Digital Asset Information
Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Date of Interview: Dec 19, 2013
Narrator(s): Joe Banta
Interviewer(s): Alicia Zorzetto
Videographer: Amanda Johnson
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
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Announcement of the spill
Working on wildlife response.
Founding of Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council (PWSRAC)
Changes in the ecosystem after the spill.
Thoughts on the future of Prince William Sound
Differences between PWSRCAC and other advisory committees
Working with other founders of PWSRCAC
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AMANDA JOHNSON: And start. Let me check.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Is it on?
AMANDA JOHNSON: Um, ready?
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay. Hello. Today is December 19, 2013. My name is Alicia Zorzetto, Digital Collections Librarian for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.
I am here with my co-worker Joe Banta. He is the Project Manager for Environment Monitoring at PWSRCAC. Hello.
I guess I should start this interview Joe by asking let’s go a little bit further beyond to the initial oil spill, but, you know, where are you from in Alaska and what were you doing before you started working for PWSRCAC?
JOE BANTA: Well I’ll start with the announcement of the oil spill.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay.
JOE BANTA: And kind of go back. It is interesting I was laying in bed, you know, like a lot of people in Anchorage.
You wake to NPR and the first thing I hear is the Alaska section say is a tanker is aground on Bligh Reef and the first thing I thought was oh, my God, the guy must have been drinking to do that and --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: And he was.
JOE BANTA: Unfortunately it turned out to be true, yes. But at the time I was working for a little nonprofit fisherman’s organization and we had dealt with some issues related to Bristol Bay oil lease buybacks and oil spill contingency plans for the proposed projects out there.
So I had a decent familiarity with kind of some of the issues with spill response and oil spills and --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Were you in Cordova at that time?
JOE BANTA: No, I was in Anchorage.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: In Anchorage, okay.
JOE BANTA: So then we -- I ended up getting training going out pretty quickly to do wildlife response with my dad’s boat and it was interesting I think I'll point out this --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah.
JOE BANTA: Because everybody knows the spill, of course, was here on Bligh Reef and sat there for the first two or three days until the wind came up and really finally pushed it to the southwest part of the sound.
Well we were assigned to do wildlife rescue around Chenega Island and never really heard it mentioned or talked about, but we -- as we approached Chenega from a mile or two off shore, we were actually running through wax through this, of course, this was after the spill had calmed down after that storm and the oil had passed through, but there was still this wax that had separated out and it was just like -- it was odd.
It was like running through skim ice or something.
And it was, you know, for a mile or more off shore. And one of the things that it has never been mentioned or talked about and why was that and what was it and what were the implications environmentally when they cleaning up.
So -- so we worked pretty hard running around here and trying to catch oiled wildlife essentially and mostly birds.
There weren’t a lot of otters and the National Marine Fisheries Service didn’t want otters captured they wanted to do it themselves.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Cause they are a little bit more dangerous to capture, is that correct? Or --
JOE BANTA: Well I think they’re a Marine Mammals Protection Act species so they were --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay.
JOE BANTA: -- kind of protected and they didn’t want them bothered, but I think they lost more because of it. You pretty much grab them by the tail and dump them in a kennel.
But, so we were chasing birds around with dipnets and -- and trying to essentially race the eagles to -- to get them.
Because if a bird is -- is fouled with oil they -- they’re gonna pretty much want to get out of the water so they get up on the beach and the eagles get up pretty early in the morning and they find the bird and they -- they’ll hit it and take it and unfortunately that really oiled the eagles as well because they ended up -- as the days went by we could see their tails starting to get actually darkened by the oil.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Really.
JOE BANTA: And sure they come down and feed on it and that white tail is going to get dark with oil and it is going ugly process.
So we were there for a few weeks. I actually went back to my nonprofit job and did letter writing and commenting on all the laws, of course, that came out after that.
In response to the spill.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: So you specifically mean OPA 9 -- OPA 90, the pollution act?
JOE BANTA: Mostly state.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay.
JOE BANTA: Mostly the state laws that were coming out.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay.
JOE BANTA: And HB 567 and -- and those related bills and then ended within a year I got hired by RCAC as one of the first employees and have been here almost 24 years now.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: So let’s, okay, introduction to RCAC. Can we talk about maybe the founding the original -- I mean I’m not sure -- it sounds like you weren’t as actively involved in -- in, you know, putting in this legislation for OPA -- within the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 for citizen’s group.
However, you were there right at the start of when, you know, the process got going so.
JOE BANTA: Sure. I was certainly steeped in the process because --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah.
JOE BANTA: It was -- it was kind of the genesis of what we started from. So knowing that it was an interesting process because before I was hired all these folks -- individuals from various communities had been encouraged to form this organization even before OPA 90 based on the model from Scotland in Sollum Voe.
So they were meeting quite regularly in the mornings, you know, before work, after work, in the evenings and then even coming to meetings in Anchorage kind of centrally to -- to plan and kind of organize themselves and really working hard and managing to get a contract to form Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council even before OPA 90 and got that contract signed with Alyeska despite the protestations of Exxon.
Jim Hermiller President of Alyeska at the time did sign the contract and make it official and it's been the basis for our relationship with industry and our funding mechanism ever since.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: So even after the spill Exxon was totally against the founding of a citizens’ group?
JOE BANTA: Yeah.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah. Wow.
JOE BANTA: Otto Harrison, the President of Exxon, was pretty -- pretty hard to deal with I guess. So --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: So what was it like working here initially?
JOE BANTA: Oh, my gosh, it was so frenetic. It was -- I mean it was just crazy. There were meetings all the time.
We have board meetings now maybe three times a year. There were meetings every month or two.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: So wow.
JOE BANTA: Executive Committee meetings and as we formed the various standing committees meetings for them and one of the big things we did right off the bat was the -- there was a pretty key recognition that the oil spill response plan was just not up to snuff and that was why the response equipment was frozen on shore and no oil was essentially picked up when they had three days of perfect opportunity with incredibly calm weather.
And so that oil spill plan was one of the first things we wanted to work on and I remember Tim Robertson from Seldovia was the chair of the OSPRC Committee then.
We formed that committee and we started meeting. We were meeting in the mornings. We’d have like a 6:30, 7 am phone call and -- and pour through the plan and actually the volunteers on the board had done some work like that already, but then as the OSPRE Committee -- Oil Spill Prevention Response Committee took over we -- we just kept on trucking through the plan in more and more detail and trying to get things going.
One of the best of which over the first couple years was recognition first. They call it the Mosquito Fleet which I think is kind of misnomer but it's the Mosquito Fleet because all these boats are buzzing out all over, but people really took it into their own hands to go out and protect the hatcheries.
The fishermen knew this was their livelihood and -- and they might not be able to protect every creek and stream, but they could at least protect the hatcheries that, you know, really gave them a type -- kind of financial stability.
They went out on their own and designed protection strategies, got boom and protected those hatcheries.
It was interesting because I wasn’t there and you might hear this or ask this from Tom Copeland if you interview him, but there was supposedly fights at the Cordova airport over who got boom and who was going to take it --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Oh, really.
JOE BANTA: You know it is like the fish on this boom is going to protect the hatchery and they kind of --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Huh.
JOE BANTA: Won out and made sure the hatcheries were protected.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Wow.
JOE BANTA: That’s kind of a little side note, but as you look at that Mosquito Fleet and you looked at the fishermen say it is just common sense.
We’ve got these guys that know the area and have this immense local knowledge. They have these purpose built boats that are designed for the weather, the -- the waters of this Prince William Sound area.
We need to get them actively involved in spill response for the future. So one of the big changes -- positive things that we got was a commitment by the state and by Alyeska to have oil spill response training and contracted fishing vessels for a cadre a kind of core of a response fleet that --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: By the fishermen.
JOE BANTA: Did kind of this three tier process. They had fishing vessels that went out immediately with initial response to help the -- the newly formed serves more aggressive response that was in the first six hours.
Then they had a second tier response of -- that is actually like 300 vessels that are contracted so they can get those guys out in about 24 hours and then a third tier capability to train and bring in even more.
So while the sound, you know, was, you know, damaged significantly by the spill one of the good things that came out of it was an aggressive involvement of local residents and being able to protect it in the future.
And I think that’s one of the things that really should be recognized as progress and credit to the local communities and to this state and to Alyeska for everybody working together to make that happen.
Here even 24 years later it has had some ups and downs. Sometimes they had to renegotiate on compensation after people were kind of getting off of the list of vessels and they did that and people, you know, it is a good program again. There is lots of involvement so.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: So even with new fishermen coming in and older -- older ones, you know, retiring or whatnot, there has still been consistency regarding their involvement as far as --
JOE BANTA: There has been involvement. Yeah, I think everybody has definitely been a generational passage already after the spill. There is still lots of good involvement.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Great. That is great. Now I also want to ask you, so before the spill before you were in Anchorage you did go to Cordova did you not?
JOE BANTA: I grew up in Cordova. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yes, so you grew up --
JOE BANTA: I was a commercial fisherman like about everybody there.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah.
JOE BANTA: Did that starting in grade school.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: So you -- I mean I guess it's fair to say that you knew the Sound pretty well before the oil spill then?
JOE BANTA: Sure, yeah. I spent my summers there.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: And then now you’re involved with environmental monitoring so you essentially handle all the contracts that PWSRCAC handles as far as, you know, involve-- scientific research regarding the Sound, correct?
JOE BANTA: Sure.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah. So can I ask you then do you see drastic changes between where we were -- where we were before the spill and where we are now.
I guess I’ll explain, Rick Steiner mentioned in his perspective that the Sound was on a sort of path as far as the ecosystem was concerned before the spill and even though there has been rehabilitation it is never going to be on that path again.
He explained it as if the train switched tracks and now we’re going on a different route -- a post oil spill route versus what was happening before. Would you agree with that or do you have a different?
JOE BANTA: Well I think Rick's got a good point. If you go out in the Sound now, it is difficult to see that there was a spill there. Things look pretty much the same, but you have to have the perspective of having been there before too.
So the -- the changes that have been significant and the last thing is there is always some debate -- oh, I think less and less about whether or not the spill impacted herring.
There's this keystone species literally hundreds of thousands of tons there and essentially gone from the whole ecosystem within --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: A couple years. JOE BANTA: A few years.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right.
JOE BANTA: And so, since they died off, I think that impacted feeding opportunities for other species -- recovering species really many of the marine mammals and the sea birds that depended on young herring.
That -- that wasn’t there, so that was certainly an impact and a change in direction like he is talking about.
And while the herring have come a little bit, they're nowhere - you know, they're more like a kind of baseline of twenty or thirty thousand tons instead of 150,000.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Wow.
JOE BANTA: More tons, so --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: So that you're essentially -- herring was so important because it wasn’t just important for fisherman, it was also, you know, the foundation to a lot of the wildlife in the Prince William Sound?
JOE BANTA: Exactly. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah.
JOE BANTA: Exactly and -- and some other changes -- it is kind of interesting as you look at the whole (inaudible). Okay, now the herring never really recovered.
They are struggling and there's growth in whales that are feeding on the herring and kind of keeping the population suppressed because it has -- it hasn’t been able to kind of get over this kind of low baseline.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right.
JOE BANTA: It is keeping it suppressed now so on a different track.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah. Is there anything else that you notice other than the herring or --
JOE BANTA: Well people -- people that know about the damages there's harlequin ducks. That's kind of a beautiful hardy sea duck living on the edge of its range up there all winter long. They have struggled to come back.
It looks like they’re finally about -- I think they've either been declared recovered by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council or they are about to be.
Some of the sea otters on the south side too so this is all kind of struggling species over the last 25 years almost.
And the pod of -- the resident pod of killer whales, of course, is another story that many folks don’t know or if you are just coming to town you don’t know because that pod is significantly reduced.
In fact, on its way out because they’re -- they’re not reproducing on a sustained amount.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah. And it’s funny I mentioned to Rick off record that, you know, I -- recently I took my cousin to a trip down to Seward and we went on one of those daily cruises and he was not -- it just looks like the most robust ecosystem ever and you wouldn't realize that there has been, you know, long-term changes from, you know, the pre-oil spill.
So in a way the oil spill --as he said the oil spill put Alaska on the map for people that have more of an interest in it which is a good and bad thing because if you come and you are not aware of, you know, the long-term consequences of the oil spill you come in and think it is fully recovered when it -- when it’s not.
JOE BANTA: That’s a good point and, you know, the historical perspective that you have if you have been a resident.
Any of the residents know it though and that’s the -- they’re the real people of the Sound anyway. The people in Chenega or Tatitlek or Cordova and Whittier and Valdez, you know, they have lived there for long term. They know it and they’re contemporate too.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah.
JOE BANTA: There was another point I was going to get too and wasn’t that. You know go ahead I lost my train of thought on that.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Well on that I was just going to ask you a couple other questions whether, you know, do you feel as if the future is promising within the Sound or and if so, why and if not then perhaps you can provide, you know, a little bit of information regarding that?
JOE BANTA: Sure. You can still go out in the Sound and find oil I mean you guys have done that recently.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah.
JOE BANTA: If you know where to go you can dig down and find the oil and it looks like regular --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: It looks the same.
JOE BANTA: Crude oil, yeah.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah.
JOE BANTA: It’s shocking really and that’s gonna be there from undetermined future, but I think the future for the Sound as a whole is -- is I think pretty decent.
You are going to have to look at what’s going on and -- and I think that we have decent management through our Alaska Department of Fish & Game so salmon stocks are -- are robust.
The -- the marine mammals are coming back. There is at least a baseline of herring now. There are species like the sea otters in western Prince William Sound, the harlequin ducks.
They are the sea ducks, the marbled murrelet are all coming back so -- so it’s after 25 years unfortunately we’re -- we’re getting close to a recovered Sound.
Will we ever get there entirely and are we like Rick Steiner said on a different track.
You know biologically and, and ecosystem wise. Yeah, I think we’re different, but the Sound is at least in decent health.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah. What do you think about the rest of Alaska, you know, there’s other risks in other areas and because of the spill things have changed dramatically as far as protecting and doing things responsibly.
But how do you feel as far as state or even federally, you know, after -- if you think about Deepwater Horizon, where do you think America's going as far as protecting (inaudible) --
JOE BANTA: One of the cool things -- one of the cool things that OPA 90 did was lay out the RCAC’s -- because we have a sister organization in Cook Inlet, that’s kind of a -- a model organization and a role model for how to involve citizens and I think we -- we set a successful standard.
We've have shown how one you can involve local residents and spill response so actively being there. You can also involve them in prevention through our committees and involvements.
We -- we comment on these oil spill plans. They aren’t just oil spill response plans. They are also prevention plans that deal with ensuring best available technology for tug escorts.
We -- we successfully ensured that tug escorts were a part of the system permanently.
We have seen other prevention technologies come into play that we worked on early on like double hulled technology but more -- more small things too like anything from alarms to -- to standards to where they position their response resources where the tugs operate whether or not the tugs are -- are hooked up to the tankers for instantaneous response capabilities and we have been involved in all those things and I think made a real difference.
So set a standard for citizen involvement on a number of levels in the planning and -- and permitting as well as the actual response and that's been a very good thing and a model for people to follow on and, you know, they’re struggling to get a citizens’ advisory council down in the gulf, but they have used us as a model.
And, in fact, other countries around the world have actually sought us out and gathered information from us as a model. So that’s a pretty positive impact right there.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Absolutely. And -- and just because we’re a model doesn’t necessarily mean that we -- that things need to be the exact same in other areas as what they are here.
It just means that if, you know, the impact of the citizens or involvement of the citizens in this sort of citizen is really important correct?
JOE BANTA: Right.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Cause in Europe, they have two. One in France and then one in Sollum Voe as well.
JOE BANTA: Citizens Sollum Voe -- I think the --
ALICIA ZORZETTO: And they’re different.
JOE BANTA: They are. There is more involvement directly with industry. We have a pretty clear statement in our contract that gives us independence from industry for operation and we want and solicit industry’s input, but I think being independent from them is also one of our strengths.
So we -- we can work with them. They come to our meetings. We solicit their information, but -- and we take our independent research, our independent thought process and deliberation by the council and bring them the best information and advice we can.
But it's independent from them and I think that’s a real strength of our advice because we’re not just looking out for their business. I mean it is a business in the business to make profit and why we have the Exxon Valdez was because probably because things kept getting -- there was complacency and cut backs.
And the barge -- response barge that was available was frozen in the ice because of these kind of things and that’s a natural progression for businesses to want to cut costs, but that’s not an issue for an independent advisory group.
So we -- I think as part of our anti-complacency capabilities to set that aside and -- and give the best advice and I think that’s good for business in the long run not the short term.
So and that's often a difficulty for business to look towards the long term. So we end up giving this advice that has I think saved them spills, from spills, given them stronger prevention and set them out as a model too which is to their credit.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: Another question I have for you is more internally with regards to how the citizens handled the oil spill and afterwards, you know, you mentioned Rick Steiner (inaudible) and you mentioned Tom Copeland and, of course, there is Stan Stephens and Scott Sterling and many others that were really involved at the initial founding of RCAC.
And I was just curious like what was it like especially having that type of leadership, you know, and it’s funny cause when I -- I’ve spoken to some of them now and they are all -- they all have the same -- they all have the same vision, you know, when they’re looking back and I’m just curious do they have the same vision initially?
Was there, you know, a lot of chaos or discombobulation when you’re trying to, you know, create this organization and how -- how do you organize that at first?
JOE BANTA: I think the -- there were always debates. But they were really genial. It -- it was heady times. Here you had this group of some of the best and the brightest from our state.
All coming together, you know, wanting the same end result and so with -- I mean they’re bright, they’re strong willed, they’re leaders. Of course, there were debates and -- and healthy ones though and it was a fun time to be there to see these, you know, great leaders.
Stan Stephens for sure one of the great ones cause he wore his heart on his sleeve and he was just unconditionally there promoting prevention and he -- he was just a joy to watch, you know.
He was a real role model and a mentor to me really, but all of them working together was an amazing thing. They ground through so much work.
They did so much and I don’t -- it’s hard to sustain volunteer efforts over the long term.
And I think this -- this organization really has done that so much more than many. But you have to recognize that it is finite and there is burnout with volunteers.
And the beauty of our organization’s funding is that it allows us to have a staff that can take the leadership, take the information from our core volunteers and their kind of bottom up process to really bring things up to our council and let the council work these issues through.
And -- and that was really all formulated back then and it has worked pretty flawlessly since I think and the incredible amount of service and time people gave back then I think is pretty much unparalleled. It’s -- it’s hard to imagine.
And I think that part of the luck of it the draw there is that in Alaska many of these people work seasonally.
They were able to make the vast majority of their income on their tourism business in the summer or their fishing business in the summer, things like that and being able to still then work real commitment through the whole rest of the year allowed this organization to really make a difference in a hurry.
ALICIA ZORZETTO: That’s a good point. And can I ask you another question about Stan specifically? I’m just curious as a -- as a young person who didn’t know Stan very well, however, what I noticed right away when he would step into the room, you could hear a pin drop.
It was -- he was one of those -- one of those individuals who felt well respected, but what I found most surprising was not that he was so respected within people of the PWSRCAC, but he was also well respected by industry, by the government, by Coast Guard, you know, ABC and whatnot.
So there was a fair bit of, you know, all these groups that oftentimes when dealing with -- with oil versus, you know, environmental safety are at odds they all carry this respect for him.
What do you think that he had that was, you know, allowed him to kind of, you know, be an advocate for the environment at the same time being so well respected by people outside of -- of the PWSRCAC?
JOE BANTA: Well Stan came on almost immediately and I saw him seated on the board and -- and he always--