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The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

By Patrick Mondout

Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez, which was being navigated by third mate Gregory T. Cousins, missed a simple dogleg turn and was grounded on Bligh Reef in the upper part of Prince William Sound in Alaska. Within a few days, it had spilled almost 11 million gallons of the oil (of the 53 million on board) into Prince William Sound. The spill was the largest in U.S. history and quickly became one of the year's biggest news stories.

The spill posed threats to the delicate food chain that supports Prince William Sound's commercial fishing industry. Also in danger were ten million migratory shore birds and waterfowl, hundreds of sea otters, dozens of other species, such as harbor porpoises and sea lions, and several varieties of whales.

Drinking & Driving Don't Mix

Captain of the Valdez Joseph Hazelwood had left the third mate in charge reportedly because he was too drunk to do his duties (he claimed that he was simply doing paperwork below deck but later admitted it was a mistake to leave the deck). The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was of the opinion that it was poor judgment to leave the third officer in charge so close to the shore and that his judgment was impaired from drinking alcohol shortly before departing. It also cited Exxon for failing to adequately staff its ships and for not providing proper guidance to ships leaving Prince William Sound. 

Various accounts, including more than one from Hazelwood himself, have him drinking between two and four drinks at a bar in Valdez before the 9:00 p.m. departure. He has steadfastly denied the charge of being drunk at the time of the accident. The Alaska state trooper dispatched to the scene failed to bring a breathalyzer and tests conducted 10 hours after the accident were apparently mishandled so it is unlikely we will ever know for certain.

Hazelwood was quickly vilified as a drunk who abandoned his post. His name soon became the punch-line to late-night comedian's jokes and his face was often seen on the front cover of the tabloids. For what it is worth, he was not convicted of operating the tanker while intoxicated though he was convicted of negligently discharging oil into the waters of the Prince William Sound (a misdemeanor).

Exxon, ecstatic at the possibility of having a scapegoat, released Hazelwood's medical records showing that he had been treated four years prior for depression and alcohol addiction. This knowledge did not prevent them from hiring him but it was used as an excuse to fire him.

Cleanup

Unfortunately, an oil industry group called Alyeska first assumed responsibility for the cleanup. It was more like a coverup. Exxon even tried to blame the state of Alaska for the mess. Soon thereafter Governor Cowper of Alaska was quoted in the Anchorage Daily News as saying "There is clearly a campaign here by Exxon and its public relations people to mislead the public into thinking that they could have cleaned this entire thing up if it hadn't been for the state of Alaska."

It soon became clear that the Coast Guard, EPA, and other government agencies were going to have to take over the cleanup because the Exxon was more interested in protecting profits than cleaning up the environmental mess they had made.

Many factors complicated the cleanup efforts following the spill. The size of the spill and its remote location, accessible only by helicopter and boat, made government and industry efforts difficult and tested existing plans for dealing with such an event. Three methods were tried in the effort to clean up the spill:

  • Burning
  • Mechanical Cleanup
  • Chemical Dispersants

A trial burn of the surface oil was conducted during the early stages of the spill. A fire-resistant boom was placed on tow lines, and two ends of the boom were each attached to a ship. The two ships with the boom between them moved slowly throughout the main portion of the slick until the boom was full of oil. The two ships then towed the boom away from the slick and the oil was ignited. The fire did not endanger the main slick or the Exxon Valdez because of the distance separating them. Because of unfavorable weather, however, no additional burning was attempted in this cleanup effort.

Despite the identification of sensitive areas and the rapid start-up of shoreline cleaning, wildlife rescue was difficult and lengthy task made even more difficult by a lack of resources at the scene.

Thousands of mammals and marine-life were killed in addition to an estimated 250,000 seabirds and at least 22 killer whales. Otter rehabilitation and pre-release centers were built in Valdez, Seward, and Homer, Alaska. The three centers treated a total of 357 otters and released 197 into Prince William Sound and along the Kenai Peninsula. Because of concerns for their health, an additional 24 adult otters were sent to various seaquariums.

Solution? Legislation!

In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez incident, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which required the Coast Guard to strengthen its regulations on oil tank vessels and oil tank owners and operators. As usual it took an environmental disaster to get Congress to take even this small step. Despite this, Greenpeace claims less than 10% of the tankers in this area today meet the tougher standards (presumably because the regulations only applied to new tankers).

Billion Dollar Fine

On March 13, 1991, the Justice Department announced a record $900 million settlement with Exxon (with an extra $100 million in fines to be levied to cover damage beyond what was then known) to settle all federal and state claims. According to the plea settlement Exxon Shipping Co. pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act, the Refuse Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Exxon Corporation also pleaded guilty to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is rare that a corporation has to pay hefty fines and admit wrongdoing. However, given the $5-$10 billion a year in subsidies ("corporate welfare" is the non-PC term for it) the oil industry receives from U.S. taxpayers, this amount - to be paid over a 10 year period - is not nearly as large as it might at first appear.

Road to Recovery

According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), there is still residual oil to be found in the impacted areas. The remaining oil generally lies below the surface of the beaches in those places that are very sheltered from the actions of wind and wave (which help to break down and remove stranded oil), and those beaches where oil initially penetrated very deeply and was not removed.

NOAA's position on whether or not the Prince William Sound area has recovered is this (as of Feb 1999): "While it is safe to say that nearly all of us are impressed by the degree to which Prince William Sound has rebounded from the spill and its aftermath, it would also be a fairly good bet that there will be disagreement for some time on the nature and details of that rebound and how far it needs to progress for recovery to be considered complete. Based on the perspective we in NOAA/HAZMAT have gained through two decades of spill response and from the results of our intertidal monitoring program, we consider Prince William Sound to be well along the road to recovery--but not yet recovered."

Where Are They Now?

Exxon was extremely successful at distancing themselves from the oil spill as all-time record profits for fiscal 2000 show.

The Exxon Valdez tanker was rehabilitated about as quickly as Exxon's image. It now sails the seas as the Exxon Mediterranean sans Captain Hazelwood.

Captain Hazelwood is no longer a captain even though he has regained his license as no one will hire him. Nine years after first being convicted for illegally spilling oil, his legal appeals had finally ran there course and he had to grab a litter bag and begin his 1,000 hours of community service. As that service was to be divided into 200 hours per year, he will be picking up garbage until 2003 - 14 years after the spill. Last we heard he was living in his native New York working as a paralegal for the law firm that defended him for nearly a decade (New York City's Chalos & Brown).

Note: You can read the executive summary of the President's Report on the Exxon Valdez here.

 

 

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EXXON'S CLEAN-UP

Oil spill responders use high powered, hot water spray equipment to wash down the Alaska shoreline following the Exxon Valdez spill. The use of this response technique proved controversial, however. Exxon claimed that this process successfully removed oil, while environmentalists maintained that the sprays actually killed more shoreline organisms than it saved.

EPA image


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