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Boats sit idle in the port of Cordova, Alaska, where the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill still run deep. ((Greg Rasmussen/CBC))

People in a small Alaskan fishing town are watching the Gulf of Mexico oil spill closely, worried their counterparts there might suffer the way they did in the 1989 Exxon Valdez crisis.

Cordova, at the head of the Orca Inlet in Prince William Sound, was hit hard when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crashed into a reef just minutes after midnight on March 24, unleashing what was then the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

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Osa Schultz, whose fishing and bed-and-breakfast businesses were ruined by the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, sits aboard her ship, Prime Time, in Cordova, Alaska. ((Greg Rasmussen/CBC))

Oil fouled the coastline, transforming the town virtually overnight.

Memories of those times have been flooding back since April 20, when a BP-leased oil rig exploded off the Louisiana coast and caused a deepwater well to leak as much as 20,000 to 40,000 barrels a day before it was partially contained with a cap on June 3.

"It brings it all back, the difficulty we had to deal with, and it scares me, because it's so bad down there," Osa Schultz told the CBC's Greg Rasmussen, who visited Cordova earlier this week.

"I mean, it was bad for us," Schultz said, pulling the cover off the gillnet as her boat, Prime Time, motored out into the ocean. "But it's worse down there, so it's going to be a nightmare."

Twenty-one years later, much of the oil is gone from the beaches, though some still lies just below the sand's surface.

Livelihoods, however, remain in shambles, say fishermen like Bob Martinson.

"You lose everything, and there's nothing you can do about it," Martinson told Rasmussen.

Exxon had promised Martinson and thousands more of his fellow fishermen, and their suppliers, that they would be compensated for their losses, he said.

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'You lose everything, and there's nothing you can do about it,' says Cordova fisherman Bob Martinson. ((Greg Rasmussen/CBC))

But despite a 15-year legal fight, Schultz said she and her husband received compensation worth only about 10 per cent of the money they lost on their fishing and bed-and-breakfast businesses, among others.

Martinson said he received just a few pennies on the dollar, and fears fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico will suffer the same treatment by BP.

"They're going to hope, and pray, and work on it and work on it," Martinson said, "but those fishermen and businesses just aren't going to get anything in the long run."

Lessons applied in Louisiana

Cordova has become a vast scientific and social case study on how to deal with a catastrophic oil spill.

"How you go about assessing the oiling conditions … [was] learned here," said Duncan Fitzgerald, a professor of coastal marine geology at Boston University who has studied the Cordova region for 20 years. "I'm now applying those in Louisiana."

The situation in Cordova "is enabling us now to go down to the Gulf Coast and say, 'Here's what you can expect, here are the community impacts of this, and here are the long-term cumulative impacts you expect,'" said sociologist Liesel Ritchie of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

U.S. President Barack Obama hosted what he called "a frank conversation" with congressional leaders about adequate compensation for suffering Gulf businesses at the White House on Thursday.

"It's going to be important that … we update the laws to make sure that the people in the Gulf — the fishermen, the hotel owners, families — who are dependent for their livelihoods on the Gulf, that they are all made whole and that we are in a much better position to respond to any such crisis in the future," he said after the meeting.

With files from the CBC's Greg Rasmussen