Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Roy Robertson, Part 1

Roy Robertson was interviewed on August 16, 1989 by an unidentified male interviewer. An unidentified female interviewer also asks one question near the end of the interview. The location of the interview is unknown, but since Roy was a field supervisor for VECO overseeing beach cleanup after the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill based out of Seldovia, Alaska, it is likely this interview took place there. The interview was conducted at the end of the summer after the oil spill when Exxon Corporation was stopping beach cleanup operations. It seems that this might have been an interview by a television reporter, given the nature of the questioning and the interviewer's desire to have Roy sum up his comments in a short sound bite format.  The original interview was obtained from the Alaska Resources Library and Information Service (ARLIS) in Anchorage, Alaska with limited association information. In this first part of a two part interview, Roy talks about his job overseeing beach cleanup operations, problems and frustrations with the work, and his thoughts about bioremediation. Roy focuses on a particular incident with Admiral Robbins and Exxon Corporation where Roy was told to do different things by the different groups in charge.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-26-13_Pt.1

Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Aug 16, 1989
Narrator(s): Roy Robertson
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
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
Slideshow
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Sections

Job as VECO Field Supervisor and work accomplished by his team

Oil spill cleanup demobilization

Remaining oil

Volunteers cleaning up oil

Quality of oil spill cleanup

Job frustrations and getting caught between Admiral Robbins and Exxon Corporation

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Transcript



ROY ROBERTSON: My name's Roy Robertson. As of yesterday I was the VECO Field Supervisor for Team 5 down into the peninsula.

INTERVIEWER: What did you do down there?

ROY ROBERTSON: Basically I was the VECO representative of our team that was actually in charge of supervising or orchestrating the actual beach cleanups.

I had normally about thirty people. It varied through the summer, but it was supposed to have been about thirty beach workers and went to whatever the heaviliest impacted beaches were and try to get up oil.

INTERVIEWER: How was your progress?

ROY ROBERTSON: Sometimes it was real good. Other times it wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Anytime that we got into where we were really producing oil and started feeling real good about it something would always happen that would slow us down.

Be it, I don’t know, a lack of capacity to put on -- take the material off which was what hit us at the beginning of the summer. At the end, they kept saying no gravel -- no gravel.

Get into gravel that was real thick had a concentration of oil in it, but there's no real way of being able to wash that oil off without having some kind of gravel machines.

So we would try to take that and they didn’t -- they kept saying, you know, we’re not in the gravel business.

INTERVIEWER: Who’s they?

ROY ROBERTSON: Exxon. Aubrey Brown for one, who's the fleet commander out there for all of Exxon on the peninsula.

INTERVIEWER: And what about moral of the workers?

ROY ROBERTSON: Moral was real high when we were able to produce.

We had kind of a special group, I don’t know. It's more coming from such a small community of Seldovia it was more of a family type group as where Homer or some of these other groups seemed like it was, you know, they were more in it for a job.

Our people were a little bit more of a tight knit group, I believe.

I think this was one of the things that enabled us to be able to produce so well, but it was more fun to go to the beach and work and it wasn’t something that we dreaded. We enjoyed getting off the boats and getting on the beach and feeling like you accomplished something.

As the summer went on and we got down to having to use hand trowels and pompoms and just being able to sit down in a pile of rocks and just scrape and stuff moral went down.

That was just, you know, it's a real frustrating to see this oil and stuff and then just have to be picking up twigs and stuff out of these rocks that you feel like you could just take a shovel and shovel up and get it done with and go on and find some more oil.

INTERVIEWER: If the oil spill hadn’t hit, what else would you be doing this summer?

ROY ROBERTSON: This summer I would have been working on a log cabin that I started last year and was planning on doing that for this summer.

But as April 12th came -- well, actually about the 10th we started volunteering here and then I started with VECO the 12th.

And it just kind of progressed until yesterday.

INTERVIEWER: How about next year? What are you going to do?

ROY ROBERTSON: Next year I'm not sure right now. I've been real burnt out from the summer. It's been a really long summer for me.

I haven’t had that much time off and was staying down there. Take a few weeks off and then kind of re-evaluate and see what I'm going to do.

I don’t believe that Exxon's going to have any kind of oil cleanup next summer. I'm not planning on that anyway.

I don’t know exactly which direction I want to go right now.

INTERVIEWER: What are your ideas on the demobilization?

ROY ROBERTSON: I believe they're doing it a little early.

They -- they are resting all their hopes in this bioremediation, which may be something that would really work.

The problem I see with that is they're not going ahead and getting as much oil up out of the environment and then doing the bioremediation before the storm.

I think Exxon's using this bioremediation as something that they can do and then take a wait and see approach. They're hoping that the storms of this winter will cover it up or wash it off or something.

I don’t know if they've got so much hope in the bioremediation as it is just a tool for them to be able to say well we got to wait and see if this works.

I’ve heard it does work, but I've also heard from DC reps and people out that's been at the barrens that they were putting it on like 18 inches of oil out on the barrens.

And I don’t see any way of that working as well as just going ahead and shoveling it up and getting it out of the environment and then what you can’t get out you should -- yeah, that would work real well I think.

I don’t see leaving oil that is obtainable to wait and see if something can get it out of the environment.

INTERVIEWER: Are they done working out here?

ROY ROBERTSON: Right now what they did yesterday. Last Sunday I was advised to cut my team down to 20 people which I had to cut 11 people --

make the decisions and was implementing that and we were supposed to move off our Pacific Harvester onto the Opie [phonetic] and go back to Port Dick,

which we were starting to get some good oil up there, but that was the plan. They pulled us in last Thursday and brought us into Windy Bay and we were supposed to sit there for a few days and then get on the Optimus Prime [phonetic] and go back to Port Dick.

I did get some time off, quote "time off" to come to Seldovia Sunday and was planning to go out today.

And yesterday morning I heard that they just cut our whole crew and released everyone. We do still have a few Seldovians working on the burn crew, which is on the Nushagak and they're traveling around and burning the driftwood that's been cut, but that isn’t expected to last much longer.

From what I understand their plans is to continue to let the Homer people work -- the one beaches they're working now which would be like five days to they finish that and then that group's going to be cut off so

and they're going to try to maintain a 16 person team out there to monitor the coast and just walk beaches.

Those guys are coming from the Port Graham English Bay area, which is just, you know, it should be their job. It's their land that they'll be monitoring.

INTERVIEWER: How much -- how much oil is still left out there?

ROY ROBERTSON: Well, for surface oil it doesn’t look that bad as what it did at the beginning of the summer.

What happened is there's no pooled oil. They're -- What they had was two stages of cleanup gross and final.

Exxon was just trying to do gross. And by not hitting it hard enough at the beginning of the summer when it was standing on the beaches to where you could actually get to it and get a real high percentage out,

they've let it get warm and it starts to run as it gets warm and it sinks down through the gravel and sand and stuff.

So there's a lot of places there that look clean and you go up and kick a couple inches of sand off with your foot and then you start finding this mousse paddies.

One of their quotes was we’re not looking for oil, but if you find it pick it up.

It's like this all over a lot of the beaches. You just have to kind of, you know, look. Be one that wants to find it rather than just, you know, walking by and then if you see it, well pick that up.

That was one of the things that our group was continually getting in trouble for it seemed like.

Is we were trying to actually get the oil up. We would move rocks and stuff. And what they didn’t want to do is move the gravel and get it up and then re-cover it.

I think what they found out is it's a lot more expensive to do something with the oil than it is just to get it up.

And that hit them pretty early on, that they realized that it's just massive cost to get it out of the environment and to ship it to wherever they’re shipping it.

But what they want to do is just -- right now is if they see any oil on top of the surface you can get that, but you're not supposed to move any gravel or any rocks or anything to get underneath it.

A lot of that stuff is -- been washed up under the rocks. You roll it over and you'll find little pools and paddies of oil on certain beaches.

INTERVIEWER: Do you support these -- the volunteers that are working on the oil in Nagik [phonetic] Bay?

ROY ROBERTSON: Yeah, I’m in total support with them. If you get more people out there doing it the better that they can.

That's what they should have done at the beginning of summer is just dump massive people out there and it would have been in a lot better shape.

I think one thing that the volunteers may end up running into, and that's going to be something for DEC to determine,

is once Exxon comes in and does this bioremediation that’s some pretty wicked stuff I guess from what I understand,

and there're some people of mine while I'd come back here were working on one beach that had supposedly been sprayed and they were starting to get rashes and stuff developing.

If Exxon does this on all the beaches then the volunteers aren’t going to be able to get on those beaches I wouldn’t think, you know.

That would be up to DEC, but if you’re, you know, just get real -- makes it a lot more toxic so I don’t know what's going to happen there.

I thought if it had been my approach the bioremediation may work real good, but I thought Exxon should have go ahead and clean the beaches as best they can and then do that as they're leaving.

Which I guess that's what they’re doing, but they're leaving just about a month early, I believe.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think Exxon cleaned the beaches in this area to the best of their abilities?

ROY ROBERTSON: No. I think we could have done a lot better job -- more thorough, especially at the beginning of the year.

Like I say, if you'd have hit it when it was still on top of the beaches rather than letting it warm up and filter through the gravel and sand I think it would've been a lot more effective.

Once it gets into the gravel and sand you are taking a lot of gravel and sand with it.

I guess NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has determined that that’s real harmful for the beach, also, but, you know, you got to a Catch 22 there, you know.

You take it and get it out of the environment or you leave it in the environment. Which is going to be the worst?

Okay. It has been pretty frustrating for me at several times. One time in particular that I can think of.

Admiral Robbins came out to Chugach Bay. They came up and landed on the beach and we were, like I say, down on our hands and knees picking gravel and sticks and oil debris out of this cobblestone gravel.

He came up and looked at this and said, "Well, this is pretty futile." It was like yeah, you know, you're just jerking around here, so he told us to go ahead and take it.

And Randy Redabomb [phonetic], I think the guy’s name in Homer that was with him, and so it was all supportive of we're just go ahead and take it down to the clean gravel.

Well, we had a real good day that day and had 1,700 bags.

When that evening Aubrey Brown -- he was the fleet commander for Exxon in that area out there, sent his chopper over to pick up myself and my super -- Exxon supervisor Bobby French.

And flew us out to this beach, which we met with Tiny Harrison and -- and Randy Renner and Keith Iverson who's -- that’s the three -- Bobby, Keith and Tiny were the three Exxon supervisors for that area out there for each team.

We were five, I think. Randy was three and Tiny was one. Randy has the same position I do.

It was a meeting pretty much to discuss what’s coming up supposedly, but you could tell the whole meeting was aimed at me to where we were not supposed to be getting gravel. I'd been warned several times.