The Complete Story of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

It is indeed an indisputable fact that the discovery of oil has dramatically changed human life. Oil dominates our daily life in several direct and indirect ways in a variety of forms.

However, at the same time, petroleum and its by-products have become a major threat to the environment over the last two centuries. Most importantly, the spillages of oil from accidents involving tankers and oil rigs have polluted our seas as well as oceans and badly affected the marine ecosystem.

Over the period of the last two centuries, a number of accidents involving oil tankers and rigs have resulted in the spillage of millions of gallons of oil into our oceans.

Among the oil spills occurred in the last five decades, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill remains a prominent one. In the accident that took place almost 30 years ago, over 11 million gallons of crude oil was released into the waters of the Gulf of Alaska, hurting the ecosystem badly as it killed hundreds of thousands of species.

exxon valdez
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Major Facts about the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

It was on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck the Bligh Reef in the Prince William Sound region of Alaska to begin one of the biggest maritime fatalities at that time. Exxon Valdez, then owned by Exxon Shipping Company, was en route t0 Long Beach, California from the Valdez Marine Terminal when it slammed into the reef at around 12 am local time.

The tanker was loaded with roughly 54 million gallons oil of which 10.8 million gallons were released into the waters of Prince William Sound as the hull of the vessel was torn open in the accident. Exxon Valdez oil spill considered to be the second major oil spill occurred in the US territory after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Exxon Valdez oil spill
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What Caused the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

Various reports following the accident have identified a number of factors that made Exxon Valdez ran aground on the reef under the command of Captain Joseph Hazelwood. It was reported that the captain was not at the helm of the tanker when it met with the accident in a route that is known for its navigational hazards.

According to reports, before handing over the ship’s control to the Third Mate, Hazelwood had apparently altered the vessel’s course to avoid icebergs. The Third Mate, unfortunately, failed to manoeuvre the vessel properly and the vessel left the shipping lane to end up colliding with the reef, chiefly due to broken radar. In fact, the radar was not working for more than a year before the oil spill accident.

Further investigations also revealed that Hazelwood was under the influence of alcohol and he was asleep in his bunk during the time of the accident.

Investigators also pointed out that Hazelwood made a mistake by handing over the vessel’s helm to the sleep-deprived Third Mate, who was also not professionally qualified to take control of the vessel. The vessel also didn’t have sufficient crew abroad to perform the duties, further investigations revealed.

Moreover, authorities found that Exxon, like many other shipping companies, was not following measures that had agreed upon, including the installation of iceberg monitoring equipment.

Reports also said the accident occurred as the ship took a route which was not prescribed under the normal shipping route. Because of this violation by the Exxon Valdez, owner Exxon Mobil charted out a clause which spoke about the strict following of the prescribed shipping routes and lanes so as to avoid any further marine accident of a magnitude like the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

After a year-long investigation and trial, Hazelwood was acquitted of being drunk during the voyage. However, the captain was convicted of misdemeanour negligence; fined $50,000 and sentenced to serve 1,000 hours of community service.

The Impact of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

However, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill occurred in the non-continuous coastline of Alaska, its effects and ramifications were huge and enormous.

As the collision of the supertanker with the reef ruptured 8 of its 11 cargo tanks, releasing 11 million gallons of crude oil-250,000 barrels-into the waters of Prince William Sound in the days to come, over 1,300 miles of coastline were contaminated.

It was reportedly a delay in initiating the cleanup efforts that made this accident catastrophic. The oil slick spread to more areas within days, making it no longer containable.

As the oil slick spread, the ecosystem consisted of a variety of marine and other species was under threat. Plants and marine mammals in the cold region, which were already facing the threat of extinction because of the rise in temperatures, had to deal with this human error.

In addition, seabirds were also forced to succumb to this disaster as the oil slick in the water trapped them to drown eventually. It is estimated that almost 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, up to 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles and at least 22 killer whales were killed in this deadliest accident.

In addition, the spill has also ended the lives of an unknown number of herring and salmon, the investigations conducted in the following months revealed.

As an immediate result, the fisheries for crab, herring, rockfish, salmon and shrimp etc. were closed in the area, while a ban on the commercial fishing of some variety of shrimp and salmon remained through 1990.

While it affected many financially, the indirect impact of the oil spill was visible on the several ends of the fishing industry.

The ill-effects of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill were not only for the marine creatures but also for the people residing in the adjacent areas of Prince William Sound.

One of the immediate short-term effects of the casualty caused by the Exxon Valdez was the impact on recreational fishing which was carried out in the Prince William Sound.

This was greatly hampered because of the penetration of oil into the waters. In the year that the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was caused, there was a total financial loss of up to $580 million due to the reduction and in some areas, the complete absence of recreational fishing.

Additionally, tourism was also hampered throughout Alaska after the accident. The number of tourists who arrived in Alaska was in a record low for almost a year following the oil spill, making a significant impact on the local economy. According to reports, the oil spill affected more than 26,000 jobs in the tourism industry and over $2.4 billion in business.

However, most importantly, the impact of the oil spill was not just limited to this. The long-term impact of the accident was and is being felt more on the eco-system and the environment.

And, in spite of the fact that the company Exxon Mobil helped greatly in the clean-up operations along with the US Coast Guard, the inadvertent-yet-avertable accident caused by the Exxon Valdez ended up leaving a huge impact.

Even years after the accident, the region is yet to recover completely from the oil spill. The oil discharged from the Exxon Valdez still clogs the beaches in Alaska, the fishing industry that collapsed after the accident hasn’t recovered fully and the trauma it created among the fishing communities still remain- in the form of separated families and alcoholism etc.

Oil Sheen From Valdez Spill
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Clean-Up of the Exxon Valdez Spill

The clean-up operations were largely successful since the response to the incident was prompt not only by the US government but also by the company – Exxon Mobil.

Over 11,000 personnel, 58 air crafts and 1,400 vessels were used to clear the affected area and it involved complex operations like relocating several marine creatures in order to safeguard their life till the clean-up operations were completed successfully.

The entire course of the clean-up operation took around three years from 1989 to 1992 and even now, monitoring is being carried out in the entire length of the coastline to observe any late-emerging effects of the oil spill.

According to reports, the shipping company spent more than $3.8 billion for the cleanup operations and also compensated 11,000 fishermen and others affected by the disaster.

The accident also followed a number of legal battles between the shipping company and the federal government as well as Alaska fishermen’s union.

In 1994, Exxon was asked by an Alaskan court to pay $5 billion in punitive damages. However, after a number of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court reduced the amount to $507.5 million.

During the operation, the methods used for the cleaning up of the oil included burning, mechanical cleanup, while chemical dispersants were also used to control the impact of the oil spill. However, the penetration into the further depths of the ocean caused by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was way too enormous for clearing-up immediately.

The cleaning of the surface oil’ was cleared up to a larger extent, while the ‘sub-surface oil’ remained as a cause for the negative impact on the ecology.

The sub-surface oil appears to be inactive in terms of a negative impact but in reality, contains far more poisonous content that could harm not just the marine creatures but also the flora and fauna. At present, despite the clean-up, about 20 acres of the Alaskan coastline is supposed to be polluted by this sub-surface oil phenomenon.

The enormity of the marine casualty caused by Exxon Valdez is something that is being felt even in recent times and will be seen even in the future. But owing to the prompt and effective response from the concerned parties, the impact of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill will definitely be reduced rather than being completely destroyed in the absence of any clean-up response.

Owing to this positivity of the situation, one can rest assured that in spite of an accident happening, one managed to avert the worst and ended up doing a marine salvage in the best possible manner.

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5 Comments

  1. This oil spill happened because the vessel traffic controllers at VTS Valdez dropped the ball. How do I know this, because I did that job in the late 70’s. I personally know both controllers involved.

  2. You rehash the tired story that Captain Hazlewood was under the influence of alcohol. That was disputed at the time and later in court where he received considerable compensation for damage to his professional image. He never worked again at sea due to his tarnished reputation.
    EXXON blamed everyone else for the disaster while sending out smoke screen after smoke screen trying to avoid their own complicity. Their response to the oil spill was initially chaotic and badly co-ordinated, had they responded as you suggest many of the problems still affecting Prince William Sound could have been avoided.
    The biggest casualty of the EXXON lie were the unfortunate seamen who serve on ships trading world-wide who are subjected to unwarranted drug and alcohol tests imposed under the so called EXXON CLAUSE in most tanker charter parties. This draconian measure was one of the smoke screens employed to divert researchers from looking too closely for the real causes.
    I would remind everyone, the incident happened to a US flagged vessel with a US crew in a US port. Part of the US cabotage or Jones Act fleet. Why did the rest of the world have to pay for the poor management of EXXON tankers?

  3. A lot of mistakes in this article. And the primary cause has not been revealed in the article. I have spent 3 years researching the incident and I think I have worked out the primary cause.

  4. It’s been 30 years since the incident and it’s time everyone knows the true facts that occurred at the time of the incident. I was one of the first response contractors to step on the deck after the spill. I went straight to the galley where I met an individual that was at the helm “Bob” from Harahan La. he told me all of the deals of the event and there’s a lot more to the story than told.

  5. Is English your second language? Or did you skip writing classes while in school. This article is very poorly written.

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