Exxon Valdez Spill, 15 Years Later: Damage Lingers

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 22, 2004
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 evidence—on the surface—of 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.

Exxon's Army

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.

Exxon eventually mobilized a massive cleanup effort. Deploying what became known as Exxon's Army, the company says it spent 2.1 billion U.S. dollars on the cleanup over the next years. But most of the damage was done in the first few days.

"I was very upset at the time that we did not have the courage … to burn the ship," said Gail Phillips, the executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council in Anchorage. "For the money that's been spent and the losses that are out there, it would have been cheap just to burn the ship."

The council, which has overseen the restoration of the injured ecosystem, was formed with money from court settlements in 1991 that ordered Exxon to pay a billion dollars in damages. To date, the council has spent $750 million.

In the first few years, the council concentrated on purchasing land to ensure that key habitats for injured species would not be further damaged by logging and other development. In later years, it shifted its focus to restoration projects and, in particular, a research program to gather information about the area's marine ecosystem.

"The primary goal of the restoration plan was to make sure that all the resources were restored to the condition they were in before the spill," Phillips said. "The problem was that we had no baseline data. We didn't know how many whales, sea otters, or ducks should be in the sound."

Lingering Effects

On the surface Prince William Sound's environment has returned to its prespill condition. Wildlife flourishes. Most commercial fisheries are doing well. Even tourism is booming.

But look a little closer and the picture gets a little murkier. In some of the hardest-hit areas, swaths of oil—buried just a few inches below the surface—run across the beaches. Water may circulate to the edges of the oil, but not through it.

"There are isolated pockets where you can still find effects of the oil spill," Rice said.

Among the animal species that have not recovered are common loons, harbor seals, harlequin ducks, and Pacific herring.

Sea otters, which eat clams buried underground, are particularly affected by the subsurface oil. The clams may be clean, but sea otters may get oil on their fur, which requires energy to cope with.

"It's like getting the flu three times a year instead of once," Rice said. "It makes you sicker and less capable of feeding. Sea otters eat 25 percent of their body weight every day. If that's lowered to 15 percent over, say, ten days, they will probably die."

Sea otters have been found with increased levels of a substance contained in petroleum products known as cytochrome P450.

"Knowing what we have found out in the last three to four years about sea otters and harlequin ducks, we probably would have been out there cleaning those beaches earlier," Rice said. "But we didn't know that at the time. We assumed that by 1992, we wouldn't see any more significant oil effects."

Fading Memory

The scope of the spill blindsided everyone.

"At the time, we didn't have the spill-response depots. We didn't have skimmer vessels. We didn't have the amount of boom [floating barriers used to contain spills] for a ship that large," Phillips said. "There were so many things we were not prepared for. People didn't pay attention to what it meant to transport that much oil in pristine water. Nobody dreamed that this could ever happen."

Today the oil-transportation industry is far more regulated. Tankers must have double hulls. Emergency plans must be regularly reviewed. In the town of Valdez, ships must be guided by escort tugs until they enter open waters.

But some conservationists warn that the memory of Exxon Valdez may be fading. Plans to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration, which were shelved after the Exxon Valdez spill, have again resurfaced.

"The Exxon Valdez oil spill opened the eyes of many members of Congress of the potential disasters that aggressive oil and gas development policies can result in," said Dan Lathery, who works on Alaska issues for the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C. "Now, 15 years to the day since the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, the current [White House] administration's drive for oil and gas development is reversing policies that were put in place after the spill."

Because the Exxon Valdez spill occurred in such a pristine area, it has turned into a model for studies of other oil spills. Scientists have been able to quantify longer-term effects of oil on growth and mortality without interference from other sources of pollution.

"One of the lessons is that oil will persist longer in some habitats than we would have expected," Rice said. "The years three through ten [after a spill] may be as significant as years two and three combined, or even the first year."

As for Captain Hazelwood, he was fined U.S. $50,000 and ordered to perform a thousand hours of community service: picking up trash along the Seward Highway and working at Bean's Café, a soup kitchen for the homeless in Anchorage.

The Exxon Shipping Company was renamed Sea River Shipping Company. The Exxon Valdez ship was repaired and renamed the Sea River Mediterranean, and today hauls oil across the Atlantic. The tanker is prohibited by law from ever returning to Prince William Sound.

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