Exxon Valdez, the Notorious Alaskan Oil spill of 1989


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Oil-covered rocks in Prince William Sound

Oil-covered rocks in Prince William Sound (Photo courtesy ARLIS Reference)

The Prince William Sound oil spill has become a by-word for environmental catastrophe. Although the slick generated by the tanker was by no means the largest in terms of volume – it discharged only around one-fortieth of the largest accidental spill on record, a well blowout off Mexico in 1979 (Times Online) – the impacts of the oil on the pristine environment have made it notorious.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

On March 23 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez, carrying over 53 million gallons of oil, left the Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Forced to detour from the normal shipping route to avoid icebergs, the tanker ran aground shortly after midnight, striking the Bligh Reef around 25 miles south of the Port of Valdez.

Over the next few days, just under 11 million gallons of crude oil seeped out of the tanker and into the water. Though only a fraction of the ship’s total cargo, the oil was enough to create a slick which stretched for 460 miles and covered over 1200 miles of the sound’s rocky shoreline (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council “Questions and Answers”).

The Exxon Valdez: Environmental Impacts

The slick generated by the wreck moved south under the influence of winds and tides, posing an immediate threat to the area’s wildlife, as well as to its stunning scenery. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the area supported around ten million migratory seabirds, while the waters of the Sound were used by whales, porpoises, sea lions and sea otters (USEPA “Exxon Valdez”).

The pristine environment of Prince William Sound

The pristine environment of Prince William Sound (Photo courtesy Jean-David and Anne-Laure)

It cannot be said with any certainty how many of the area’s birds, animals and fish died in the oil spillage, although many studies have been undertaken. The published figures for carcasses found included 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters (EVOTC). This figure is likely to be a fraction of the total casualties, for which EVOTC’s best estimates are:
• 250,000 seabirds
• 2,800 sea otters
• 300 harbor seals
• 250 bald eagles
• Up to 22 killer whales.

By comparison, Tom Kizzia, writing in the Anchorage Daily News, reported that the seabird casualties from two previous notorious spills, the Amoco Cadiz and the Torrey Canyon, were estimated at 20,000 and 30,000 respectively. Both of these spills were substantially larger than the Exxon Valdez in terms of volume, but took place in less environmentally sensitive areas (Anchorage Daily News, “Oil Spill Sets Deadly Record For Sea Birds”).

The Exxon Valdez: Economic Impact

The Alaskan coast is not highly developed and was therefore less exposed to economic losses in the same way as, say, the beaches of Florida or California. In fact, in an ironic twist, the oil spill brought economic benefits along with economic problems. Nevertheless, with a strong fishing industry and tourist industry based around angling and wildlife tourism, the area experienced significant losses.

EVOTC quotes from a number of studies commissioned by the State of Alaska into the possible short term losses in the area and the range of figures produced varies. Recreational fishing losses in 1990 were estimated at between $3.6 and $50.5 million, while other tourism businesses suffered from cancellation and, in some cases, loss of labor as workers took part in the clean-up operation.

The oil cleanup provided local employment

The oil cleanup provided local employment (Photo by ARLIS Reference)

An economic cost was also assigned to the loss of amenity to the area, and to the restitution and replacement of birds and mammals. These figures varied enormously, but were as high as $300,000 dollars for a marine mammal and as little as $125 for a smaller terrestrial mammal (EVOTC).

In fact the spill also brought some economic benefit to the area. News media, Exxon representatives and oil spill clean-up workers all appeared in the town, whose population, according to the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau, almost trebled in size. The Bureau quotes a cost of $1,000 to support each worker per day – a substantial total, borne by Exxon, which went into the local economy (Valdez Alaska, “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill”).

Exxon Valdez: More Than Twenty Years On

The legacy of the Exxon Valdez incident is still with us: repeated studies have been undertaken and have shown that the oil has been pervasive and persists within the environment. EVOSTC reported that after ten years parts of the environment were ‘nearly as toxic as…a few weeks after the spill’; and after 20 years it was estimated that around 16,000 gallons of oil remained in the environment (EVOSTC, “Oil Remains: The Persistence, Toxicity and Impact of Exxon Valdez Oil”).

The experience of Exxon Valdez has shown that in environmentally fragile areas, even a relatively small oil spill can have significant effects, both environmentally and on the local economy. Equally significantly, it’s clear that, once the cleanup operation is over and media attention has moved on, the damage to the environment remains and can persist for many years after the incident is considered to be over.

EVOSTC, “Oil Remains: The Persistence, Toxicity and Impact of Exxon Valdez Oil.” Accessed 16 June 2011.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council “Questions and Answers.” Accessed 16 June 2011.
Tom Kizzia, “Oil Spill Sets Deadly Record For Sea Birds.” Anchorage Daily News 12 August 1989. Accessed 4 May 2010.
Times Online “The largest oil spills in history” April 30 2010. Accessed 16 June 2011.
Valdez Alaska, “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” Accessed 4 May 2010.
This article was originally published on Suite 101

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