At midnight on March 24,1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, more than 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the waters.  It was the beginning of America's worst environmental nightmare.

Fish and wildlife perished and fishermen saw their livelihood vanish. The spill eventually covered more than 4,000 square kilometers. Although Exxon says it spent almost $2 billion in clean up and millions in compensation, the oil company is still battling court-ordered damage payments.    

Myke Bybee is with the environmental group Sierra Club. He says 20 years later, things are still unsettled.
"Twenty years later, those local fishing economies the native Alaskans still have not recovered. The fisheries have not come back," he says.  "In fact, in 2007 NOAA, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that more than 25 thousand gallons of oil are still under the surface under the beaches of Prince William Sound."

Bybee says along those beaches today, oil is not visible, but crude is underneath the surface and on the sea bed.
The oil remains toxic in some areas, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, formed to oversee the recovery.
Cindy Shogan is executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. She says March 24th is a day of mourning for a whole ecosystem.

"Twenty years later, there is evidence of oil as far as 450 miles [724 kilometers] away from the Sound," she says. "And there are some areas on the beach still as toxic as it was 20 years ago."

Some wildlife has returned, according to environmental reports, but most fishermen moved away or found other ways to make a living.   
"No, I don't think justice has been made," Bybee says. "Exxon continues to resist paying the restitution declared by the court, and those communities are still fighting to recover what they had."

Even worse, experts say there is no technology to completely clean up an oil spill.

"It is going to live in history as the biggest environmental disaster we ever encountered, and we have to make sure something like this never happens again," Shogan says.

But with the prospect of more oil exploration in the region, they say the environment will continue to be at risk.