The toughest part about creating a totem pole designed to mock Exxon Mobil on the anniversary of the largest oil spill in U.S. history wasn’t carving the details of dying animals.
No, the toughest part was etching the words “We will make you whole again” from the trunk of yellow cedar, said Alaska Native carver Mike Webber of Cordova.
Webber and others believe Exxon broke that promise, made to Cordova residents by a top company official after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, by refusing to pay affected Alaskans billions of dollars in punitive damages.
“It made me so angry it took me a week to carve those words out,” he said.
An Anchorage federal jury awarded thousands of plaintiffs $5 billion in punitive damages in 1994, but Exxon appealed and the case has been mired in court ever since.
In December, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reduced those damages to $2.5 billion. Exxon is challenging that too.
Webber, who turned to carving after breaking his neck on his fishing boat in 1999, said the 11 million-gallon spill in Prince William Sound devastated his family economically and ruined lucrative herring and salmon fisheries.
He didn’t balk when the Eyak Native village president in Cordova commissioned him to carve a 7-foot-tall ridicule pole last month.
Webber’s Tlingit ancestors carved such poles to embarrass rich people who owed society, but such poles are rare today, he said.
The Exxon pole won’t get money out of the company, but it will remind people what happened, said Webber, 46. The pole’s images of the spill are rife with apocalyptic symbolism and the epic court battle it spawned. It was unveiled at a public ceremony in Cordova on the spill’s 18th anniversary Saturday.
Topping the totem is the upside-down face of former longtime Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, sporting a Pinocchio-like nose.
“So kids can figure out he’s a liar,” said Webber Friday afternoon by phone, as he brushed a sealing coat over the recently painted pole.
An oil slick spilling from Raymond’s mouth bears the infamous words uttered by Don Cornett, formerly Exxon’s top official in Alaska, Webber said.
In figures painted on the pole, sea ducks, a sea otter and eagle float dead on the oil. A herring near the slick has lesions. There’s a boat for sale with a family crew on board, commemorating fishermen who went belly up, and a bottle of booze to remind people that Joe Hazelwood, who was captain of the Exxon Valdez, had been drinking before turning the helm of the ship over.
An e-mail statement from current Exxon spokesman Mark Boudreaux sent Friday said the company was sorry Cordova residents “have decided to take this unfortunate action.”
Exxon knows many Alaskans are still angry over the tragic accident, the e-mail said.
In the past, the company has contended it owes no more than $25 million, having already laid out more than $3 billion for compensatory payments, the cleanup, and settlement of state and federal claims.
It added that no government scientist has released a peer-reviewed study linking the spill to the herring decline, and depressed salmon prices aren’t Exxon’s fault.
“As difficult as this is to accept, we believe these issues are the result of free markets and other factors at work, not as a result of the Valdez oil spill,” the e-mail said.
Cordova author Riki Ott, who has written about the spill and gave Webber ideas for the ridicule pole, said a study by government-sponsored scientists linking the herring crash to the spill is undergoing a peer-review process.
Several peer-reviewed studies show oil causes problems for herring at early life stages, she said.
Bob Henrichs, Eyak tribal government president, paid $5,000 of his own money for the carving. He doesn’t know the last time a ridicule pole went up in Alaska, he said.
The pole will likely stand in the tribal government’s cultural center in Cordova. It’s provoked a lot of anger among residents who visited Webber’s shop, he said Friday.
“A lot of people put it out of their mind and they see this and it brings up all the old emotions,” he said. “They’re not crying, but they’re not very happy.”
The spill’s psychological effects linger, Webber said. Families that lived off the sea were forced into other work, breaking bonds that kept them close. Native subsistence foods like seals and butter clams haven’t returned to beaches still layered with underground oil.
Among the host of images on the pole is a Native crying 18 tears, one for each year since the spill. The ribs are showing and the heart has a hole. “They put a hole in our heart and they’ve taken part of our soul as well,” he said.