The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

the night

By Hephaestos at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia CommonsLet me take you back nearly 25 years, to the night of March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground, spilling 42,000,000 litres of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. (Wikipedia) Some populations, such as Pacific herring and pigeon guillemot, have failed to recover. Slow to recover include sea otters, killer whales, and various marine birds. Some populations are in danger of extinction.

where to start without baselines?

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.The spill contaminated beds of intertidal pools, affecting the food source for countless vertebrates and invertebrates and forming the base of a food web for many marine and terrestrial animals. But without baseline information, ‘for example, we have no idea how the spill affected harbour porpoise and Dall’s porpoise [pictured] populations in Prince William Sound. Over 90 different species of oiled birds were recovered from the spill, but it has only been possible to track 10 bird species for signs of population level recovery.’ (What’s at Stake, 34)


Toxic_CN-from-wcBesides drowning animals or ruining their natural insulation, oil is toxic. You don’t want this stuff in your salad dressing! ‘When encountering an oil spill, one of the first things you notice is the smell. Impossible to capture in a photograph, it leaves a lasting impression. The strong smelling vapours from crude oil contain toxic carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Consequently, spilled oil needs to be treated as hazardous waste. Oil spill clean up workers have shown evidence of long-term respiratory illness and even death.’ (What’s at Stake, 34) The nose knows.


This image is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken or made as part of an employee's official duties. The oil spill has shifted ‘the way we now think about the persistence of oil in the environment. Previously, the assumption was that mortality in wildlife was almost exclusively from acute exposure. However, this spill has taught us that oil persists and retains its toxicity for a much longer time than originally thought. The persistence of toxic, sub-surface oil and chronic exposures, even at low levels, continues to affect wildlife in Alaska.’ (What’s at Stake, 35)

decades later…

By Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps (ret.) (NOAA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsExxon says that ‘the ecosystem in Prince William Sound [pictured] today is healthy, robust and thriving. While there were severe short term impacts on many species due to the spilled oil, and they suffered damages, … there has been no long term damage caused by the spilled oil.’ How do you know without baselines? After twenty years, ‘more than 80,000 litres (21,100 US gallons) of oil remain nearly as toxic as during the first few weeks after the spill.’ (What’s at Stake, 34-35) In a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ‘as of early 2007 more than 26 thousand U.S. gallons (98 m3) of oil remain in the sandy soil of the contaminated shoreline, declining at a rate of less than 4% per year.’ (Wikipedia) A team from the University of North Carolina found that ‘some twenty years after the spill, … the effects were lasting far longer than expected.’ (Wikipedia)

Did Exxon pay the full cost of the spill?

By Adela Leiro ( [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsWhat was the full cost of the spill? ‘To help industry and governments better budget for such occurrences, economists have tried to predict the costs of oil spill clean up. Globally, the cost to industry for spill cleanup averages 16,000 US dollars per tonne (1110 litres) [2010]. However, this estimate does not account for the costs of restoring habitat or the social fabric of the communities impacted by the spill…. Although Exxon spent more than 3.4 billion US$ [1989?–‘Exxon’s official position was that … Exxon spent an estimated $2 billion cleaning up the spill and a further $1 billion to settle related civil and criminal charges’, says Wikipedia. The Exxon website says ‘over $4.3 billion’] and the spill was the most expensive in history [as of 2010], the true costs were estimated to be 9.5 billion.’ (What’s at Stake, 35) Who pays for on-going, persistent toxicity? ‘Despite civilian insistence for a complete clean, only 10% of total oil was actually completely cleaned.’ (Wikipedia)

other costs

By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Public Affairs [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsWhat is the cost of a dead sea otter? [Pictured is a worker from the Valdez spill holding an otter.] There have been studies of ‘both short-term and long-term economic effects. These included the loss of recreational sports, fisheries, reduced tourism, and an estimate of what economists call “existence value”, which is the value to the public of a pristine Prince William Sound. The economy of the city of Cordova, Alaska was adversely affected after the spill damaged stocks of salmon and herring in the area. Several residents, including one former mayor, committed suicide after the spill.’ (Wikipedia)

did we learn anything?

By Victor Blacus (Victor Blacus) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsWe learned that oil persists and retains its toxicity (see above), and that drinking and driving are like oil and water: they don’t mix, especially on ships with faulty navigational equipment. Exxon ‘instituted drug and alcohol testing programs for safety sensitive positions [the captain was drunk]; restricted safety-sensitive positions to employees with no history of substance abuse; implemented more extensive periodic assessment of ExxonMobil vessels and facilities [critical equipment had been unrepaired for over a year–see Wikipedia for issues].’

recommendations and legislation

By Bjoertvedt (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia CommonsA US Coast Guard report ‘summarized the event and made a number of recommendations, such as changes to the work patterns of Exxon crew [who were over-worked].’ The US Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which ‘included a clause that prohibits any vessel that, after March 22, 1989, has caused an oil spill of more than 1 million US gallons (3,800 m3) in any marine area, from operating in Prince William Sound…. OPA also set a schedule for the gradual phase in of a double hull design, providing an additional layer between the oil tanks and the ocean. While a double hull would likely not have prevented the Valdez disaster, a Coast Guard study estimated that it would have cut the amount of oil spilled by 60 percent.’ (Wikipedia)

the end

By Salahuddin66 (Own work) [GPL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia CommonsThe Exxon Valdez was towed to San Diego, repaired, and renamed the Mediterranean. ‘The vessel was then owned by a Hong Kong company, who operated it under the name Oriental Nicety. In August 2012, the Exxon Valdez was beached at Alang, India and dismantled.’ (Wikipedia)

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