Two decades after the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s waters, the Prince William Sound, its fishermen, and its wildlife have still not fully recovered.
Shortly after the Exxon Valdez oil spill gripped the world with images of an environmental assault, the CEO of the oil company predicted that in a few years there would be “nothing” to evidence the disaster.
He was wrong. Today, 20 years after the largest spill in US waters, the oil that gushed from the hull of the Exxon Valdez is still having effects.
Sea otters once again play in the waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and salmon and some other species have rebounded. But killer whale populations have not recovered, and the huge schools of whirling herring that fed both fishermen and animals have not returned, reminding scientists that nature’s responses are complex and unpredictable.
Humans, too, have had a mixed response. Maritime safety agencies mandated key improvements: single-hulled tankers are finally on their way out, and some places, like the Alaskan town of Valdez, have created impressive spill response teams. But our thirst for oil - coupled with the steady disappearance of Arctic sea ice - is now prompting ambitions to drill across the Arctic, where a spill could bring a greater disaster.
The jeweled beauty of the waters off Cordova and Valdez was disfigured on March 24, 1989, by the stain of 11 million gallons of crude oil, pouring from a gash in the single hull of the Exxon Valdez. The ship had bellied into a well-known reef as its captain slept off a vodka bender and, at the wheel, his third mate missed a turn.
The spill remains the most costly maritime accident in the world. Volunteers rushed to Valdez to scrub otters and ducks with gentle soap, only to watch them die. Exxon papered the towns with money, hiring fishermen to wash oil off the beaches. The company soon declared the once-pristine area largely healed, even as its creatures continued to die.
Exxon also sent waves of lawyers to fight the court awards from the spill, finally last year winning a US Supreme Court decision allowing the company to pay about ten cents for each dollar of the original award to fishermen and others affected by the spill.
The most positive results from the disaster involve oil tanker safety. In 1990, the US Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act, requiring a phase-out of single-hulled oil tankers in US waters by 2010 - a belated acknowledgment that a double-hulled tanker would have contained much of the oil lost from the Exxon Valdez. The Act set up a liability fund, toughened spill disaster plans, and created a mechanism for citizen-led oversight committees to police safety claims by shippers.
Special tugs now usher tankers in and out of Valdez to the open sea. Response teams armed with pre-positioned equipment have successfully handled smaller spills at Valdez. The Coast Guard, which failed to watch the errant course of the Exxon Valdez, now has a sophisticated satellite tracking system for maritime traffic past the straits.
“We certainly suffered and paid the price, but now we have the world’s most robust oil response anywhere in the world,” said Tom Copeland, who fished from Cordova and was a member of the citizen’s group that insisted on safety improvements.
Worldwide, the frequency of major accidents in oil shipping has dropped, and insurance experts say safety has improved. The requirement for double-hulled tankers spurred the shipping industry to modernise with much safer ships. Some oil companies, like Arco and BP, now use tankers that exceed the legal requirements, with redundant power and steering systems to minimise failures.
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