The BP Deep Horizon oil spill four years ago was one of those catastrophes that fascinated people, insofar that it was a test of human know-how and technology. Could a runaway oil leak nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface be successfully “plugged”? Many became frustrated by this seemingly too daunting task, and it was only “plugged” months later when relief wells slowed the billowing underwater monstrosity. But as much as the public was appalled by the havoc wreaked on the ecosystem, it was nothing compared to what happened 25 years ago in Prince William Sound in Alaska.
In the wee hours of the morning on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on the Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million gallons of thick, black goo into the water, which would eventually travel nearly 500 miles down the east coast of the Kenai Peninsula, enter the mouth of Cook Inlet, and continuing west into the Shelikof Strait. Approximately 11,000 square miles of surface would be contaminated. Although it is true that the BP catastrophe spilled far more oil into the ocean, because of the (relatively) more rapid and effective response, it actually caused much less environmental damage than the Valdez spill; despite the media images, only a small fraction of wildlife—birds in particular—were killed in the BP spill in relation to the Valdez spill.
In the early hours of that fateful day, the regional Coast Guard received the following message from Captain Joseph Hazelwood of the Valdez:
Ah, we’ve— ah, should be on your radar there— we’ve fetched up, ah, hard aground north of, ah, Good Island off Bligh Reef. And, ah, evidently, ah, leaking some oil, and, ah, we’re gonna be here for a while. And, ah, if you want, ah, so you’re notified. Over.
What was curious about this was that it was given in an almost nonchalant manner, as if it was just an everyday annoyance, no big deal. If you want, you can come on over and check it out. What actually happened that night is still a matter of who is telling the story. A Coast Guard officer who boarded the ship soon after the first report claimed that the breath of Hazelwood, “reeked” of “spirits.” That evening Hazelwood is alleged to have consumed up to 9 shots of 80 proof liquor at two bars.
Once aboard ship and underway, Hazelwood requested permission to navigate outside the proper shipping lane in order to avoid ice. The Coast Guard gave him permission to do so. After the ship sailed beyond the ice, Hazelwood claimed that he gave the helm to the third mate, instructing him to turn the ship back into the shipping lane. The mate, fatigued and unqualified to perform this function, was also operating without a radar that might have helped detect the reef in the dark, but was not functioning—in fact had been broken for a year. Apparently he made the turn late, smashing into the reef only minutes after being given the helm.
The first stories that came out were certainly scandalous. One account was that Hazelwood was in his bunk, sleeping off his “bender” when the accident occurred; then the story was a drunken captain doing a Mr. McGoo impression on the bridge. Hazelwood claims that after he instructed the third pate to turn the vessel, he went to his office to do paperwork and look up the latest weather forecast; he was completely “shocked” by what happened—he “wasn’t there,” so couldn’t tell you what happened. Hazelwood also asserted that he thought the Valdez’s movements were being monitored by Coast Guard radar, which would alert the ship to any abnormalities in its course. But the Coast Guard was not monitoring the ship’s progress.
Hazelwood apparently had previous “issues” with alcohol, including having his driver’s license revoked for drunk driving. Yet Exxon continued to employ him as a supertanker captain. After the incident, he was convicted of negligence, but the verdict was later overturned because since Hazelwood had reported the accident in a “timely” manner, he was immune from prosecution.
At the time of the grounding, the Valdez had a draft of 56 feet, yet it had been traveling at such speed that it grounded on Bligh Reef despite it being 30 feet below at low tide. Eight of 11 cargo tanks were ripped open, expending 10.1 million gallons over the next five hours. Three salt water ballast tanks were also damaged, causing the vessel to be very unstable and likely to capsize if allowed to drift into open water. But the Valdez wasn’t going anywhere, and with the damage below water initial clean-up efforts were mainly to remove the remaining oil before it drained into the sea.
According to the May, 1989 Presidential Report, the subsequent clean-up operation was hampered by lack of sufficient technology to deal with a significant oil spill in a remote region; by the time the first attempts were made to contain the spill, most of the oil had already leaked out. The closest town to the spill sight was Valdez, but its airstrip could not accommodate aircraft needed to bring all the spill containment equipment necessary, so it had to be trucked in from Anchorage, a nine-hour haul. It took another two hours to reach the spill site by boat—and longer as the spill expanded. Bad weather and tide changes also hampered clean-up efforts. But worst of all was that there was an “absence of a realistic worst case scenario” plan in dealing with such a large spill to begin with. Unrealistic containment plans had merely reinforced a “dangerous complacency.”
Exxon’s response could be criticized as being tardy, but it cannot be faulted for not expending resources to the spill; it contracted out 250 ships, 1,767 tons of equipment, 18 planes and 1,500 workers to deal with the spill. Yet the failure to adequately safeguard against and prepare for such an incident put clean-up efforts behind the eight ball from the start. Just as impactful was that while what needed to be done was clear, how to go about doing it was much less so, delaying adequate response to the disaster.
Although human impacts were not readily apparent, given the small population in the region, the impact on wildlife was catastrophic; it is estimated that up to a quarter-million birds died directly or indirectly from the effects of the spill, and untold numbers of fish, including herring whose population has still not recovered after 25 years. One of the two pods of Orcas off the coast remains in danger of dying out. As opposed to the inadequate and slow response overall, the International Bird Rescue Research Center was already set-up to begin a bird rehabilitation site a day after the spill, as well as the Hubbs Marine Research Institute, which started a program to save sea otters. But some clean-up methods merely exacerbated the problem; blasting the seashore with high-velocity steam killed microbes and plankton vital to the food chain, and which would have aided in the natural breakdown of the oil.
Only about 10 percent of the oil spilled from the Valdez was ever recovered, with at least 25,000 gallons still locked in the beaches and shorelines, biodegrading at a very slow rate, while considerable remnants of the slick cans still be found offshore. Exxon—apparently with the support of Alaska’s Republican lawmakers—still claims that it needs not pay $92 million in damages because everything is “fine” now. But according to a recent story in the UK Telegraph, Rick Steiner of the University of Alaska asserts that the reality is much different: "It's disgraceful. We didn't know it would still be toxic now and no one wants to admit it. Of 32 animal types, habitats and natural resources monitored, only 13 have recuperated fully. The ecosystem will never entirely recover." NOAA is also reporting that residual oil “will linger for decades—or even centuries.”