for National Geographic News
It was 9:12 p.m. on March 23, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez left the trans-Alaska pipeline terminal in Valdez, Alaska, carrying more than 53 million gallons (200 million liters) of crude oil bound for Long Beach, California.
It seemed like a routine run. Ships had safely transited through the area more than 8,700 times in the 12 years since oil began flowing through the pipeline.
But this evening, the 986-foot (300-meter) Exxon Valdez encountered icebergs in the shipping lanes. Capt. Joe Hazelwood, who later admitted to having had several alcoholic drinks that day, ordered a helmsman to go around the icebergs. After leaving instructions on when to steer the ship back into the shipping lanes, Hazelwood retired to his quarters.
That was a terrible mistake. The helmsmen failed to make the turn back into the shipping lanes. Three hours after taking off, the ship ran aground on Bligh Reef, rupturing 8 of its 11 cargo tanks. The ship spewed some 11 million gallons (40 million liters) of crude oil into the pristine Prince William Sound, causing the biggest environmental disaster in United States history.
Fifteen years later, a visitor to the area will be hard pressed to find evidenceon the surfaceof the oil that once soiled 1,400 miles (2,250 kilometers) of shoreline. The spill prompted a massive cleanup effort over four summers, involving at its peak some 10,000 workers, 1,000 boats, and 100 airplanes and helicopters.
The disaster directly led to the 1990 passing of the federal Oil Pollution Act, which seeks to diminish the environmental consequence of spills, and it prompted essential changes in industry safety standards and emergency-response planning.
"As the most studied oil spill in history, it has become a blueprint for how we're going to look at spills in the future," said Jeep Rice, who supervises the habitat and Exxon Valdez oil spill studies at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration's Auke Bay Laboratory in Alaska.
Today, the Exxon Valdez disaster doesn't even rank among the top 50 largest oil spills around the world. But it may have caused more environmental damage than any other spill.
Prince William Sound is home to an abundance of wildlife: birds, whales, salmon, sea otters, and bald eagles. It's a remote and spectacular location with thousands of miles of rugged coastline. The oil penetrated deeply into its boulder beaches. That it happened inside a sound, and not in the open ocean, made matters far worse.
"When you have an enormous oil spill in a semicontained environment like that, the oil just sloshes around and contaminates everything it touches," Rice said. "There is bound to be widespread devastation."
The initial response to the spill is generally seen as inadequate. For the first three days, the 11 million gallons of oil slowly spread in flat, calm seas. Despite an opportunity to skim it before it hit the shorelines, almost no oil was scooped up. When a storm hit, the oil crashed onto the coast.
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