Exxon Valdez spills oil 25 years ago

Following the grounding of Exxon Valdez (the larger of the two ships seen here) on Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, its oil cargo was pumped into the Exxon San Francisco. It is estimated that 11 million gallons of crude seeped into Alaska’s Prince William Sound before the tanker was emptied.
Following the grounding of Exxon Valdez (the larger of the two ships seen here) on Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, its oil cargo was pumped into the Exxon San Francisco. It is estimated that 11 million gallons of crude seeped into Alaska’s Prince William Sound before the tanker was emptied.

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.

32 comments on “Exxon Valdez spills oil 25 years ago

  1. I remember that happening – it was such a terrible event. I didn’t know about the captain though – it seems very harsh to have blamed him even though he was asleep.

    • It seems big companies like to find scapegoats, Jo. I blame Exxon management. If they had repaired the ship’s radar, the accident may not have happened.

  2. That sounds awful! Animals should not be taken out in order to prove the need for carefulness. These things need to be prevented in every way possible.

    • I agree. Makes me so sad that this weekend we saw another oil spill – this time in Galveston – which is affecting the fishery, wildlife and tourism of Texas.

    • I know, Jim – and then just this week deja vu all over again with the oil spill in Galveston almost 25 years to the day!

    • A case of a corporation putting profits ahead of safety, it seems, Stephanie. I’m not surprised – a lot of that goes on still.

  3. I so enjoy reading your posts. What interesting and informative information. I thought all this was done, but what tragic after effects it has done.

    • I’m happy you are enjoying my little tidbits from Alaska’s past, Stephanie. And yes, many are still feeling the effects of the spill.

    • And just last week another tanker hit a ship in Galveston and oil poured into the bay, jeopardizing the fishery, wildlife and tourism industry.

    • Yes, Vicki – it is still affecting Prince William Sound fishermen and wildlife. Exxon is still using the courts to delay paying huge fines levied against it years ago. Some of the fishermen directly affected have died and will never see a penny of compensation for all they lost!

  4. There are a lot of factors that needs to consider why this kind of accidents happen. And this can be an eye-opener to do a lot of changes to prevent it from happening again.

    • Yes, that’s true Richard. Yet we just saw another potential environmental disaster of oil spilling in the Galveston area a few days ago that again put wildlife in danger. What’s old is new again.

    • I agree with you – and now there’s another oil spill in Galveston, Texas, that is threatening wildlife. Corporate American needs to start putting our environment ahead of profits!

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