The USCG's Environmental Mission 30 Years After Exxon Valdez

The tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989 after she ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska (USCG)

Published Jul 26, 2019 12:41 PM by William Thiesen

Thirty years ago on Good Friday, March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez steamed into a reef at 12 knots, opening eight of her 10 oil storage tanks to the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska. The resulting spill of 15 million gallons of crude oil became the largest discharge of oil in U.S. waters until 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. 

Nearly 170 years before the Exxon Valdez ran aground, the Federal Government assigned the United States Revenue Cutter Service, predecessor of the modern Coast Guard, stewardship of the nation’s marine environment. In 1822, Congress passed legislation tasking the Revenue Cutter Service with protecting federal preserves of live oak in Florida used to build U.S. Navy warships. During the 1800s, the Service’s protection of living marine resources expanded to more species on shore, in the air and at sea, including migratory seabirds and countless forms of sea life.

The world's first oil tanker, the Glückauf, aground off Long Island, New York (Benjamin West / Wikimedia)

From the middle-to-late 1800s, coal had been the most important fuel cargo carried by merchant ships, but this solid fuel failed to pollute water like oil. In 1885, construction of the first purpose-built oil tanker Glückauf marked the beginning of shipping oil and other bulk chemical cargoes. Ironically, in 1893, the Glückauf also marked the beginning of U.S. oil spill history when it came ashore at Fire Island, off Long Island (above).

During the 20th century, oil and chemical shipping grew in importance and liquid petroleum products became common ship fuel and cargo. The Coast Guard’s role in oil and chemical spill response officially began in 1924, when Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act. This act included the first federal statutes regulating the discharge of fossil fuels from seagoing vessels. During World War II, the Federal Government paid little attention to oil spills on the high seas, but after the war, numerous spills occurred as the shipping of oil increased dramatically. One of the first major spills was the 1967 Torrey Canyon wreck in European waters (left, courtesy BBC) which spurred development of the first National Contingency Plan in the United States.

By the 1970s, large tanker oil spills averaged nearly 80 per year worldwide. With these frequent environmental disasters came greater regulation of oil tankers and improved technology for responding to spills. Congress tasked the Coast Guard with monitoring unauthorized substance discharge, enforcing ballast water regulations and ensuring that commercial vessels met U.S. environmental safety and maintenance standards.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 resulted in establishment of the Coast Guard’s National Strike Force (NSF). The NSF began with three “strike teams”–Atlantic Strike Team, Gulf Strike Team and Pacific Strike Team. In the 1970s and 1980s, the NSF’s oil and chemical spill responsibility expanded under several more environmental protection laws passed by Congress. In spite of increased legislation concerning oil spills, Congress mandated no changes in tanker construction and, in 1986, the single-skinned supertanker Exxon Valdez became the largest vessel built on the West Coast up to that time.

Oil spill cleanup crews on the shore in Prince William Sound. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The Exxon Valdez oil spill did not occur in the open ocean, but in the confined waters of Prince William Sound. Within 30 minutes of the grounding, a Coast Guard investigator arrived on-scene and spill contingency plans put into effect. The Service’s response comprised four cutters, four buoy tenders, nine aircraft, six oil skimmers and six Air Deployable Anti-Pollution Transfer Systems (ADAPTS). The National Strike Force helped develop the ADAPTS System in the early 1970s. Based on a four-cylinder diesel engine powering a high volume pump, the ADAPTS system proved very effective in pumping oil or other chemicals from damaged tanks into support vessels or uncompromised storage tanks.

Coast Guard personnel with coastal clean-up crews in Prince William Sound. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the height of the Exxon Valdez response effort, nearly 2,000 men and women participated in the cleanup. A fleet of 450 vessels of all kinds and over 40 aircraft supported the abatement process. The tiny airfield at Valdez was overwhelmed with nearly 1,000 flights per day, so Coast Guard cutter Rush served as a floating air traffic control center. The response effort also included 40 skimmers and 300,000 feet of containment booms. After two weeks, on Tuesday, April 4, Exxon Valdez’s tanks were emptied of oil and the stricken tanker refloated. The next day, it was towed to San Diego and dry-docked. After $30 million in repairs to its hull, the tanker was returned to service as the Exxon Mediterranean working overseas shipping routes for 20 more years, but never returning to U.S. waters.

Oil spill response and recovery improved greatly after Exxon Valdez. The disaster led to passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90). OPA 90 regulations created the Oil Spill Lability Trust fund and codified the “polluter pays” principle. OPA 90 also required alcohol and drug abuse monitoring of licensed mariners, and established legal penalties and a claims system for oil spill remediation. It phased-in a double-hull requirement for tankers transiting U.S. waters and increased federal oversight of maritime oil transportation.

Enforcement of OPA 90 and protection of U.S. territorial waters became a vital part of the Coast Guard’s mission and led to a more robust response capability. For example, the NSF’s Atlantic Strike Team had been de-commissioned in 1986, but it was re-commissioned in 1991. That same year, the Coast Guard stood-up the National Strike Force Coordination Center increasing the NSF’s level of responsiveness and support.

After Exxon Valdez, Coast Guard assets and personnel responded to all sorts of oil and hazardous material releases, even some beyond U.S. waters. These events included the sabotaged oil rigs of the 1990 Persian Gulf War and consequent oil spills—considered one of the largest discharges of oil in history. Other spills included those caused by hurricanes Floyd, Katrina and Rita; barge and tanker oil spills of the 1990s and early 2000s; aviation accidents, such as the 1999 Egypt Air and 2000 Alaska Airlines crashes; the 2001 Anthrax attacks and 9/11 terrorist attacks; and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Coast Guard units, including the NSF, also played a leading role in the containment and cleanup of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, believed the world’s largest maritime oil spill.

No single event has had a more dramatic and lasting impact on the Coast Guard’s environmental protection mission than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The consequent regulations, protection of U.S. territorial waters and marine resources in them became the Service’s greatest law enforcement mission since fighting the Rum War of Prohibition. In 2002, the Homeland Security Act cemented the mission of marine environmental protection as one of the Coast Guard’s official missions.

An April 2010 photograph of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig after the explosion that set it on fire and caused its record-breaking oil spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Today, as part of its homeland security obligations, the Service minimizes human and environmental impacts of oil discharges, hazardous material releases, and other natural and manmade disasters. The Coast Guard remains Semper Paratus, “always ready,” to adapt and expand its environmental protection mission to ever-changing natural and manmade threats to the nation and its marine environment.

William Thiesen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This story appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.