On March 24, 1989, the 987-foot (300-meter) super tanker Exxon Valdez set out from Port Valdez, Alaska, with a full load of oil from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay and passed on the wrong side of a lighted channel marker guarding a shallow stretch of Prince William Sound. The momentum of the large ship carried it onto Bligh Reef, which gashed a 6 by 20 foot (1.8 by 6.1 meter) hole in the ship's hull. Through this hole poured 260,000 barrels (11 million gallons) to 750,000 barrels (31.5 million gallons) of crude oil out of the ship's approximately 1.26 million barrel (53 million gallon) cargo, making it the largest oil spill in the history of the United States to that date. The Exxon Valdez spill was surpassed by the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, which released approximately 4.9 million barrels (185 million gallons) of oil.
The Exxon Valdez, owned by the former Exxon Shipping Company (a part of the Exxon Corporation, later Exxon Mobil Corporation), and captained by American sailor Joseph Hazelwood (1946–), was headed for Long Beach, California. The ship was employed to transport crude oil from the Alyeska consortium's pipeline terminal in Valdez, Alaska, to the lower states of the United States. The oil spill resulting from the Exxon Valdez accident spread oil along 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) of formerly pristine shoreline on Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula. The volume of water affected by the oil spill was estimated to be from 1.4 million to 4.2 million cubic feet (40,900 to 120,000 cubic meters). Oil would eventually reach shores southwest of the spill up to 600 miles (965 kilometers) away.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council estimates that 250,000 seabirds; 2,800 sea otters; 300 harbor seals; 250 bald eagles; and 22 killer whales were killed. These figures may be an underestimate of the total number of animals killed by the oil because many of the carcasses likely sank or washed out to sea before they could be collected and counted. Most of the birds died from hypothermia due to the loss of insulation caused by oil-soaked feathers. Many predatory birds, such as bald eagles, died as a result of ingesting contaminated fish and birds. Hypothermia affected sea otters as well, and many of the dead mammals suffered lung damage due to oil fumes. Billions of salmon eggs were also lost to the spill. While a record 43 million pink salmon were caught in Prince William Sound in 1990, the 1993 harvest declined to a record low of three million.
Prince William Sound, named by English Royal Navy officer George Vancouver (1757–1798) in 1778 to honor the third son of George III, who eventually became King William IV, is a sound (seaway) within the Gulf of Alaska on the south coast of the state of Alaska. Located on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula, its largest port is Valdez, at the southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska pipeline system. As such, Prince William Sound is a busy oil-transport route. Within the sound is Bligh Reef, sometimes also called Bligh Island Reef, where the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred. Named after British Royal Navy officer William Bligh (1754–1817), Bligh Reef is located off the coast of Bligh Island. The nearest Alaskan town to the reef is Tatitlek, which is situated about 7 miles (11 kilometers) northeast. Even though stringent rules were implemented due to the 1989 accident to prevent such disasters in the future, the tug Pathfinder ran onto Bligh Reef on December 24, 2009, which caused its tanks to rupture and to spill diesel fuel into the waters.
Response to the oil spill was slow and generally ineffective. The Alyeska Oil Spill Team responsible for cleaning up oil spills in the region took more than 24 hours to respond, despite previous assurances that they could mount a response in three hours. Much of the oil containment equipment was missing, broken, or barely operable. By the time oil containment and recovery equipment were in place, 11.1 million gallons (42 million liters) of oil had already spread over a large area. Ultimately, less than 10% of this oil was recovered, the remainder dispersing into the air, water, and sediment of Prince William Sound and adjacent sounds and fjords. Exxon reports spending a total of $2.2 billion to clean up the oil. Much of this money employed 10,000 people to clean up oil-fouled beaches; yet after the first year, only 3% of the soiled beaches had been cleaned.
Investigation of the Exxon incident identified several factors that caused the oil spill. These include:
Workers reported symptoms from working at the cleanup after the oil spill. For example, the dispersant Corexit 9580 was used to break down the oil. Years after the oil spill, Corexit was found to be toxic to humans and wildlife, with cancer-causing ingredients, hazardous toxins, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The immediate health problems from the spill caused the deaths of 100,000 to 250,000 seabirds, along with numerous sea otters, river otters, harbor seals, bald eagles, and orcas. It also destroyed billions of salmon and herring eggs.
In response to public concern about the poor response time and uncoordinated initial cleanup efforts following the Valdez spill, the Oil Pollution Act (OPA; part of the Clean Water Act) was signed into law in August 1990. The Act established a Federal trust fund to finance clean-up efforts for up to $1 billion per spill incident.
Ultimately, nature was the most effective surface cleaner of beaches; winter storms removed the majority of oil and by the winter of 1990, less than 6 miles (10 kilometers) of shoreline was considered seriously fouled. Cleanup efforts were declared complete by the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Alaska in 1992.
On October 9, 1991, a settlement between Exxon and the State of Alaska and the United States government was approved by the U.S. District Court. Under the terms of the agreement, Exxon agreed to pay $900 million in civil penalties over a 10-year period. The civil settlement also provided for a window of time for new claims to be made should unforeseen environmental issues arise. That window was from September 1, 2002, to September 1, 2006.
Exxon was also fined $150 million in a criminal plea agreement, of which $125 million was forgiven in return for the company's cooperation in cleanup and various private settlements. Exxon also paid $100 million in criminal restitution for the environmental damage caused by the spill.
Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez, had admitted to drinking alcohol the night the accident occurred and had a known history of alcohol abuse. Nevertheless, he was found not guilty of charges that he operated a shipping vessel under the influence of alcohol. He was found guilty of negligent discharge of oil, fined $50,000, and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service work.
Despite official cleanup efforts by Exxon having ended, the environmental legacy of the Valdez spill lived on. The Auke Bay Laboratory of the Alaskan Fisheries Science Center conducted a beach study of Prince William Sound in the summer of 2001. Researchers found that approximately 20 acres (8 hectares) of Sound shoreline remained contaminated with oil, the majority of which has collected below the surface of the beaches where it continued to pose a danger to wildlife. Of the 30 species of wildlife affected by the spill, only two—the American bald eagle and the river otter—were considered recovered in 1999. Preliminary 2002 reports from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council suggested progress was being made in the area of wildlife recovery. In subsequent studies there was evidence that the shoreline may take thirty years to recover.
Oil spills have traditionally caused major long-term economic, environmental, and social problems to the locality. Although improvements in technologies, such as in cleanup procedures and containment structures, have occurred since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, it is extremely unlikely that all spilled oil can ever be totally recovered with current methods. On the other hand, improvements at preventing oil spills have occurred in such areas as monitoring weather and seagoing traffic conditions, implementing taxi tugs that help to guide ships through treacherous waters, and conducting routine tanker inspections. In addition, double-hulled tankers are being phased in to replace single-hull ones.
See also Clean Water Act (1972, 1977, 1987) ; Gulf oil spill .
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American Medical Association, 515 N State St., Chicago, IL, 60654, (800) 621-8335, http://www.ama-assn.org/ .
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, 4230 University Dr., Ste. 230, Anchorage, AK, 99508-4650, (907) 2788012, Fax: (907) 276-7178, (800) 478-7745, http://www.evostc.state.ak.us .
William G Ambrose
Paul E. Renaud
Revised by William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA