Before the Exxon Valdez ran aground off the coast of Alaska, the area was one of the richest fisheries in the North Pacific. All that changed, however, in March of 1989, when the ship caused one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history.
Things changed outside Alaska, too, when the spill -- and the outrage it caused -- became a political hot potato. From the halls of Congress to the helm of oil tankers all around the world, there were many lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez spill.
Aboard the Exxon Valdez
Built in 1986, the Exxon Valdez was, like most tankers of its generation, a single-hull design: there is only one layer of steel between the water and the ship's cargo of oil. At 301 meters in length, it was designed to carry up to 1.5 million barrels of oil.
The ship was piloted by Captain Joe Hazelwood, a veteran sailor with a long history of alcohol abuse. On the night of March 23, 1989, Hazelwood guided the tanker from the port at Valdez, Alaska, with a load of about 53 million gallons of crude oil bound for Long Beach, Calif. Though Hazelwood was on board, he was not piloting the ship -- after a few vodka drinks, he retired for the evening and left the ship in the hands of a third mate.
To avoid icebergs in the area, the Exxon Valdez maneuvered outside the main shipping lanes of Prince William Sound. It's worth noting that the tanker's collision-avoidance radar system had been broken for over a year; according to some reports, Exxon determined it was too expensive to repair. Furthermore, the ship was operating with a much smaller crew than normal, so crew members were forced to work 12- to 14-hour shifts.
Destroyed: Alaska's Rich Natural Heritage
Prince William Sound is an enormous bay located just to the east of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. A rugged landscape marked by rocky outcrops, glaciers, islands and fjords, the ragged shoreline is surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, many of which are part of the immense Chugach National Forest. It's also a major oil export area; the Trans-Alaska pipeline carries oil from the famous Prudhoe Bay oil fields to Valdez.
Prince William Sound is also part of one of richest fisheries in North America, and like much of Alaska, the entire Chugach area teems with wildlife: brown bears, salmon, sea otters, harbor seals, grizzly bears, bald eagles, black-tailed deer, porpoises, millions of migratory shore birds and several species of whale made this part of Alaska a mecca for nature lovers from all over the world.
That natural heritage was decimated, however, shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989. With no operating radar system, a sleeping captain and an exhausted, overworked crew, the Exxon Valdez ran into the underwater rocks of the sound. The rocks ripped into the hull's single layer of steel and, according to the EPA, about 11 million gallons of crude oil began gushing into the sea.
Aftermath of the Spill
As news of the Exxon Valdez spill exploded across headlines, cleanup began immediately, involving some 11,000 workers (many of whom were volunteers). Several techniques were used to manage the disaster, including chemical dispersants, burning of collected oil, high-pressure hot water, and mechanical cleanup using booms and skimmers.
All of these procedures, however, met with limited success. The region's isolation, severe weather conditions, a rocky shoreline and a general lack of preparedness hampered cleanup efforts. Some researchers estimate that less than 10 percent of the spilled oil was ever recovered; the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that 18 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, over 26,000 gallons of crude oil still contaminated the shoreline.
Besides the millions of fish, birds and other animals that were killed by the oil, the economic impact of the spill was devastating. A loss of roughly $300 million was experienced by the commercial fishing industry, and tourism in the area was reduced by about one-third in the year after the spill.
As a result of the Exxon Valdez spill, the U.S. government passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which restricts certain tankers from entering sensitive or dangerous areas. The legislation also requires that by 2015, most large tankers operating in U.S. waters have a double-hulled design, with two separate layers of steel between the water and the oil hold.
The tanker Exxon Valdez, repaired shortly after the spill, continues to sail the oceans under Panamanian registry as the Dong Fang Ocean. And despite the notoriety of the Exxon Valdez spill, it was actually a moderate-sized spill; dozens of other oil spills, from the Kuwaiti oil fires to the Deepwater Horizon spill, have been significantly larger.