25th Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

New Wave Media

March 24, 2014

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On March 24, 1989 the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil across 1,300 miles of coastline. The tankers grounding and subsequent oil spill lead to one of the most thorough examinations of the effects of oil on the environment. While the vast majority of the spill area now appears to have recovered, pockets of crude oil remain in some locations, and there is evidence that not all resources affected by the spill have recovered to the previous state.

No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time, on March 23,1989. The 987 foot ship, at the time the second newest in Exxon Shipping Company's 20-tanker fleet, was loaded with 53,094,5 10 gallons (1,264,155 barrels) of North Slope crude oil bound for Long Beach, California. Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely transited Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times in the 12 years since oil began flowing through the trans-Alaska pipeline, with no major disasters and few serious incidents. This experience gave little reason to suspect impending disaster. Yet less than three hours later, the Exxon Valdez grounded at Bligh Reef, rupturing eight of its 11 cargo tanks.

Until the Exxon Valdez piled onto Bligh Reef, the system designed to carry 2 million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked nearly flawlessly. At least partly because of the success of the Valdez tanker trade, a general complacency had come to permeate the operation and oversight of the entire system. That complacency and success were shattered when the Exxon Valdez ran hard aground shortly after midnight on March 24. Many scientists and environmentalists maintain that Prince William Sound's coastal ecosystem is permanently damaged. Thousands of gallons of Exxon Valdez crude still pollute the beaches and the seabed.

The U.S. government considers, as of 2010, only 13 of the 32 monitored wildlife populations, habitats and resource services that were injured in the spill as fully "recovered" or "very likely recovered." Some are still listed today as "not recovering." This includes a pod of orcas, which lost 15 of its 22 members after the spill, and has not produced a calf since. Given only one older female is left, scientists are certain that this unique pod of orcas will go extinct. The government conclusion is that "there appears to be no hope for recovery." The "not recovering" list also includes Pacific herring, one of the sound's keystone species. Once the source of a vibrant commercial fishery, herring declined so precipitously that a fishery closed, and has not reopened.

While inroads are deing made to tap the Arctic's O&G potencial, it's important to look back at accidents such as this and reflect on the dangers faced by Arctic oil exploration and eventually production and transportation in that fragile environment. In future posts we will take a closer look at the lingering effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and what has been and is being done to remediate these effects.

Sources: ExXon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, NOAA, CNN

Paschoa, Claudio
Claudio Paschoa is Marine Technology Reporter's correspondent in Brazil.
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