Exxon Valdez On March 24, 1989 at 4 minutes past midnight, the oil tanker ExxonValdez struck a reef in Alaska’s breath-taking Prince William Sound. Instantaneously, the quiet waters of the sound became a sea of black. “We’ve fetched up – ah – hard aground north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef, and – ah – evidently leaking some oil,” Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the ship, radioed the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office back in Valdez. That “some oil” turned out to be a total of 11,000,000 gallons of crude oil leaking from the ruptured hull of the ship. By the time a containment effort was put forth, a weather storm had helped to spread the oil as much as three feet thick across 1,400 miles of beaches. A little over ten years have passed since the largest oil spill and the greatest environmental disaster in American history, but the waters and its surroundings are still recovering.
At first, many people repeated what was then thought as common knowledge, “oil dissipates, nature heals quickly, all will be well in a year or two.” This has not been the case with the Exxon Valdez. This massive 987-foot tanker has left a lingering, long-term effect on the natural habitat that surrounds these pristine waters, along with an enormous socio-economic effect that has left many people wondering when and where the next oil spill will be. Many associated with the recovery process, and its more than one hundred projects per year, say it will take longer than a human lifetime to determine if a full recovery is possible (Fine 1999). RESULTS AND DISCUSSION The Exxon Valdez oil spill was initially thought of as a two to three year clean-up project. As time went ahead, scientists and clean-up crews realized that it would take a longer period of time and require a lot more effort than originally planned.
Up to this point, the oil has contaminated a national forest, four wildlife refuges, three national parks, five state parks, four “critical habitat areas” and a state game sanctuary, which spreads along 1,400 miles of the Alaskan shoreline. Recent scientific studies show that the oil continues to wreak havoc among many spawning salmon, herring, and other species of fish. This is even more devastating when considering that much of the wildlife around the sound is dependant on the high calorie, high fat content of the herring as their prime food source. Among the many casualties were 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles, as many as 22 killer whales, and an estimated quarter-million seabirds. It is unclear how many billions of salmon and herring eggs and intertidal plants succumbed to the oil smothering. Within an ecosystem, each living thing depends on other living things.
That means that when the fish died in Prince William Sound, there was less food for the seals that normally eat them. As those seals died, there was less food for the killer whales that eat seals (Knickerbocker 1999). This has led to a domino effect within the food chain, victimizing many of the animals surrounding the area. Intertidal mussel beds are still contaminated to this day. Twenty-three species of wildlife were effected by this oil spill, and only two species, the bald eagle and the river otter, have fully recovered.
The species that are well on their way to a comeback include pink salmon, Pacific herring, sea otters, mussels, black oyster catcher, common murre, marbled murrelet, and sockeye salmon. As with any environmental disasters, there are some animals that are showing little or no clear improvement since the spill occurred. This group includes harbour seals, killer whales, harlequin ducks, common loons, cormorants, and the pigeon gullomot. In some areas, that have been hardest hit by the oil spill, many of the species have an elevated level of mortality. Even though the Exxon Valdez is the most-studied oil spill in world history, it is also a particularly difficult one to research because of the lack of baseline data on the ecology of Prince William Sound (Birkland 1998). Among all the animal casualties, there is another victim, people.
Thousands have been forced to bare the consequences of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Throughout the years, the waters of Alaska have provided families with a living, but the oil spill changed that. Fisherman in Cordova and other nearby cities surrounding the Gulf of Alaska have struggled with scarce catches. Some Alaskan natives still depend on seal meat for food. And fishing is a source of income for many Alaskan families. As some fish and seal species continue to struggle 10 years after the spill, so do the people who depend on them (Knickerbocker 1999). Many of the people that used these waters as a source of income have not been able to cope with the scarce catches, thus forcing more and more people to apply for unemployment and other welfare system benefits.
A study completed by Steven Picou, a sociologist from the University of South Alabama, has also shown that the people who have been affected by the oil spill have been traumatized and suffer from bouts of depression. There are high rates of alcoholism and social ills that can be directly linked to the Exxon Valdez. Although many have fallen victim to the oil spill, Exxon, the owner of the Exxon Valdez was not held unaccountable. Within the first two years, Exxon had paid nearly $2.1 billion on clean up and another $1 billion in damages to Alaska and the United States in the form of civil and criminal fines. Also the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was also charged with, but later acquitted of, operating the ship while intoxicated; although the validity of the blood tests given by Captain Hazelwood have been questioned. Along with the $3 billion spent in clean up and fines, Exxon was also ordered to pay $5 billion in punitive damages, which it has managed to fend off through ongoing appeals. Not much good comes out of a story as tragic as the Exxon Valdez, but there have been some benefits.
On August 18, 1990, eighteen months after the oil spill, the Federal Oil Pollution Act (OPA) was passed. The OPA of 1990 ended a fourteen-year deadlock over how to improve oil laws. This act is summarized by the fact it allows the government to act much quicker upon notification of an oil spill and holds oil companies accountable for all financial liabilities. This in turn has forced companies to review their oil policies and procedures and implement safer ways to transport oil. The OPA has also introduced many standards and regulations such as: i) ships are to have double hulls as of the year 2015, ii) increase training for crew, and iii) an increase in the development of equipment and ships that respond to oil spills.
The OPA has also established a $1 billion liability fund, which will be paid by the oil industry. Along with the OPA of 1990, the Exxon Valdez is also responsible for the creation of two Regional Citizen’s Advisory Councils, one, which operates from Cook Inlet and the other from Prince William Sound. These councils are funded solely by assessments that are made on the oil industry. The councils include a number of local interest groups and present views from all aspects of the general population. Since these councils have access to capital, they have the ability to fund research and projects that allow them to play big roles in the formation of government policies.
CONCLUSION In regards to oil spills, they are best summarized by this…so long as there are ships, and humans steering them, accidents will happen, and maybe huge ones (Knickerbocker 1999). Much is to be said on the cause and effect of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but since we cannot turn back time to correct our mistakes, we must see the brighter side of every picture. Some of the wildlife have made a full recovery, and coupled with the fact that some have almost fully recovered, the ecology of sound could reach its pre-oil spill level. Also, money that was paid by Exxon in fines was used to make numerous parks, trails, and used in the protection of forests. The Exxon Valdez oil spill also led to the formation of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which broke a fourteen-year deadlock between the House and the Senate. None of these events would have occurred, had it not been for that fateful oil spill.
Researchers now have a better understanding of the impact of cleanup and how hydrocarbons–the building blocks of oil–affect certain species (Birkland 1999 ). But with that said, society will always remember the horrific images of oil drenched birds, and beaches smothered with oil and one has to wonder, “Will this happen again?.” The answer we long to hear is “Never”, but accidents are bound to happen. Recently, the freighter New Carissa ran aground on the Oregan Coast and gave officials there numerous problems the likes of which included oil spillage. So when you ask yourself, “How did the New Carissa run aground and leak oil with all these new rules and regulations,” the image of another Exxon Valdez oil spill isn’t to hard imagine. BIBLIOGRAPHY Birkland, Thomas A. 1998. In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez. Environment 40:4-11. Davidson, Art.
1990. In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. Economist 1999. Stains That Remain. Economist 350:35.
Fine, Doug 1999. Exxon Valdez: An Anniversary to Celebrate?. Sports Afield 221:12. Holloway, Marguerite 1999. Oil In Water. Scientific American 280:38. Keeble, John.
1991. Out of the Channel. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher. Knickerbocker, Brad. 1999. Preventing Another Monster Oil Slick.
Christian Science Monitor 91:13. Knickerbocker, Brad. 1999. The Big Spill. Christian Science Monitor 91:1.
Time for Kids 1999. After the Spill. Time for Kids 4:4. Bibliography Birkland, Thomas A. 1998. In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez.
Environment 40:4-11. Davidson, Art. 1990. In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. Economist 1999. Stains That Remain.
Economist 350:35. Fine, Doug 1999. Exxon Valdez: An Anniversary to Celebrate?. Sports Afield 221:12. Holloway, Marguerite 1999. Oil In Water. Scientific American 280:38.
Keeble, John. 1991. Out of the Channel. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher. Knickerbocker, Brad. 1999.
Preventing Another Monster Oil Slick. Christian Science Monitor 91:13. Knickerbocker, Brad. 1999. The Big Spill.
Christian Science Monitor 91:1. Time for Kids 1999. After the Spill. Time for Kids 4:4.