Exxon Valdez - Changed a Nation 25 Years Later

By MarEx 2014-03-24 13:35:00

Photo Source: http://greenpeaceblogs.org/

On March 24, 1989, the worst oil spill of its time began when the supertanker Exxon Valdez, ran aground on Bligh’s Reef in Prince William Sound. About 257,000 barrels (35,000 metric tons) were spilled when the ship’s hull was ripped opened after midnight on the 24th. The U.S. Coast Guard was notified within an hour of the accident, as was the general manager of the Aleyska Pipeline Company in Port Valdez, a joint venture between major oil companies, but, he simply sent an underling to see how bad the accident was and went back to bed. 

It was not until daylight the follow morning that the magnitude of the accident was revealed. Huge amounts of oil were seeping into the sound during spring when wildlife was returning to the region. Aleyeska, who was reponsible for maintaining oil reponse equipment, spent the day loading booms and oil cleaning equipment onto several barges, which were buried under the snow. But, more than 12 hours after the of loading the gear onto vessels, it all had to be unloaded because it was the wrong equipment. So, it took about 36 hours after the accident before the first booms were deployed to contain the oil discharge of the disabled tanker's cargoes.  

Captain Joseph Hazelwood, the Exxon Valdez Master, was accused of being drunk at the time of the accident. But, he was never convicted of being intoxicated. The fact is, Hazelwood was only convicted of misdemeanor negligence for allowing First Mate James Kunkel, who was not certified to navigate the 980-foot, 209,836 DWT tanker through Prince Williams Sound, so he could he finished paperwork in his cabin.

Exxon spend more than $4.5 billion in cleaning and remediating Prince William Sound, as well as paying fishermen and locals villagers subsistance payments for more than two years. Meanwhile, in 1994, an Alaskan court fined the oil company $5 billion in punitive damages. The lawsuit dragged on for more than 14 years and Exxon ended up paying about $507.2 million.

While dispersants were applied to the spill, they were considered ineffective because of prevailing conditions. 

Since that time, several significant improvements have been made in oil spill prevention and response planning.

    The U.S. Coast Guard now monitors fully laden tankers via satellite as they pass through Valdez Narrows, cruise by Bligh Island, and exit Prince William Sound at Hinchinbrook Entrance. In 1989, the Coast Guard watched the tankers only through Valdez Narrows and Valdez Arm.

    Two escort vessels accompany each tanker while passing through the entire sound. They not only watch over the tankers, but are capable of assisting them in the event of an emergency, such as a loss of power or loss of rudder control. Ten years ago, there was only one escort vessel through Valdez Narrows.

    Specially trained marine pilots, with considerable experience in Prince William Sound, board tankers from their new pilot station at Bligh Reef and are aboard the ship for 25 miles out of the 70-mile transit through the Sound. Weather criteria for safe navigation are firmly established.

    Congress enacted legislation requiring that all tankers in Prince William Sound be double-hulled by the year 2015. It is estimated that if the Exxon Valdez had had a double-hull structure, the amount of the spill would have been reduced by more than half. There are presently three double-hulled and twelve double-bottomed tankers moving oil through Prince William Sound. Phillips Alaska Inc. is constructing two new double-hulled tankers the first of which, the Polar Endeavor, began service in July 2001.

    Contingency planning for oil spills in Prince William Sound must now include a scenario for a spill of 12.6 million gallons. Drills are held in the sound each year.

    The combined ability of skimming systems to remove oil from the water is now 10 times greater than it was in 1989, with equipment in place capable of recovering over 300,000 barrels of oil in 72 hours.

    Even if oil could have been skimmed up in 1989, there was no place to put the oil-water mix. Today, seven barges are available with a capacity to hold 818,000 barrels of recovered oil.

    There are now 40 miles of containment boom in Prince William Sound, seven times the amount available at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill.

    Dispersants are now stockpiled for use and systems are in place to apply them from helicopters, airplanes, and boats.

The debate continues about whether a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster could be contained and removed once it is in the water. But, today, the oil industry and state and federal government's ability to respond to a massive spill has been greatly enhanced and major spill response companies have been put in place to cover the entire U.S. waterway system including 96,000 miles of coastline and 22,000 miles of inland waters. The spill response companies along with tank vessel operators conduct drills and regular oil spill response drills.