News / USA

25 Years After Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Alaska Retains Scars

Exxon Valdez Ushers in New Era of Pollution Responsei
March 24, 2014 10:42 AM
On March 24, 1989, a huge tanker sailed from Valdez at the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline into Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez struck a reef and spilled 41.5 million liters of crude oil. 25 years ago, it was largest oil spill in U.S. history. Rosanne Skirble reports.
Rosanne Skirble
In the early morning hours of March 24, 1989, a huge tanker sailed from Valdez at the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline into Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez struck a reef and spilled 41.5 million liters of crude oil.

Twenty-five years ago, it was largest oil spill in U.S. history, overtaken in 2010 by the BP Deep Water Horizon rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico. Still, Exxon Valdez holds the dubious distinction as the nation’s greatest environmental disaster from an oil spill and marked a turning point in the prevention of and response to such accidents.

Community in shock

Click to enlargeClick to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Oceanographer Debbie Payton was called to Alaska a few hours after the spill by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She discovered a community in shock.     

“At the town meeting, I would describe it as chaos, confusion," Payton said. "People [were] upset because of a lack of information. How could this happen in our very pristine backyard?”  

Payton's job was to help predict where the oil would go. On Day One, she saw the eerie black sheen on Prince William Sound. Three days later, a storm picked up, and over the next weeks and months the oil spread to beaches and coves along the rocky coastline.

“There were oiled birds," she recalled. "There were some marine mammals that could be seen surfacing through the oil. There was oil on the beaches.”

A dead otter is among hundreds of thousands of animals oiled or killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. (Credit: Alaska Resources Library and Information Service)A dead otter is among hundreds of thousands of animals oiled or killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. (Credit: Alaska Resources Library and Information Service)
Response teams used skimmers and booms. They burned the oil, deployed dispersants and sprayed steam on rocks. Recovery was slow, the location remote and the environmental loss staggering; hundreds of thousands of seabirds, sea otters, seals, bald eagles and whales were dead.  

25 years later

Payton now heads NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, which has monitored the Exxon Valdez spill since the beginning.  She says while pockets of oil are still visible, the coast and the fisheries appear healthy, with some notable exceptions.

“There are still some concerns with one of the fisheries, the herring fishery," she said.

The herring industry, once a thriving coastal business, has collapsed. One former fisherman - who didn’t give his name - bears the scars. He doubts herring will ever be fished commercially here again.   

“Typically for the herring season we might have made $35,000, $40,000," he said. "Now nothing.”

Lingering oil is apparent in shoreline sediments on Prince William Sound, Sept. 2013. (Credit: D. Janka)Lingering oil is apparent in shoreline sediments on Prince William Sound, Sept. 2013. (Credit: D. Janka)
The lawsuits filed against Exxon ended with a 2008 Supreme Court ruling, which capped punitive damages at $2.5 billion. While the company has spent over $4 billion - in compensation, cleanup payments, settlements and fines - critics allege that it is not enough. But Exxon Mobil spokesman Richard Keil told VOA it was a fair deal.  
“We took immediate responsibility for the spill," Keil noted. "The payments we’ve made are based on agreements worked out in court with input from all parties.  It’s also important to note that the company voluntarily compensated more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses within a year of the spill.”

Safety changes

Keil says that the Exxon Valdez accident marked a low point, but also sparked a dramatic change in corporate culture to put safety first.

“It’s the number one factor guiding any and all business decisions we make," Keil said. "We want to protect the environment we’re operating in, the communities we’re part of and the employees, contractors and the people who live near our operations.”

Exxon Valdez was the impetus for other changes too, says NOAA’s Payton, starting with a new law, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

“It led to double hulled tankers," she said. "It led to community actions groups… better integration with response communities all the way from the oil spill response organizations, private entities, responsible parties through the state and federal government.”  

Payton’s office responds to between 100 and 150 spills a year. She says a new generation of booms, skimmers and dispersants remain in NOAA’s arsenal, but the agency has added other tools, like an online data system, which records ocean currents and ship locations and predicts the path of oil in real time.

“And that allows us to just pull pieces of information together even quicker so that we can make decisions that much quicker,” she said.

Chuck Clusen, who heads Alaska Projects for the Natural Resources Defense Council, sees it another way, especially as the U.S. considers drilling in pristine areas of the Arctic.

“It’s a wake-up call for operations generally on the oceans involving oil," Clusen said. "The government and industry must take heed to that and understand that there are places simply we cannot go.”

If Exxon Valdez has taught us anything, Clusen says, it is to fairly weigh the ecological risk against the economic benefit of oil extraction.

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Comment Sorting
by: tess jordan from: antarctica
April 03, 2014 1:54 PM
OIl Spill Eater II is going to clean up the valdez at some point just like it's going to do in the gulf it's just a matter of time before the non toxic most proven oil spill clean up product in the world is used there.

by: Claudia L from: USA
March 29, 2014 2:51 PM
Another mistake by the SCOUS not allowing them to pay for their mistakes. What's is wrong with them?????

This will continue to happen as long as companies know they can not be held responsible for their actions.

by: Nomoremonarchy from: Northwest N.J.
March 25, 2014 7:27 AM
Yeah and we let the BP off so cheaply , that you can't go near Washington without hearing the Squeak. Even now the Shrimp are coming up with Sores all over their bodies and are mutant and showing no eyes at all. And the big buyers are scooping everything up and it's being taken rich tot he market. While the Little Shrimper is at least taking the time to remove the Mutants from what they harvest. Remember when Pig-Ears and the First moose were frolicking in the Surf and telling one and all that the Bay was pristine and that they'd be willing to eat anything that came from there. Just like the Planks in his Campaign Platform . Nothing but lies and no " Transparency." I hope every meal in the W.H. and aboard AFl has a helping of Shrimp on the menu. Even Breakfast for that bunch of Liars.

by: peachayapa from: Thailand
March 24, 2014 10:29 AM
I hope the oil clears away soon because all the fishes and the animals have to die because of human pollution.Q:How many years are estimated that the oil would finally go?
In Response

by: Mark from: Virginia
March 24, 2014 1:55 PM

If oil I still present on the surface after 25 years, then how much of it has seeped into the ground? Erosion (natural and man-made) will only reveal these 'pockets' of absorbed oil and bring them back to the surface for many, many more years to come. There is oil beneath the world's oceans (otherwise, why would they be drilling for oil so far off-shore), and while some oil does seep up naturally, it is when so much of it is concentrated in one place (as in the tanks and hulls of surface ships) when accidents do happen, they have the biggest impacts to nature.

by: Motherhawk from: Oregon
March 24, 2014 10:08 AM
The people don't have much of a voice. Here in Oregon they are shipping oil right alongside our beautiful Columbia Gorge. No one wants it. They have to ship it secretly. If they reveal a schedule, it will be blocked by protestors. They shipped parts to Canada for the pipeline secretly, in the middle of the night, heavily guarded because they know the people don't support this dirty energy. So if the people don't support it, why is it still happening? Textbook definition of fascism: when government and corporations are wedded together are rule in spite of the voices of the people.

by: bob from: usa
March 24, 2014 10:00 AM
Exxon has made 20-50 Billion per year since doing this. Instead of paying until it was all cleaned, and they go to court and buy their way out of finishing.

by: DougCheri Bledsoe
March 24, 2014 9:54 AM
Good thing the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico sustain the micro organisms that eat oil. Oil/fossil fuel is organic and with a little warmth these micros will clean it up. Alaska is like a refrigerator and that gunk will lay there a long time.

by: JohnL
March 24, 2014 9:38 AM
Absolute nonsense. The ill effects disappeared almost instantly. The only remaining impact is the constant request for government funds by various consultants and nonprofits to "study" the impact. By the next fishing season and thereafter there were more fish than ever before and the handful of dead birds and otters were totally replaced. I know. I was there before, during, and after the spill.
In Response

by: Claudia L from: USA
March 29, 2014 3:00 PM
The people of Cordova, Alaska, are still struggling. There are no herring left and the herrings are on the lower part of the fish food chain. This is 25 years later. In 1994, an Alaska jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages for Exxon's negligence to the people of the towns who experienced business loss. But the litigation dragged on for nearly two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court reduced the award to $500 million, plus interest which paid for NOTHING!

by: Anonymous
March 24, 2014 8:45 AM
funny...this just happened again in houston on saturday
In Response

by: Nomoremonarchy from: Northwest N.J.
March 25, 2014 7:29 AM
Start off your Comments with the phrase : " Once upon a Time," please. Take a little trip down to the Gulf and talk with the Shrimpers and ask them to show you the Mutant Shrimp. Compliments of the B.P. and the Sweetheart deal our " Pretender o the Throne , gave to them.

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