EXXON VALDEZ. Just after midnight on 24 March 1989 the single-hulled oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Blight Reef in Prince William Sound. Over the next few days 11 million gallons (270,000 barrels) of North Slope crude oil spilled into the sensitive subpolar ecosystem of the Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. Caused by the negligence of the oil tanker's captain, Joseph Hazelwood—who was drunk at the time—this was the biggest oil tanker spill in United States history, and it transformed this Alaskan region into a global symbol of ecological catastrophe.
The immediate environmental impact of the spill was far-reaching: about 1,300 miles of shoreline was oiled (200 miles suffered heavy to moderate oiling and 1,100 miles light to very light oiling), while oil washed up on shores 470 miles away from Bligh Reef. An estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 150 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs died as a direct result of the spill. Despite mechanical and bioremediation cleanup efforts between 1989 and 1992, and again in 1997, oil was still present in a large area of the Sound by 2001. Ten years after the spill, only two species (the bald eagle and the sea otter) of the original list of twenty-eight directly affected fish and wildlife species, had been declared fully recovered from the spill.
Human communities nearby also suffered, especially the native peoples who subsist on fish, plants, and wildlife. Ten years after the spill these communities have not yet fully returned to normal. The spill also cancelled the 1989 fishing season, hurting the commercial fisheries industry in the area, and commercial fishing was again cancelled from 1993 through to 1996. The aftereffects of the spill did, however, create new job opportunities for those involved in the cleanup operations, which in turn have led to the emergence of a new economic class labeled the "spillionaires."
Exxon spent more than $2 billion in cleanup efforts in the four years following the spill. On 8 October 1991 the United States District Court accepted an agreement between Exxon and the United States government, in which Exxon agreed to pay $900 million over a period of ten years as a civil settlement—$25 million for committing an environmental crime, and $100 million for criminal restitution. In 1994 a separate class action suit
brought against Exxon by over 40,000 commercial fishermen and other interested parties led to a jury award of $5 billion in punitive damages. By 2001 the case was still under appeal.
Perhaps the most significant result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was the enactment of the Federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This act required faster and more aggressive cleanup operations after an oil spill, forced the responsible party to pay for a cleanup, and provided tougher penalties and more liability for oil spillers. Oil companies have also implemented changes in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, including a commitment to phase out single-hulled oil tankers in the Alaskan waters by 2015, improved techniques for loading and unloading oil, better employee training, stricter drug and alcohol screening, and faster deployment of oil spill response personnel and equipment at times of crisis.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Plan. Anchorage, Ala.: The Council, 1994.
Keeble, John. Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound. 2d ed. Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1999.
Lebedoff, David. Cleaning Up: The Exxon Valdez Case, the Story Behind the Biggest Legal Bonanza of Our Time. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Owen, Brian M., et al. The Economics of a Disaster: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 1995.
"Exxon Valdez." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/exxon-valdez
"Exxon Valdez." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/exxon-valdez
"Exxon Valdez." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/exxon-valdez
"Exxon Valdez." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/exxon-valdez