Crucial time passed before containment, but new lessons learned from zealous remediation process.
“No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time,” an account by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission would later report about the 1989 disaster.
In the early spring of 1989, after nearly a dozen years of daily tanker passages through Prince William Sound, Alaska, the super-tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled more than 260,000 barrels of oil, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. Some consider the spill amount, used by the State of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, too conservative.
When the 987-foot-long tanker hit the reef shortly after midnight, “the system designed to carry two million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked perhaps too well,” explained the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s initial report. “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,” noted the report.
Complacency about giant oil tankers ended on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef.
“The vessel came to rest facing roughly southwest, perched across its middle on a pinnacle of Bligh Reef,” noted the commission’s report. “Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”
Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely transited Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times during the previous 12 years. Improved shipbuilding technologies resulted in supersized vessels. “Whereas tankers in the 1950s carried a crew of 40 to 42 to manage about 6.3 million gallons of oil…the Exxon Valdez carried a crew of 19 to transport 53 million gallons of oil.”
Alaskan weather conditions – 33 degrees with a light rain – and the remote location added to the 1989 disaster, the report continues. With the captain not present, the third mate made a navigation error, according to another 1990 report, Practices that relate to the Exxon Valdez by the National Transportation and Safety Board. “The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload,” the report explained.
Containing Oil Spills
At the time, spill response capabilities to deal with the spreading oil will be found to be “unexpectedly slow and woefully inadequate,” according to the Oil Spill Commission’s report. “The worldwide capabilities of Exxon Corporation would mobilize huge quantities of equipment and personnel to respond to the spill — but not in the crucial first few hours and days when containment and cleanup efforts are at a premium.”
The commission added that the U.S. Coast Guard, “would demonstrate its prowess at ship salvage, protecting crews and lightering operations, but prove utterly incapable of oil spill containment and response.”
Oil Spill Cleanup Lessons
Exxon began a cleanup effort that included thousands of Exxon and contractor personnel, according to ExxonMobil. More than 11,000 Alaska residents and volunteers rushed to the coastline to assist. “Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water,” reported the authors of “Scuba Techniques Used to Assess the Effects of the Exxon Valdez.” The 2001 report added:
However, this also displaced and destroyed the microbial populations on the shoreline; many of these organisms (e.g. plankton) are the basis of the coastal marine food chain, and others (e.g. certain bacteria and fungi) are capable of facilitating the biodegradation of oil.
At the time, both scientific advice and public pressure was to clean everything, but since then, a much greater understanding of natural and facilitated remediation processes has developed, due somewhat in part to the opportunity presented for study by the Exxon Valdez spill.
Within a year of the spill, a study conducted by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission resulted in the 1990 Details about the Accident report. Experts continue to review the effects of the Exxon Valdez grounding on Bligh Reef. Most scientists today say the ecosystem in Prince William Sound, although still recovering, is healthy.
According to ExxonMobil, the company spent $4.3 billion as a result of the accident, “including compensatory payments, cleanup payments, settlements and fines. The company voluntarily compensated more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses within a year of the spill.” Field and laboratory studies continue to examine affects of the oil spill, which resulted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Two decades before the Exxon Valdez grounding, an oil spill from a Union Oil offshore platform six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, led to the modern environmental movement and the 1970 establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Learn more in Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill.
Recommended Reading: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Perspectives on Modern World History (2011); Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill (2018). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/exxon-valdez-oil-spill. Last Updated: March 21, 2021. Original Published Date: March 24, 2009.