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Exxon Valdez



Exxon Valdez (1989)
A Tragedy Waiting to Happen?

Oil tanker facilities in Valdez, Alaska.

On March 23, 1989 the Exxon Valdez supertanker en route to Los Angeles, California eased out of its moorings in Valdez, Alaska at about 9:20 pm. Valdez is the terminus of the Alaska pipeline, an 800+ mile conduit that starts in Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's north coast where oil is pumped out of the ground. The Exxon Valdez, the second youngest vessel in Exxon's fleet of 20 ships, is capable of carrying more than 53 million gallons of crude oil, almost 10 times the capacity of vessels built in the 1950's. While ships were getting larger, their crews were shrinking, while a ship carrying 6.3 million gallons would require a crew of 42 in the 1950's, by 1989 a crew of only 19 was called upon to guide the Exxon Valdez and its cargo of 53 million gallons. The Exxon Valdez plied familiar waters traveling a route into and out of Prince William Sound that had been traveled more than 8700 times between the opening pipeline in 1977 and 1989 without incident.

As the Exxon Valdez left its moorage just after 9 pm on the 23rd, nearly an hour ahead of the schedule the captain had anticipated when they arrived at 11:30 pm the night before, nothing seemed amiss. While reports would latter surface that Captain Hazelwood had alcohol on his breathe, this did not raise much interest at the time. The ship traveled through the narrow shipping lanes under the guidance of a local pilot and at 11:24 pm Captain Hazelwood took control of his vessel as the local pilot departed. The ship was encountering ice, a lingering reminder of the rapid retreat of the Columbia Glacier which lays just to the west of Valdez. To avoid the ice the ship glided, in a manner like many before it, to the east towards the inbound ship traffic lane.

Without realizing it the ship's Third Mate Cousins, the only officer at the helm, guided the Exxon Valdez across the inbound traffic lane. It was not until lookout Maureen Jones reported the precautionary lights for Bligh Reef on the starboard (right) side of the ship at approximately midnight that the crew realized their error. This report immediately told Cousins that the ship had exited the safe, deep transit lanes and that it was driving directly towards the dangers of Bligh Reef. Under normal operating conditions the reef would be to the port (left) of a vessel traveling to the south to exit Prince William Sound. Attempts to turn the vessel back into the transit lanes were too late as the ship plowed onto Bligh Reef at 12:04 am puncturing 8 of the 11 oil storage tanks onboard. Feeling the impact, Captain Hazelwood retook command of his vessel and immediately tried to power the boat off the reef. It would be another fifteen minutes before the engines would be turned down to idle speed and his famous report of the accident wouldn't come until 12:26. 

Exxon Valdez 3 days after running aground.

The Exxon Valdez three days after running aground.

"We've fetched up, ah, hard aground, north of Goose Island, off Bligh Reef and, ah, evidently leaking some oil and we're gonna be here for a while and, ah, if you want, ah, so you're notified."

Within 3.25 hours nearly six million gallons of crude oil had spilled from the ruptured tanks. Captain Hazelwood would continue trying to drive his vessel off the reef for nearly 2 hours. Most of the 10.9 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound within just 6 hours of grounding.

The American public and media was outraged, what was perceived as being a pristine area in the most remote and undeveloped part of the country, Alaska, was suddenly transformed into a waste clean-up area. Although the spill doesn't rank in the top fifty spill events worldwide, it probably involved more environmental damage than any other spill, and aroused more media and public interest than any other spill in U.S. history.

While this incident ranks as one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history, its clean-up was further complicated by logistical challenges and weather conditions. Local spill response resources were immediately overwhelmed by the quantity of oil spilled, a problem made worse because the local spill response barge was out of service at the time of the incident. It took 35 hours before a boom could be placed around the stricken vessel to prevent oil from dispersing from the accident site. Since most oil leaked out in the first few hours, this response was simply too little, too late.

Clean-up efforts were set back again by a storm which brought nearly 70 mile per hour winds with it on March 26th, just two days after the accident, and well before most clean-up equipment had arrived on the scene. This storm complicated the clean-up operation in two ways: first it actively dispersed oil spreading it as much as 90 miles from the spill site by March 30th; and secondly it mixed the oil with debris making conventional clean-up nearly impossible.

The spill ultimately stretched nearly 460 miles and oiled more than 1300 miles of shoreline (see a map of the spill). The spill is believed to have killed nearly 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals and 250 bald eagles in addition to billions of herring and salmon eggs. While thousands of animals were pulled from the spill oiled, but alive, the survival rate of oiled seabirds and otters hovers around 60% in the best scenarios. Ultimately more than 11,000 people using 1,400 vessels and 85 aircraft were involved in the clean-up effort over a total of three years. Exxon estimates the costs associated with the clean-up portion of this spill at $2.1 billion. Today, monitoring and restoration efforts continue, but the people and resources that depend on Prince William Sound still have not fully recovered.

For more information visit the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council Website

One of more than 250,000 seabirds oiled during the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.
More than 250,000 birds, including this loon, were oiled during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

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