Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Catastrophic Incident in Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1989

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil leak happened in Prince William Sound, an entrance in the Gulf of Alaska, Alaska, United States, on March 24, 1989. Exxon Corporation’s tanker, the Exxon Valdez, ran aground on Bligh Reef while en route from Valdez, Alaska, to California, resulting in the tragedy. A natural high wind and wave coupled with delayed attempts to stop the leak sent over 11,000,000 gallons (41,640 kilolitres) of North Slope crude oil across the sound.

Eventually, the leak contaminated neighboring waterways, extending as far south as the southern end of Shelikof Strait, which separates Kodiak Island from the Alaska Peninsula, and 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometers) of indented shoreline. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska has shown himself to be a steadfast supporter of obtaining federal funding to cover the damages. Exxon contributed $2.1 billion to the cleanup efforts following the oil disaster, and thousands of employees and volunteers assisted.

The spill destroyed a large number of native species, including salmon, herring, sea otters, bald eagles, and killer whales, in spite of these cleanup attempts.

Important Details Regarding the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

One of the largest maritime tragedies started on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crashed the Bligh Reef in the Prince William Sound area of Alaska. The Exxon Valdez, which was then under the ownership of the Exxon Shipping Company, collided with the reef as it was traveling from the Valdez Marine Terminal to Long Beach, California, at around twelve local time.

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About 54 million gallons of oil were carried on board the oil tanker Exxon Valdez when the disaster caused her hull to burst, releasing 10.8 million gallons into Prince William Sound. After the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Exxon Valdez oil spill is regarded as the second largest oil leak in US history.

The Exxon Valdez accident prompted a review of US laws and policies pertaining to oil leak prevention. Oil corporations were forced to operate double-hull tankers and pay heavier fines in the event of future oil disasters under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act. In addition, the rehabilitation of marine habitats impacted by accidents is the goal of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

What Led to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
(Credit: The HISTORY Channel)

Numerous circumstances led to the Exxon Valdez, captained by Captain Joseph Hazelwood, running aground on the reef, according to a variety of reports released after the catastrophe. According to reports, the tanker encountered a mishap on a route that is notorious for its navigational difficulties when the skipper was not at the helm.

Reports state that Hazelwood had reportedly changed the ship’s route to avoid icebergs before giving the Third Mate command of the vessel. Sadly, the Third Mate mishandled the ship and, mostly as a result of malfunctioning radar, the ship veered out of the shipping channel and struck the rock. In actuality, the oil spill incident occurred more than a year before the radar stopped functioning.

Subsequent inquiries also showed that Hazelwood was intoxicated and dozing off in his bed at the time of the collision. Investigators also noted that Hazelwood erred in entrusting the ship’s navigation to the Third Mate, who was not only unfit to operate the vessel but also sleep deprived. Further investigations showed that there was not enough staff on the vessel abroad to carry out the responsibilities.

Authorities also discovered that Exxon, like many other shipping firms, was not installing iceberg monitoring equipment in accordance with agreed-upon standards.

The ship’s deviation from the standard shipping path was reported to have contributed to the accident. Due to this Exxon Valdez oil spill violation, the ship’s owner, Exxon Mobil, drew up a provision requiring strict adherence to the approved shipping lanes and routes in order to prevent such marine accidents.

Hazelwood was cleared of any intoxication during the journey following a year-long inquiry and trial. The captain was, nevertheless, found guilty of misdemeanor negligence, given a $50,000 fine, and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service.

The Effects of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Eight of the supertanker’s eleven cargo tanks burst during the collision with the reef, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil—or 250,000 barrels—into Prince William Sound, polluting more than 1,300 miles of shoreline.

This accident was devastating because the cleanup wasn’t started right away. In a matter of days, the oil slick grew to new locations and could not be contained.

Marine life was in danger as the oil slick expanded. Marine mammals that were in danger of going extinct due to rising temperatures had to deal with this human error.

Due to the oil slick in the water, seabirds were eventually forced to drown in this tragedy. Nearly 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 250 bald eagles, up to 300 harbour seals, and at least 22 killer whales are thought to have perished.

An example of the Exxon Valdez oil spill

The leak claimed the lives of salmon and herring, and the area was off-limits to commercial fishing for shrimp, rockfish, crab, salmon, and other species. Although many suffered monetarily, the indirect effects were evident in the fisheries.

The decline, and in some places the whole elimination of recreational fishing, resulted in a financial loss of up to $580 million.

Additionally, tourism was negatively impacted, with record low visitor numbers to Alaska for nearly a year after the oil spill. This had a big effect on the local economy. Reports state that the oil leak had an impact on over 26,000 jobs in the tourism sector and over $2.4 billion in revenue.

Even though Exxon Mobil contributed significantly to the cleanup efforts alongside the US Coast Guard, the unintentional but preventable Exxon Valdez accident had a significant negative impact on the ecosystem.

The shoreline hasn’t entirely recovered from the oil leak even years after the incident. The Exxon Valdez spill still chokes Alaska’s beaches, the fishing sector that collapsed in the wake of the disaster hasn’t fully recovered, and the trauma the spill caused in the fishing towns is still evident today in the shape of broken families and alcoholism.

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Clean-Up of the Exxon Valdez Spill

Clean-Up of the Exxon Valdez Spill
(Credit: Britannica)

The fact that Exxon Mobil and the US government responded to the disaster quickly ensured that the cleanup activities were effective.

To clear the impacted region, more than 11,000 people, 58 aircraft, and 1,400 vessels were deployed. Complex procedures, such as transporting several marine animals to protect their lives until the cleanup efforts were successfully finished, were also involved.

Marine experts continue to monitor the area even now. The cleanup operation took place over the period of three years, from 1989 to 1992.

Reports state that the shipping business paid 11,000 fishermen and other disaster victims compensation in addition to spending over $3.8 billion on cleanup expenses.

The shipping firm, the federal government, and the Alaska Fishermen’s Union engaged in several legal fights prior to the tragedy.

An Alaskan court ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive penalties in 1994. But the U.S. Supreme Court lowered the sum to $507.5 million following several appeals. During the operation, mechanical cleanup, chemical dispersants, and burning were the tactics employed to clean the oil.

A greater amount of surface oil was removed, but “sub-surface oil” was still present. Even after cleanup efforts, subsurface oil is still contaminating about 20 acres of the Alaskan coastline. It includes significantly more toxic materials.

Even in these recent times, the magnitude of the marine fatality caused by the Exxon Valdez is being felt. However, the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill will undoubtedly be lessened because of the concerned parties’ quick and efficient response.

Because of this optimism, one can feel secure knowing that even if an accident occurred, the worst was avoided and a marine salvage was completed in the best way possible.

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