.

So the fishermen were real upset because their livelihood was swimming by while we were all sitting up there, hubba, hubba in these meetings that weren’t gaining a whole lot.


JEROME SELBY: So the only time we could really get much done was in the afternoon sessions where we could get the Coast Guard to push on Exxon to do more than what they wanted or willing to do willingly. And that’s where we got most of the work done was in the evening sessions on the thing, but --

SHARON BUSHELL: It sounds like you were working around the clock.

JEROME SELBY: We put in a lot of long days, yeah, that whole summer, yeah, yeah, so.

SHARON BUSHELL: So did you ever get away from Kodiak?

JEROME SELBY: Not that year. Nope, we were pretty much in the trench here.


JEROME SELBY: Right straight through and then -- and then, of course, September 1st Exxon declared that it was unsafe. You know everybody else on the island was still out. In fact, we do most of our silver fishing during the month of September, but they declared that it was unsafe to have crews out on the water after September 1st and shut everything down.

You know, there was still a fair amount of oil around. We kept our seiners out with the boom stuff pretty much through September I think, but at that time everybody kind of backed off to see what the winter storms -- hoped the winter storms would -- would do some amount of cleaning of the beaches and they did.

I mean that worked to some extent, but, you know, we had cleanup efforts the following two summers and we had a couple of beaches that got re-oiled I don’t know how many times -- four or five times because the mousse, you know, would wash off of one beach and then move around and pretty soon it was back up on another beach and we have a few collector beaches around the island that if there is anything around it ends up sooner or later ends up on those beaches.

SHARON BUSHELL: That’s the beaches where all the great driftwood piles are.

JEROME SELBY: So a couple of those collector beaches got re-oiled. Yeah, I don’t know how many times some of them actually got re-oiled.

We -- we actually -- the cleanup crews cleaned up one of them I think five different times. It just, you know, if there was anything floating around at all it eventually ended up on that beach it seemed like, but --

SHARON BUSHELL: How about the -- the social aspect of the town? How was --was that impacted?

JEROME SELBY: Well, there was a lot of problems. We -- we put -- we had our mental health staff working overtime throughout that whole summer because a lot of counseling, a lot of family problems, a lot of, you know, just the stress of, you know, for the fishing families in particular.

You know how are you going to make it through the winter? You know and every day we’d have the Fish & Game report and they’d say well, we got oil in this bay, in this bay, and in this bay and so fishing is closed. I mean, like I say, the only place that ever got open was the Olga Bay down on the south end of the island there and because it is, you know, just the current doesn’t bring anything in there.

It all goes by going south and that one runs back to the north from the south end of the island and all the currents go on by, so it -- it didn’t get oiled.

But It's the only bay that for sure didn’t get any oil in it. There may have been one over on the southern side of the east side of the island that may not have -- I mean nobody ever actually was down there to really confirm that it did or didn’t, but, you know, these bays in here all got little mousse paddies in them here around town at one point and all of the stuff on the west side got -- got -- got oiled so.

So, you know, the Fish & Game was there every day talking about keep the fishing closed and you know every day those folks would come to see if okay maybe we’ll be able to -- to go fishing and they never did for that summer so.

It -- it really stressed the social fabric of the community in a huge amount. You know, and that was another thing of course that Exxon never wanted to acknowledge that they had any responsibility for any kind of social problems because we billed -- I tried -- we tried to bill them for some of the overtime for the mental health staff and they -- they refused to pay it so.

And, you know, it was all directly related to the spill. You know, normally the summertime here is when their workload goes down because people are out doing things and that’s when you have the least problems and the least domestic disputes and the least of all those kinds of things and that summer it was -- they were up at the max.

So the women’s shelter was doing land office business and the mental health staff was maxed out to the point that we started getting concerned about them even because they were starting to burn out on us too, you know.

And so, you know, you just don’t have enough people to deal with something of that magnitude pretty much shuts down all community in terms of the normal summer economic activities so. So, it was a long summer to say the least.

SHARON BUSHELL: Boy, yeah I keep in my mind now that we have gone through this Katrina experience I mean the country has gone through this Katrina I keep thinking that folks down south must look back at the Exxon tragedy and think, yeah, that was bad, but that’s nothing compared to what happened to us and with our loss of life and New Orleans being -- having the population busted in half, but -- but it’s still, you know, as you well know it is comparing apples to street cars.

JEROME SELBY: Well, but I would argue that it is actually -- was actually worse because --


JEROME SELBY: Their the -- the hurricane came through. It was there for a day or two and it was gone and the damage was done and then it was a matter of you could start cleaning up and repairing and getting straightened out. Here, it just kept -- it went on and on and on and on for the whole summer, you know, it never stopped.

And so instead of being just a day or two and end, it was three months of misery for folks hoping they could go fishing, hoping they could get back to doing something normal. You know, the village folks didn’t know if they could eat subsistence fish and subsistence clams safely or not.

Exxon did nothing to do anything about that. We sent out a bunch of samples for labs, but the labs were all plugged. There was no lab capacity in Alaska. So all these samples were going down south and we had stuff in Denver, Colorado and Texas and California and Oregon and it took months to get results back, you know.

So here you are waiting -- all these folks are waiting to see well can we, you know, how can we eat the salmon or is it safe to eat the salmon and put away our subsistence salmon for the winter or not, you know and, you know, and Exxon came up with this bright thing about well if you open a clam and it smells like oil, don’t eat it.

Well, yeah, right. Everybody could figure that out, you know. What an idiot statement is that? But so just, you know, the impact and the way that folks didn’t know what to do. I mean and so you left everybody in limbo land for months is what ended up happening.

And I would argue that that’s worse than a hurricane that blows through and is done and then you start -- you can get busy cleaning up and getting back to -- getting back to your life in one way or another.

I think -- I don’t think that’s as bad as what this community went through. It’s -- to do something like that for two or three months you could just see people wearing down, you know.


JEROME SELBY: And breaking down.


JEROME SELBY: Over time and it just -- I don’t think there is any comparison personally, you know. Granted a hurricane is a bad thing and you -- to lose your house or something would be traumatic, but I still don’t think it is as bad as what happened to these folks in terms of as you watch this thing just go on day after day after day.

It was hard on people I tell you. Really hard on people and the best thing that could happen was that the ones who got hired on cleanup crews could get out and be doing something and that was probably the best therapy for the folks that you could have, you know.

So a lot -- we made sure that we got crews approved in each of their villages and so a number of the folks who would have been doing subsistence fishing or commercial fishing were on the cleanup crews who were busy got busy cleaning up and that was the best therapy that we could get for them in terms of what was going on and you know the rest of the story was they actually did make a little bit of money to help feed their family through the winter in lieu of -- I mean it wasn’t near the kind of income they would have gotten for fishing, but at least they made a little bit of money where they could buy some groceries and stuff for the coming winter -- coming winter, yeah.

But -- but anyway it's -- that’s -- it was a pretty big impact all the way around the island and -- but the social part of it Exxon never lifted a finger or was willing to pay for a penny’s worth of any kind of assistance for anybody for that kind of stuff, so it was like that was outside of the scope of what they might be responsible for.

SHARON BUSHELL: I was thinking recently about the idea of divide and conquer and how that applied to -- it almost if you look at it in a certain light it is almost like Exxon decided on that strategy to come into a community and give contracts to one guy for the use of his boat at 5000 bucks.


SHARON BUSHELL: And another guy 2000 bucks or the difference between what they would offer for folks in Kodiak as opposed to people in the villages or across the bay in Homer or its -- and when you get people angry at each other than they take their eye off the --


SHARON BUSHELL: The Exxon ball and I don’t know it's just -- it just seems so mean spirited to pit people against each other that have been neighbors and --

JEROME SELBY: Yep. No, it -- it caused, you know, people who had been lifelong friends ended up never speaking to each other again over some of that stuff that they pulled like that so it -- yeah, it was -- it was destructive to the social fabric of the community big time.

Just their whole approach to the thing. We -- we actually started doing the boat leasing before they -- and then they took it away from us because, you know we were trying to be equitable and we actually were starting to come up with a rotation plan that would rotate it through all of the boats.


JEROME SELBY: Well, before we got very far with that they put an end to that. They demanded that they had -- they were the ones who could write boat contracts and took -- took it away from us.

We did it initially because they didn’t have enough people down here to be doing a bunch of that stuff and they authorized us initially to do it, but then they took it -- came and took it away from us and so.


JEROME SELBY: You know, if we could have -- if we could have done the management of the cleanup stuff, we would have -- it would have gone a lot better and we would have been able to involve a lot more people over the term of the summer because we would have rotated because we figured that out right away.

Because even if we didn’t need all of the boats out there all the time, we could certainly rotate the -- the contract work amongst the boats so that everybody got roughly the same number of days of -- of income for the boat and kind of spread that out across the whole fleet.

So -- and it wouldn’t have been that hard to do I mean --


JEROME SELBY: Exxon -- VECO could have done the same thing if they had chosen to do it, but that is kind of like you were saying it was I think part of their strategy that would be -- that they would create some hub-bub amongst the fishermen so they wouldn’t all get united about the oil spill.


JEROME SELBY: Type of thing. They’d have something else to argue about so.

SHARON BUSHELL: Well, in consideration of the fact that I have to condense the story down to about 1,200 words, we’ve probably gone adequately over that, but I am sure you have more to say, so what else would you like to say about the oil spill, Jerome? What do you think is important to say about it?

JEROME SELBY: Well, I think the -- to me the important lesson would be and really part of it is for the Coast Guard because the whole idea of while the spiller is responsible, I think the spiller being the oversight for the effort to minimize the damage and to the cleanup is probably a really bad idea is what I would conclude from all of this.

And so I -- hopefully if -- if anybody had to go through that again I would hope that the Coast Guard would allow communities to be responsible for their own efforts in terms of preventing, you know, minimizing damage and cleaning up after the fact.

The spiller should still have to pay the bill --


JEROME SELBY: -- and I realize the Coast Guard has to be concerned about folks aren’t just spending money foolishly and that’s not what I’m saying at all, but I’m just saying that, you know, the folks in this community would have done a much better job of protecting -- minimizing the damage and cleaning stuff up after the fact than what happened with these outside contractors that Exxon brought in that didn’t know anything about -- because the fishermen knew where the currents were going.

They could tell you before the oil got to a bay which beaches on the bay were going to hit, you know. And if you would have -- if we could have used that information. Now, like I say, some of them you couldn’t have done anything, except clean it up afterwards anyway.

Some of them could have been boomed effectively and because using that knowledge would have made a huge difference in terms of -- of fighting the oil as it came and protecting some areas so you wouldn’t have as much to clean up and then -- and moving in quickly and cleaning up the ones that did get hit before the stuff sunk down or got over on the mainland.

Some of the bays had 18, 24 inches of mousse come in and then because of the waves and the tides and the currents and whatnot before it got cleaned up, it put a layer of sand over it, you know. I mean it was -- it got to be a huge mess over there on a couple of those bays before they ever got anybody over there to do anything with it.

And, you know, if they -- it you could have gone in and gotten that mousse off there when it first came in there before it got mixed up with the sand and all that stuff, you could have got a lot more off of it, a lot more effectively than -- than what ended what happening.

So that’s why to me the spiller needs to be responsible, but I’m -- I don’t think they’re the ones that ought to be in charge of the cleanup.

SHARON BUSHELL: Makes a lot of sense.

JEROME SELBY: And so hopefully if anything -- if anybody has to ever go through that again I would hope that the Coast Guard would figure out that out.

We worked -- the Coast Guard did a pretty good job, but they tended to be influenced by Exxon a little too heavily I -- we thought here.

And we would have preferred to have a much better direct communication with the Coast Guard and if we could have been the one getting folks out I think it would have been a much better cleanup, but --

SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. Okay. Well, this is the point which I’m supposed to be taking a photograph of you, but I left my camera at home.

It’s -- my husband is overnighting it to me so I’m going to have to run you down --


SHARON BUSHELL: And walk over and take a picture of you.


SHARON BUSHELL: Are you going to be at the -- are you going to be over at the RCAC meeting on Thursday and Friday at all at the Elks?

JEROME SELBY: I probably will drop in, so you could grab a photo.

SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. There’s going to be a community kind of open house I guess on Thursday at five o’clock. Oops, I guess I can turn this off.