The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
On March 23, 1989, Good Friday, at 11 p.m., just a few hours after leaving the pipeline terminal loaded with over 20 million barrels of Prudhoe Bay crude, Captain Joseph Hazelwood turned the 987-foot Exxon Valdez supertanker out of the normal shipping lanes of Prince William Sound to avoid icebergs from Columbia Glacier.
Through a series of mistakes and misunderstandings, and ignoring standard procedure, at 12:01 a.m. on March 24 the Valdez ran up hard aground on Bligh Reef, opening a tractor trailer–size hole in the ship, which began to leak oil at a rapid rate. It took 3 hours for the Coast Guard to be notified, and 12 hours for the spill-response team to arrive at the scene.
It was a full 72 hours after the oil began to spill before a containment boom was installed to surround the tanker. But as the rest of the oil was off-loaded onto the Exxon Baton Rouge, the fate of more than 1,000 miles of Southcentral Alaska coastline had already been sealed. The oil began its inexorable spread.
In the following weeks, the technology available to clean up an environmental disaster of such magnitude proved grossly inadequate. To begin with, Alyeska Pipeline Company’s emergency procedures and equipment had atrophied over the years. The use of chemical dispersants, a major part of the plan, was not only ineffective but controversial as well: Later in the summer workers who’d handled them began to show symptoms of toxic poisoning. Of the few skimmers that could be deployed (a dozen after a week), those that worked were able to clean up 500 gallons of oil an hour — in the face of millions. And then there were no support facilities for unloading the skimmed crude.
Local fishers mobilized to try to contain the oil with booms, keeping it away from some of the most bountiful fisheries on earth at the peak of their seasons. As the oil washed up on the wildlife-rich shorelines of Prince William Sound, crews were sent to attack the thickening, hardening sludge with shovels, buckets, and plastic bags. As early as the first week in June, 24,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters, killed by the oil, had been counted — some so covered with crude that they were impossible to identify.
At the height of the summer cleanup, 10,000 workers were engaged in a somewhat futile effort to return the beaches of Prince William Sound, the Kenai and Alaska Peninsulas, Kodiak Island, and all the way down to the Shumagin Islands in the Aleutians to their previously pristine state. Garbage cleanup crews were cleaning up after the oil cleanup crews. It’s estimated that Exxon spent $1.25 billion on the effort.
Well over a decade after the spill, oil can still be found on some Prince William Sound beaches, particularly under rocks on the worst-hit beaches. Many species of birds and mammals are far below their pre-spill populations, including killer whales, sea otters, loons, cormorants, harbor seals, pigeon guillemots, and harlequin ducks. In addition, research shows that even tiny concentrations of crude oil can harm the eggs of pink salmon and herring. Herring fishers have been especially hard-hit, and the value of commercial salmon fishing permits has plummeted.
Shortly after the spill, Exxon renamed all its ships, replacing the “Exxon” with “Sea River”; if there’s ever another Exxon-caused spill, its name won’t be so indelibly etched into the news accounts. The 1989 spill led to enactment the following year of the Oil Pollution Act, which requires double-hulled tankers in Prince William Sound by 2015. Unfortunately, the aging single-hulled tankers are still used today. Many other measures have been taken to prevent a repeat, however, including the addition of large oceangoing tugs and response vessels (containing spill equipment) to escort all tankers.
In a 1991 out-of-court settlement, Exxon agreed to a $900 million payout that has been used to buy land, reimburse cleanup expenses, and fund environmental research and restoration. More contentious was a 1994 case in which a jury awarded 40,000 commercial fishers and others damaged by the spill $5 billion in punitive damages. It was one of the biggest damage awards ever. Exxon dragged out the appeals process until 2008, when a Supreme Court packed with conservative justices ruled that Exxon’s actions were “worse than negligent but less than malicious.” The fishers ended up with $507 million instead of the original $5 billion the jury had awarded.
And what of Captain Hazelwood? He was convicted in 1990 of a misdemeanor charge of negligent discharge of oil. After nine years of appeals, Hazelwood was finally sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service, including working in an Anchorage soup kitchen.
For the latest on the spill, visit the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council website (www.evostc.state.ak.us).
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition