One of the worst disasters of our lifetime happened 25 years ago this week in the pristine Prince William Sound. Under the command of Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled millions of gallons of crude into Alaska waters.
Hazelwood placed a call to the U.S. Coast Guard at 12:27 a.m. on March 24, 1989, to report that he had diverted course from normal shipping lanes to avoid icebergs in the Sound. At 12:04 the Exxon Valdez had bashed into Bligh Reef. The captain said several holes had been ripped in the bottom of the single-hulled tanker.
“We’ve fetched up hard aground, north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef and, evidently we’re leaking some oil,” Hazelwood said.
Leaking some oil was an understatement. It’s estimated that 11 million gallons of crude dumped into the Sound, covering birds, otters and other wildlife with its black sheen. It is considered one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters in history.
The remote location, and lack of safety plans at the time, made response efforts difficult. The seeping oil, which had flowed through the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay and been loaded onto the ship at Valdez the day before, eventually covered 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean.
Despite extensive cleanup efforts, including the use of dispersants and solvents, booms and skimmers and high-pressure hot water, less than 10 percent of the oil was recovered. A NOAA study later showed that more than 23,000 gallons of oil remained in the sandy soil along Alaska’s coastline as of 2010, breaking down at a rate less than 4 percent per year. Experts say it will take at least 30 years for the habitat to fully recover.
Estimates show between 100,000 and 250,000 seabirds died as a result of the spill, and about 2,800 sea otters, 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, 22 orcas and countless salmon and herring perished, as well.
For weeks and months thereafter, the disaster made news across the world. Hazelwood was later found to have been drinking that evening, which made him an easy target for those looking for someone to blame. Although he was asleep in his bunk at the time of the accident, he was in command of the ship so was ultimately responsible for the ship’s third mate, who actually was at the helm at the time.
But other factors played a part in the environmental catastrophe, including an industry-wide lack of giving adequate rest to tanker crews, a third mate who failed to properly maneuver the vessel and malfunctioning radar equipment that had not been operational for more than a year leading up to the accident. If working, the ship’s radar would have indicated to the third mate an impending collision with Bligh Reef. It would have detected the “radar reflector” placed on the next rock inland from Bligh Reef to keep boats on course.
Although Alaska communities still have not fully recovered from this disaster, and plaintiffs against Exxon are still waiting for settlements, the accident did result in new marine pollution prevention rules. In the aftermath, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper issued an executive order requiring two tugboats escort each loaded tanker from Valdez out through Prince William Sound. And Congress passed legislation that requires all tankers to be double hulled by 2015.