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Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

On March 24 1989, shortly after midnight, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in western Prince William Sound, Alaska. The collision resulted in the spilling of between 11 and 34 million gallons of crude oil — ultimately affecting 1,181 miles of Alaska's pristine coastline, and killing thousands of marine animals.

Oil sheen from the Exxon Valdez The spill is the largest in U.S. history, and ranked 34th on a list of the world's largest oil spills in the 25 years leading up to the disaster. The Exxon Valdez tragedy came to be seen as the nation's biggest environmental disaster since Three Mile Island¹.

Southcentral Alaska Natives, fishermen, and small businesses, were eventually force-fed the oily taste of economic hard times.

The voyage
Oil tanker Exxon Valdez departed from the oil terminal in Valdez, Alaska, on March 23, 1989. On the vessel's 28th voyage, the experienced crew of 19 routinely headed south through Prince William Sound, with a full 53 million gallons of oil.

Captain Joseph Hazelwood alerted the Coast Guard station of a change of course, and moved into the northbound lane to stay clear of icebergs. Captain Hazelwood then gave third mate Gregory Cousins instructions to steer the Exxon Valdez back into the original course of the southbound lane, once he had passed Busby Island.

Busby Island was already well behind the vessel when Cousins notified the helmsman that it was time to turn the vessel back toward the traffic lanes. Lookout Maureen Jones reported to Cousins that Bligh Reef light appeared off the starboard bow. The light should have been sighted off the port side — the supertanker was proceeding through Bligh Reef's close waters.

Cousins was now in a perilous situation; he gave right rudder commands to effect the desired course change. The immediate and desperate attempts by Cousins to turn the tanker back into the much deeper traffic lanes fell short when an initial shock was felt — jolting the massive ship against the angry teeth of Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m.

The vessel scraped and gouged to a halt, and became perched amidships on a spire of Bligh Reef. Eight of Exxon Valdez's 11 cargo tanks were punctured, and 5.8 million gallons gushed out of the tanker in the first three hours. The environmental and economic nightmare was underway.

The cleanup
Exxon Corporation mobilized huge quantities of equipment and personnel to initiate the first response to the mishap; however, their crucial first few hours and days (when containment and cleanup efforts are at a premium) were lost. Fewer than 4,000 gallons of dispersant² were all that was available in nearby Valdez, Alaska, and application equipment or aircraft were non-existent.

A trial burn was conducted during the early stages of the spill, in hopes of lifting the oil from the frigid water. Although partially successful, the burning process was abandoned because of unfavorable weather conditions. Three days after the vessel was grounded, a storm pushed large quantities of fresh oil onto the rocky shores of many beaches throughout the Sound.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Coast Guard, gave Exxon a September 15 cleanup deadline. Valdez was the most accessible city near the spill, so Exxon quickly transported its recovery headquarters to the small community.

The 3,500 residents of Valdez tripled in size, and the price of everything, including food and clothing, reached sky-high figures.

Exxon employed many people in the Prince William Sound area to transport supplies to the villages in the sound, and to support the cleanup crews throughout the oiled areas. Many exploited the disaster for money — including media crews that were covering every angle of the spill.

Workers would wipe and spray rocks with steam hoses, only to be rewarded by the changing tide — and a new coating of oil. Environmental groups worked feverishly to save oiled seals, otters, and birds.

Midway through the summer of 1989, new techniques and technologies were initiated. Microorganisms that break down crude oil were sprayed onto some of the beaches, and new materials were used in the tedious job of wiping operations.

Exxon returned to Prince William Sound in 1990 with a much smaller work force for further cleaning. The long-term damages by the oil spill were horrendous. Even today, damage assessments are being conducted on fish, marine, and land wildlife.

The damage
Three national wildlife refuges, three national parks, wilderness areas, a national forest, and extensive areas that had been inhabited for thousands of years by Alaska Natives, were an oily mess.

The spill posed threats to the delicate food chain that supports Prince William Sound's commercial fishing industry and portions of the northern Gulf of Alaska. Also in danger were 10 million migratory shore birds and waterfowl, eagles, hundreds of sea otters, dozens of such other species as harbor porpoises and sea lions, and several varieties of whales.

More marine mammals and seabirds were killed directly by the oil than in any man-made disaster ever. Direct mortality of seabirds has been estimated at 300,000 to 645,000, with an additional loss in chick production of more than 300,000 following the spill. Some colonies of murres lost 60 to 70 percent of their breeding birds.

The marine mammal death toll included at least 25 killer whales out of an area population of about 180, 3,500 to 5,500 sea otters, and around 200 harbor seals.

The 1989 season of herring, which spawned in the near shore zone just as the oil arrived, was essentially lost. Terrestrial mammals, including river otters, brown bear, deer, and mink were all affected. Much of the intertidal zone was essentially cooked by the toxic oil, and invertebrate communities were severely altered.

Economically speaking, the studies of sportfishing activity and tourism indicators — vacation planning, visitor spending, and canceled bookings — indicated decreases in activity. The contingent valuation study estimated the lost passive use value at $2.8 billion.

Congress makes a financial cleanup
On October 9 1991, the settlement among the State of Alaska, the United States government and Exxon was approved by the U.S. District Court. It resolved various criminal charges against Exxon as well as civil claims brought by the federal and state governments for recovery of natural resource damages resulting from the unforgiving oil spill.

  • In settlement of civil charges, Exxon would pay the State of Alaska and the United States $900 million over a 10-year period. The money would be used for restoration and administered by six government trustees; three federal, three state.

  • In settlement of criminal charges, Exxon would pay a fine of $250 million. Two restitution funds of $50 million each were established, one under state control and one under federal authority. Against strong opposition from many Alaskans, $125 million of the balance was forgiven, owing to Exxon's cooperation during the cleanup, and upgraded safety procedures to prevent a reoccurrence. The remaining $50 million was divided between the Victims of Crime Act account ($13 million) and the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund ($12 million).
  • On September 16, 1994, a jury in federal court returned a $5 billion punitive damages verdict against Exxon. The company appealed several times, and in November 2001, the verdict was overturned by a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court.

    While the federal and state governments settled their civil and criminal litigation against Exxon in 1991, as of March 2002, claims by private parties are still being litigated and remain unresolved. The Exxon Valdez, re-named the SeaRiver Mediterranean, is still carrying oil around the world. Although she has been barred from ever entering Alaskan waters again, Exxon applied to have that court ruling reversed. The appeal was rejected.

    The future
    As a direct or indirect result of the Exxon Valdez disaster, tighter environmental regulations have been imposed on many industries.

    The 1990 Oil Pollution Act is now working internationally to make tankers safer. The act has added the standard regulation of double hulls, so that if the outer layer is punctured, no oil will escape. Among other benefits, large tracts of land have been added to Kenai Fjords National Park, using funds from the Exxon fines. Major spills have dropped by two-thirds since the Oil Pollution Act.

    The combined ability of skimming systems to remove oil from the water is now 10 times greater than it was in 1989, with equipment in place capable of recovering more than 300,000 barrels of oil in 72 hours.

    ¹ Site of America's worst ever nuclear accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - March 28 1979.
    ² A chemical that aids in breaking up solids or liquids as fine particles or droplets into another medium.