On March 24, 1989, the 987-foot super tanker Exxon Valdez outbound from Port Valdez, Alaska, with a full load of oil from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay 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 and opened a 6 x 20 ft hole in the ship's hull. Through this hole poured 257,000 barrels (11 million gallons) of crude oil, approximately 21% of the ship's 1.26 million barrel (53 million gallon) cargo, making it the largest oil spill in the history of the United States.
The oil spill resulting from the Exxon Valdez accident spread 38,0000 metric tonnes of oil along 1,500 miles of pristine shoreline on Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula, covering an area of 460 miles. Oil would eventually reach shores southwest of the spill up to 600 miles 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 animals killed by the oil because many of the carcasses likely sank or washed out to sea before they could be collected. 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, by 1993 the harvest had declined to a record low of three million.
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, 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.
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 km) 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 provides for a window of time for new claims to be made should unforeseen environmental issues arise. That window is 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.
A flood of private suits against Exxon have also deluged the courts in the years since the spill. In 1994, a district court ordered Exxon to pay $287 million in compensatory damages to a group of commercial fishermen and other Alaskan natives who were negatively impacted by the spill. The jury who heard the case also awarded the plaintiffs $5 billion in punitive damages. However, in November 2001 a federal appeals judge overturned the $5 billion punitive award, deeming it excessive and ordering the district court to reevaluate the settlement. As of May 2002, the final punitive settlement had not been determined.
The Captain of the Exxon Valdez, Joseph Hazelwood, 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 lives 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 of Sound shoreline is still contaminated with oil, the majority of which has collected below the surface of the beaches where it continues 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 reflect progress is being made in the area of wildlife recovery, however, black oystercatchers, common murres, killer whales, subtidal communities, sockeye salmon, and pink salmon are all classified as recovered in the April draft of the organization's "Update on Injured Resources and Services," bringing the total recovered species to eight.
[William G Ambrose and Paul E Renaud and Paula A Ford-Martin ]
Keeble, J. Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound, 10th Anniversary Edition. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 1999.
Picou, J. S., et al. The Exxon Valdez Disaster: Readings on a Modern Social Problem, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1999.
Berg, Catherine. "The Exxon Valdez Spill: 10 Years Later." Endangered Species Bulletin 26, no.2 (March/April 1999): 18–9.
Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA. "The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: How Much Oil Remains?" AFSC Quarterly (July-September 2001). <http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/Quarterly/jas2001/feature_jas01.htm. Accessed May 28, 2002.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, 441 West Fifth Avenue, Suite 500, Anchorage, AL USA 99501 (907) 278-8012 , Fax: (907) 276-7178 , Toll Free: (800) 478-7745 (within Alaska), Toll Free: (800) 283-7745 (outside Alaska), Email: [email protected], <http://www.oilspill.state.ak.us/
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.