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Jonathan Wills, Part 1

Jonathan Wills was interviewed on October 21, 2013 by Alicia Zorzetto at the offices of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council in Anchorage, Alaska. Amanda Johnson operated the video camera. Scott Sterling also participated in this interview. In this first part of a three part interview, Jonathan talks about coming to Cordova during the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill as a journalist and becoming an activist. He and Scott also talk about the impact the spill had on the community of Cordova, and efforts made to prevent future spills by improving safety, oil tankers, and the oil industry. He also talks about the founding of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council and what it has accomplished.



Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-26-06_PT.1

Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Date of Interview: Oct 21, 2013
Narrator(s): Jonathan Wills
Interviewer(s): Alicia Zorzetto
Videographer: Amanda Johnson
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
People Present: Scott Sterling
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.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Learning about the Exxon Valdez oil spill as a journalist in the Shetland Islands of Scotland

Scott Sterling's background and role as attorney for the City of Cordova

Effects of the oil spill on Cordova

Biological effects of the oil spill and recovery

Learning from past mistakes to improve oil tankers and transportation

Effect of technological disaster on people

Importance of education to prevent future disasters

Litigation and compensation

International improvements in tanker safety

Founding of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council (RCAC)

Environmental impacts that RCAC sponsored science has investigated

Role of Stan Stephens

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay, the date today is October 21, 2013. It's about three p.m. and I am here with Jonathan Wills and Scott Sterling, who were both involved with the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

My name's Alicia Zorzetto and I am the Digital Collections Librarian for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

And I'll ask you both to introduce yourselves to kind of give a background of where you were and what you were doing during the oil spill in 1989.

JONATHAN WILLS: Yeah, I was minding my own business editing the local newspaper in the Shetland Islands of Scotland -- the Shetland Times and I became aware of the spill through the newspaper and also radio reports. There was television footage.

I had an interest in oil spills because we'd had one in Shetland -- a bad one before and in fact years before it was Torrey Canyon in Cornwall in southwest of England.

So I started reading this stuff and I couldn’t understand how it had happened, because you have the same oil companies in Alaska that we have in Shetland exactly.

And as the ship left our tanker terminal outward bound laden, she would be watched by radars that were working by internal watched by qualified staff who would be alert.

And she'd be escorted by tugs until the last stage, or very nearly. She would have a pilot on board until she passed the narrow bit -- And although the distances are different, I just couldn’t understand how this accident could have happened.

And so about three weeks after it I made a call. I found a -- I called the Anchorage Daily News, and they said speak to Cordova District Fishermen United, CDFU.

And so I found their number and I called them. And they confirmed what I knew about it and said why don’t you come and have a look.

So about three weeks after the spill - maybe longer - I arrived in Anchorage with hand baggage only.

I got an American magazine to pay my fare and I landed up in Cordova carrying a notebook and a bottle of Scotch whiskey, which was very popular.

And the story began. And I filed the copy to the magazine. They didn’t use it. They spiked it. And so I put it into a book I was writing and --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And the name of that book?

JONATHAN WILLS: The name of it was A Place in the Sun, Shetland Denial. And then was a chapter of it called Parallels at 60 North.

By this time I'd met some of the activists. And the attorney for Cordova -- City of Cordova, my friend Mr. Sterling here.

And I suppose at some point I crossed the line between being a journalist and being an activist because what had happened was so outrageous.

And so I started helping the activists. And I 'm not ashamed of it.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay. JONATHAN WILLS: That's how I got involved. But I only ever saw the spill for about 30 seconds out of the window of a 737 landing in Cordova.

I saw some slick in the distance. I didn’t actually see the spill. I just saw its after-effects on Cordova and Valdez in particular.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So you saw the consequences?

JONATHAN WILLS: The consequences.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: We'll get to that. Maybe we'll get to that in a little bit, but I know you mentioned Scott Sterling.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Scott, would you mind perhaps expanding a little bit and mentioning who you were --

who you are and what you were doing at the time of the spill?

SCOTT STERLING: I'm a lawyer. Lived in Alaska since 1976 and in 1987 I started representing the City of Cordova through the law firm that had been their city attorney for many years.

It so happened it was on my brief when Exxon Valdez occurred.

I was in Anchorage at the time with the city manager Mr. Moore, and we were informed of the spill.

And one of the attorneys in the firm Jeff Roth flew us over to Cordova in his private airplane.

And as it happened we flew right over the wreck, and the first image I had was of the spill heading south into the -- southwesterly into the Sound [Prince William Sound].

And the Coast Guard Cutter Mustang, she's since been retired, but at that time was one of the only two Coast Guard cutters in Alaska, was plowing north at full speed and kicking up a brown wake.

A very ugly smudgy dark brown wake and I saw that from the air and I knew things were on the -- a disaster of a huge magnitude was in the making.

So I returned to Cordova with Mr. Moore and I don’t think I left for quite some time after that.

And eventually came to play a role after some time in legislation and in regulations and in RCAC.


SCOTT STERLING: RCAC stands for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Uh-huh.

SCOTT STERLING: Which actually wasn’t its original name, but that's more of the insider baseball history, but I came to know Jonathan, Rick Steiner, Riki Ott, Dan Lawn, Stan Stephens, people who I looked up to as real leaders

and inspirational people who were trying to not only remedy what had occurred but see to it that it didn’t happen again.

And to make sure that there were some mechanisms in place to help make that happen.

So I was active on the board. I was president of the council a couple times.

And I look back on it now as very -- one hopes what one does has left some good behind, you know, and I think it's just as important to look to the future as well, so --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So you both touched a fair bit about the city of Cordova or the town, I should say, of Cordova.

And Jonathan on Friday you mentioned to me off -- off the record, well not off the record, but off camera you said the species that were most at risk are human and I just was wondering --

JONATHAN WILLS: Well, people I knew in Cordova committed suicide. People I knew in Cordova their relationships broke up.

They were stressed out.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And what made Cordova this, you know, this ground zero?

JONATHAN WILLS: Because it's a fishing village and because the herring season was destroyed that year and for many years after that. In fact, the herring still haven’t recovered.

It changed the dynamics of the place. There was internicine strife because some people in desperation signed up to go and work for the cleanup contractor VECO.

Others refused on principle. And their divisions started there.

And you ended up -- sometimes people would almost hate each other more than they hated Exxon.


JONATHAN WILLS: That was the amazing thing that happened. There's quite a lot of writing, sociology been written about what happened in Cordova in particular.

It happened to some extent in Valdez as well. And it just split the community and it was desperately sad to see and I don’t -- I haven’t been back to Cordova for a while, but maybe --

Oh, it's more than 10 years since I was there. But you could still see it more than 10 years after the incident.

And I've kept touch with Alaska. I read what I can and, of course, with the Internet these days it's very easy to keep in touch.

Kept in touch particularly with Riki Ott, who's written a lot about the spill, but also about its consequences on human health for the spill workers.

This happened again with the Gulf of Mexico, an incident a couple years ago. So I think I'm quite well informed about it and as well informed as Alaskans obviously.

But it struck me that while nature can eventually heal an oil spill, it can take 100 years in a sheltered inland bay like Prince William Sound.

It doesn’t take very long in a place like the Shetland Islands where I live because we are an archipelago in the middle of the ocean.

Big spill in ’93 just washed away. But that didn’t happen in Prince William Sound and it's going to be biologically it's going to be a century.

Could be a century biologically before it's fully recovered, but it won’t recover to what it was because when you take a big chunk of an ecosystem out and particularly a planktonic level.


JONATHAN WILLS: You -- when things recover, you don’t get the same species back because some species will fill the niche. Its niches for species and you'll find that a different kind of plankton's there, for example.

You'll find that different species that feed on that plankton will come in.

So it's never going to restore to what it was. There'll be new equilibrium -- ecological equilibrium established although that's always changing, but it won’t be the same as it was before.

So the Prince William Sound that existed before - the one I never saw or even knew about --

It looks the same. Most of it's the same, but isn't really the same. It has changed.

And that, of course, is what biologists study and there's been a lot of careers in biology, but the answer surely is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

And I wrote a paper for RCAC, Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, in the year 2000 in which I listed all the improvements that have been made as a result of the spill.


JONATHAN WILLS: And since it. And the same formy islands because we had similar things happen to us and we humans can fix things.

We're smart. We can sort things out, but sometimes you just can’t -- well you can’t mend broken hearts.

You have people who lost their businesses as well as their families split, and these people are damaged for life. And it's desperately sad to see it.

So we have to work very hard to stop it happening because every oil spill I've ever looked at from Torrey Canyon on is entirely avoidable. None of them is an act of God.


JONATHAN WILLS: We hadn’t -- we didn’t learn anything new from Exxon Valdez.

I mean, you know, a tanker going off course on auto pilot. That's exactly how Torrey Canyon went aground in the mid-60’s off Cornwall.

A tanker breaking down and drifting ashore, Amoco Cadiz, off Brittany. The same with the Braer. Every time it happens the same bunch of stuff happens again because the people responsible, either the operators of the ships or the oil companies or those who are supposed to supervise and regulate them, have failed to do their job.

There's a political question, but, you know, you can do all the research in the world on the effects of an oil spill, but where the research should be going is political solutions to stop them happening.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So prevention rather than --

JONATHAN WILLS: Yeah. And we've made progress. And all credit to those in the Ireland District particularly who have taken this on board and made progress because they're technically quite able not to have catastrophes like this.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And you mentioned a fair bit about the people that are really impacted by it and I thought, Scott, you might have a really broad look.

I know Jonathan was in Cordova last time.

JONATHAN WILLS: Yeah, but he knows -- he knows the people much better than I do.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right. So what would your opinion be as far as the impact of the spill?

Does it ever, you know, can people ever separate themselves from that time? Does it transcend to their -- their children.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: What kind of legacy does the oil spill have, good or bad, to people living in the Sound?

SCOTT STERLING: Uh, I -- When Jonathan mentioned the human side, I completely agree that technological disasters whether it's an oil spill or nuclear meltdown such as happened in Japan recently.


SCOTT STERLING: Usually are a bit more difficult to comprehend and cause more complicated feelings than if it's just some earthquake or something that is not man related and how it's caused.

I think the impact on people from technological disasters, at least based on the experience of Exxon Valdez, is very severe and long lasting as Jonathan pointed out.

It tends to cause division and stress. It also tends to bring to the surface conflicting feelings we have because as David Grimes and others often pointed out, it's us.

We'e the consumers. We're the ones driving this. We need the oil.


SCOTT STERLING: We need the energy generated by the power plant. We need -- and we adapt technologies. We're smart. We can fix things. We know how to operate complicated systems.

And so I believe that there is the technological level and the economic level at which we operate day to day, but I also think there's a moral dimension to these things that that's when people really get affected by it.

That's when conflicts arise because some people will view them as an opportunity.


SCOTT STERLING: And some will view it as nearly, you know, apocalyptic.

And most people will be somewhere in the middle, but it can really expose fault lines in the inherent conflict between us wanting to preserve and enjoy and see future generations have

this, you know, absolutely stunning beautiful piece of the world known as Prince William Sound and places like it versus we're feeding ourselves a fuel that we need.


SCOTT STERLING: And I think that that conflict exists and bothers many people of conscience anyway.

And certainly did in the case of the communities in Prince William Sound. I do believe that.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And did you see -- I know a lot of the literature as far as technological disasters there's that initial shock that is similar to a national disaster, but the additional litigation can cause a severe amount of stress as well. Did you see that --

SCOTT STERLING: Yes. ALICIA ZORZETTO: -- a fair bit being a lawyer?

SCOTT STERLING: Yes. The city, my client at the time, wasn’t -- I mean it did become a litigant eventually, but wasn’t in the initial wave of --

But I certainly knew many people who were either litigants or attorneys representing them.


SCOTT STERLING: It's always easier to start those fights than it is to end them.


SCOTT STERLING: And that certainly happened in that case also. I think that that is the only system we have available under our system of justice to give people remedy.

And it was pursued as each party saw fit or, you know, ultimately got a result.

But along the way we were still shipping oil. We still needed it.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right. SCOTT STERLING: We still had to work on those things we could to try and make it as safe as possible.

I agree with Jonathan that for the most part these things are absolutely, just completely, you know, bizarre acts that you can’t predict for the most part.

If you approach the systems that we devise and apply them diligently and correctly, you will -- you can’t guarantee anything, but you can minimize the odds.

I do think people tend to forget. I think people tend to become complacent.

I think it's a natural tendency to assume that, you know, oh no jets crashed at the airport today. So that's not news, right. It's only news when one does.

And you tend to just kind of get a little complacent and a little, you know, busy with your life and your family, your kids, and whatever you're doing and you get distracted by it.

And if I can just one last thing which maybe we can talk about.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Sure. SCOTT STERLING: I think reaching out to the younger generations who were children or not yet born at the time of the spill is extremely important whether it's Exxon Valdez or any other.


SCOTT STERLING: I think that that -- education of the young and awareness of the young holds the best promise for prevention in the future.

Because I don’t think technological solutions are necessarily always going to be the answer. It's the quality of the people.

JONATHAN WILLS: Yeah. SCOTT STERLING: That we have, right.

JONATHAN WILLS: Scott -- Scott mentioned the compensation. I remember something he told me when I was in Cordova in ’91.

He said that Jonathan there -- there are lawyers have not yet been born who will work on this spill and that's true.

I've been involved for many years with a group of villages in Northern France and Brittany who were affected by the Amoco Cadiz spill.


JONATHAN WILLS: Unlike Alaska and Shetland, they don’t get any financial benefit from the oil industry. They just get the trouble when it washes ashore.

And it took them 14 years in court in Chicago to get Amoco to pay up. And then it took them another four years to get their own lawyers off their backs because they wanted a cut, which wasn’t the deal.

And eventually they got the money, they got quite a good settlement. But by that time dozens of claimants were dead.


JONATHAN WILLS: I think they just reached the end of their lives naturally, although their lives had ended prematurely because of the stress. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right.

JONATHAN WILLS: So when you get into litigation, one of the things that I've campaigned for is for the -- there to be no fault compensation and make it quick and argue in court later about it. And to some extent we have that in Europe now and in the United Kingdom.

There have been enormous improvements in tanker safety. For example, since 2000 -- since 1993 when the tanker called the Braer that drifted ashore in Shetland and spilled twice as much as the Exxon Valdez, when that happened nobody knew she was there.

The Coast Guards didn’t have any radar at all at that end of the island, because she wasn’t coming to our oil port she was just passing in the night.

Had she been coming into the oil port that she would have been watched on radar, but now we've got AIS -- Automatic Identification Systems.

So on my -- my iPad I can track -- I can fire it up and I can see all the tankers around my islands, and I'm just an ordinary member of the public.

That used to be secret information. Only the Coast Guards had it. So now anybody sitting in Tatitlek or Valdez with a laptop can see where the tankers are and also where the tugs are coming in.

There were no escort tugs. And we look at the improvements in Valdez. I detailed them in this report.


JONATHAN WILLS: We had escort -- we met the escort tugs. We’ve got spill response packages moored permanently on barges out near Hinchinbrook Entrance and all along the Sound.

We've got much better radar system. We've much better procedures. And there hasn’t been a large bad spill since.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So maybe we can talk about --

JONATHAN WILLS: We can do this better.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right, let’s -- let’s talk about that. So it seems like, and we talked about this a little bit earlier, but after an oil spill -- so after a disaster is when there is some positive change -- changes that happen.

And both of you are essentially founders of what Rick Steiner has identified formally in some of his articles as the Citizens’ Advisory Council.

So, which is the council I work for as a Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory.

JONATHAN WILLS: It was Rick’s idea originally before Exxon Valdez.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right. JONATHAN WILLS: He and others, like Stan, were campaigning for some form of citizens’ oversight.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Stan, you mean Stan Stephens?

JONATHAN WILLS: Stan Stephens, yeah. The late Stan Stephens, yes.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah. So perhaps we can talk about what was it like to create this citizens’ advisory council, specifically the one in the Sound.

JONATHAN WILLS: Shortly after I 'd been to Prince William Sound as a journalist. Through my questions spilled the beans to Rick, among others.

I remember the day it happened. I went into Rick’s office on Cordova on the pier and down by the fish dock. And I just got in the office.

He was being interviewed by Natalie Forbes or somebody and there was a heaving press conference and all of a sudden the whole building starts to go like that.

And I said, oh, my God, is this an earthquake, because I'd never been in one. And he said, no, no, it's just a ferry coming in.

So that's how I met Rick.

And we got talking, and I talked to him about what happened in the Shetland Islands by the same companies with an agreement with a local borough council which just happens to be the port authority for our tanker terminal, and he couldn’t believe it.

And some long night -- a late night sessions we sat and went over this. And then I went back to Shetland and in May ’89 he and David Grimes arrived. They got funding from somewhere for an airfare.

None of us had any money. And they just arrived in Shetland and I fixed up meetings for them with our harbormaster, council representatives, and assemblymen and he -- they said this is right.

Why isn’t -- why haven’t these companies translated this to Alaska because our system in Shetland, which was substantially implemented in Alaska in Valdez and better -- much better than we had, later on.

That had been there for about twelve years -- eleven years, because when our terminal opened after Valdez, our terminal opened at the end of 1978, almost immediately there was a disaster. Tanker No. 12 hit a jetty, spilled oil.

The oil went in the water -- fuel oil it was. They put booms out. The booms failed.

They couldn’t find the key to the shed and besides lots of the equipment was under the snow. Does this sound familiar?

They couldn’t find a crane driver. Does this sound familiar? To get this stuff in the water.

It was a carbon copy. I mean much of what happened in response to Exxon Valdez was a carbon copy. It had happened before. The same companies.

They should have learned their lessons from Shetland. They did learn them in Shetland. They implemented them. By the summer of 1979 we had the best tanker safety scheme in the world. It was to be leapfrogged later on by Valdez.

Why didn’t that knowledge transfer across the other side of the North Pole? Because in those days you could fly direct from London to Anchorage.

The Russian airspace wasn’t open so the Japanese flights all went via Anchorage to refuel. You could go from London to Anchorage in eight hours, three, four thousand miles.

And these oil company people -- there were people at the terminal at Shetland were transferred to Valdez and to the North Slope. They were moving around.

They were a community on both -- and hadn’t transferred this knowledge or if they had, they hadn’t implemented it.

And that was the story. So Rick and David went back to Shetland. And then we started to get a lot of visitors there.

Senator [Frank] Murkowski’s aides came across to check what these crazy hippies were saying was true and it was.

And all credit to him for his part in getting the RCAC funded through -- what, it was OPA '90 - the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.


JONATHAN WILLS: The first President Bush was quite -- I would give him some credit for what happened there. And the Congress, of course.

So RCAC got established by law. That's really important. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Uh-huh.

JONATHAN WILLS: It was a modeled to some extent on the Advisory Committee’s we had in Shetland particularly for environmental and safety considerations.

It didn’t have any executive power and that was deliberate. What it had was money to commission research and to publish research. So it had the power to expose, if you like.

And I think it's done a very good job. And I often wish our council was as proactive as RCAC has been.

Because in a community like ours and yours, because oil is such a large part of the economy, people are understandably reluctant to annoy "the goose that lays the golden egg." And there's that tension all the time. I read a paper here it was called "Partners are Regulators."

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Uh-huh. JONATHAN WILLS: Because we had partnership with the industry in Shetland, but we're also to some extent regulating them as port authority has pilotage authority.

And there's a tension there. So I wish it had never been resolved, in my opinion.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Whereas the PWS RCAC is -- is a little more -- JONATHAN WILLS: Yeah.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: -- cut from -- cut away from this.

JONATHAN WILLS: Yes. And it's to one side and is visibly independent.


JONATHAN WILLS: It's impartial -- rigorously impartial I think.

There have been incidents where, you know, people have criticized them, but any organization gets that.

When you look at what's achieved on RCAC’s watch. First of all, the tanker -- the emergency response system, the track the -- the track that tracks the better tugs. The escort vessels, in particular.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: What does SERVS stand for? I can’t remember.

SCOTT STERLING: Ship Escort and Response Vessel System.

JONATHAN WILLS: That's right -- Ship Escort Response Vessel System. How could I have forgotten that?

All that was a result of pressure from RCAC, but not only that, you had an issue here we didn’t have in Shetland which is air quality. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Uh-huh.

JONATHAN WILLS: The first time I landed in Valdez Arm in a floatplane from Cordova I could hardly believe there was this thick purple mist.

And that was the volatile organic compounds coming out of -- the carcinogenic gases coming out of the terminal are getting trapped in this temperature inversion in Valdez Arm.

We've never had a temperature inversion in Shetland. It just -- the air just roars over us all the whole time.


JONATHAN WILLS: There's a greater put -- to the Norwegians, sorry. But RCAC did the research, proved painstakingly that this stuff was coming out, how much of it was coming out, what its effects were and then they lobbied and lobbied and lobbied, and they got it changed.

And they got the ballast water problem dealt with, as well, because there wasn’t sufficient ballast water treatment plant there.

I remember seeing the old one before it was renewed and it was sticking and it was a mess.

We've had ballast water problems at our end, because when a tanker comes in, well certainly the old-fashioned tankers, they had a whole load of water sitting in their cargo tanks -- their empty cargo tanks. So that water is polluted with oil. What are you going to do with it?

Of course, they used to pump it out at sea before they got in -- in Shetland, in Valdez, in Nigeria, and everywhere else.

Nowadays, the best tankers -- an awful lot of tankers have dedicated ballast so there's no need to discharge a dirty ballast -- oily ballast.

But in the clean ballast water, you know, you might have picked it up in the Philippines and you're discharging it here or Japan.


JONATHAN WILLS: Or somewhere in South Africa. And it contains all sorts of exotic planktonic organisms and the larvae of crabs.

We had crabs. Japanese crabs have turned up in Shetland, for example. All sorts of stuff is moving in.

All these issues have been examined. RCAC has hired competent, reputable scientists. Their papers have been peer reviewed. And they've presented evidence.

Sheaf after sheaf of evidence that the authorities have been unable to ignore. Sometimes they've tried very hard to ignore it.

I mean, if you look at -- if look at RCAC’s list of achievements, it's very, very impressive.

SCOTT STERLING: It really is. And I think we should mention Stan Stephens -- is sort of probably mentioned his name as an implicit preface to everything we say. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Uh-huh.

SCOTT STERLING: Because from the very beginning Stan’s leadership and inspiration, his integrity were imbued -- virtually everything is the RCAC. And not just the RCAC, but really people who just wanted to not have this experience repeated, have a better understanding of the importance of this industry,

which always seems fairly obvious, but, in fact, it is a global industry of which the Alaska portion is but one part.


SCOTT STERLING: And sometimes it's hard to think that because we don’t live globally. We live in our little communities and our towns, and we are with our people we know.