Oil Spill Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The largest oil spill that had ever occurred in U.S. waters focused attention on the environmental, economic, and political consequences of tanker ship operations.

Summary of Event

At 12:27 a.m., March 24, 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood reported the Exxon Valdez aground on Bligh Reef, twenty-eight miles from Valdez, Alaska, in Prince William Sound. Eight of the ship’s eleven cargo tanks and three of five ballast tanks were punctured, spilling about 258,000 of the 1,480,000 barrels of oil aboard the tanker. Oil spills Exxon Valdez (ship) Disasters;oil spills Ecological disasters [kw]Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Mar. 24, 1989) [kw]Oil Spill, Exxon Valdez (Mar. 24, 1989) [kw]Spill, Exxon Valdez Oil (Mar. 24, 1989) Oil spills Exxon Valdez (ship) Disasters;oil spills Ecological disasters [g]North America;Mar. 24, 1989: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill[07210] [g]United States;Mar. 24, 1989: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill[07210] [c]Disasters;Mar. 24, 1989: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill[07210] [c]Environmental issues;Mar. 24, 1989: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill[07210] [c]Trade and commerce;Mar. 24, 1989: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill[07210] Hazelwood, Joseph Kagan, Robert Cousins, Gregory T. Iarossi, Frank Kelso, Dennis McCall, Steve

At one time, stringent restrictions had been placed on tanker operation in Prince William Sound. These included an emergency cleanup crew permanently on duty at Valdez, U.S. Coast Guard monitoring of traffic through Prince William Sound, pilotage from Valdez to the open sea, restricted inbound and outbound traffic lanes, and oversight of all operations by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. However, the requirement of double-bottomed tankers was not initiated, and traffic monitoring was limited to the northern end of the sound. As 8,549 tanker transits were completed without serious mishap, restrictions progressively eased. Piloting was reduced to the Valdez Narrows, the cleanup crew was scaled back and staffed on a contingency basis by Alyeska (the consortium of oil companies responsible for such cleanup), Coast Guard supervision was diminished, and tankers were routinely allowed to cross into the inbound lane when avoiding ice.

The Exxon Valdez arrived after dark at Valdez on March 22, 1989. While the ship was loading, Captain Hazelwood and part of the crew went ashore, returning around 8:30 p.m., March 23. The ship sailed at approximately 9:30 p.m. The pilot left the ship at the entrance to Valdez Narrows. At 11:30, Captain Hazelwood radioed the Coast Guard to obtain clearance to enter the inbound lane to avoid floating ice. Shortly thereafter, he changed course another 20 degrees, going outside the established lanes. These were routine maneuvers for avoiding ice. At 11:50, the bridge watch changed, and helmsman Robert Kagan came on duty. The third mate, Gregory T. Cousins, remained on watch because his assigned successor was exhausted after supervising loading. At 11:53, Captain Hazelwood gave Cousins control of the ship and left the bridge for a few minutes. Cousins was licensed only for open-sea operation, but short-term use of unlicensed officers was routine and tolerated.

Hazelwood gave Cousins detailed orders to turn to the right, thus avoiding Bligh Shoal, when he came abeam of the Busby Island light. This point was reached two or three minutes after the captain left. After about another minute, the lookout reported that the Bligh Island light, which should have been to port, was to starboard. The tanker hit the reef at 12:04 a.m. According to an automatic recording device, Hazelwood’s order was executed five minutes too late. It is unclear whether Cousins or Kagan caused the delay. If the captain’s instructions had been followed, the grounding would have been prevented.

Both the pilot and the Coast Guard investigating officer who boarded the tanker at 3:00 a.m. thought they smelled alcohol on the captain’s breath. A state law-enforcement officer administered blood alcohol tests to Hazelwood, Cousins, and Kagan about ten hours after the grounding. Hazelwood’s blood alcohol level was 0.061, below the 0.1 level commonly applied in the determination of drunken driving, but above the Coast Guard limit of 0.04. On March 28, The New York Times and the Anchorage Daily News reported that Hazelwood had had three license suspensions for drunken driving and that his license was suspended at the time of the grounding.

On March 26, 1990, in superior court in Anchorage, Hazelwood was acquitted of operating a ship under the influence of alcohol and two other charges but was convicted of negligently discharging oil. He was fined fifty thousand dollars and sentenced to one thousand hours of beach cleaning. Later, the Coast Guard suspended Hazelwood’s and Kagan’s licenses for six months. Sixteen months later, the official accident report of the National Traffic Safety Board ruled that Hazelwood was “impaired” when the ship ran aground. The board report also cited crew fatigue, the third mate’s failure to make the turn on time, improper crew oversight by Exxon, and inadequate equipment, staffing, and management by the Valdez Coast Guard office as factors that contributed to the accident.

Significance

On March 26, 1989, spilled oil covered an elliptical area across the middle of Prince William Sound southwest of the Exxon Valdez. By midday on March 30, floating oil had moved into the islands in the western sound. Observations and modeling indicated that, after two weeks, about 30 percent of the oil had evaporated; 40 percent was on beaches or in the intertidal zone, mostly on islands in western Prince William Sound; and about 25 percent had entered the Gulf of Alaska between Prince William Sound and about halfway to Cook Inlet. Only 5 percent remained afloat in Prince William Sound. Oil in decreasing amounts ultimately reached Chignik on the Aleutian Peninsula. About 10 percent of the oil entering the Gulf of Alaska floated beyond Cook Inlet. Only 2 percent reached the Shelikof Strait between Kodiak and the mainland, and six tar balls were found at Chignik. Beach oiling beyond Cook Inlet was sporadic and light to negligible.

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Alyeska was immediately notified and had a helicopter in the air at 1:30 a.m. At the same time, Frank Iarossi, president of Exxon Shipping, Exxon Shipping began mobilizing men and equipment to be sent to Alaska. Alyeska’s equipment barge took fourteen hours, instead of the promised five, to reach the scene. Alyeska’s equipment and personnel were designed and governmentally approved for spills of about two thousand barrels—grossly inadequate for the Exxon Valdez spill. Local fishermen placed booms that kept oil away from four fish hatchery sites.

On March 25, Exxon accepted financial responsibility for the spill and took control of the cleanup. Exxon began removing oil from the Exxon Valdez on March 25, completing the job and towing the ship away on April 4. Attempts to contain and skim the oil were ineffective because of inadequate equipment. Only three thousand barrels of oil were removed. Exxon’s use of dispersants and burning, delayed for two days by Coast Guard commander Steve McCall and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation director Dennis Kelso, contributed little before these efforts were terminated as a result of severe weather on March 26.

Exxon began shoreline cleanup on April 2, continued until winter, and resumed in spring, 1990. For the most part, oil was washed from the beaches with cold to hot water and thereafter skimmed or sucked from the sea. Fertilizers were spread to stimulate natural organisms feeding on oil. In some cases, chemical dispersant was applied, but this method was discontinued as it was found to be ineffective and counterproductive. Oil-soaked debris, mousse (water in oil emulsions), and tar balls were removed manually. From 1989 through 1992, local communities undertook cleansing and containment efforts. After 1992, recovery was generally left to natural processes. By 1994, the beaches appeared clean.

An estimated 269,000 to 580,000 seabirds were killed; 3,600 dead birds were collected. Bird rescuers captured many birds and undertook to clean and return them to the wild, but with little success. About 3,000 sea otters probably died. Some 1,600 dead otters were counted in the summer of 1989; 348 were rescued and treated, but of these only 226 survived, at an estimated cost of eighty thousand dollars each. About 50 electronically tagged animals died shortly after release. Seal and whale mortality estimates are less reliable, but it appears that these animals largely escaped harm from the spill. It was feared that damage to fish and fisheries would be extensive, and salmon and herring fisheries were closed in 1989. Tests, however, indicated little damage to fish, and subsequent salmon and herring runs were normal. Shellfish, however, did accumulate hydrocarbons.

Seabirds are often casualties of ocean oil spills, succumbing to exposure, dehydration, starvation, suffocation, or the oil’s toxicity. In 1989, experts estimated that, in addition to thousands of sea otters and deer, up to half a million seabirds died as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

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By 1994, the spill had cost Exxon more than $3.5 billion in damages, fines, cleanup expenses, and research and investigation costs. Throughout the 1990’s and into the early twenty-first century, claims and counterclaims by the state of Alaska, environmentalists, and Exxon continued in the political arena and the courts regarding long-term impacts of the spill and financial responsibility for restoration of the affected areas. Oil spills Exxon Valdez (ship) Disasters;oil spills Ecological disasters

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Art. In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990. Describes the grounding, responses to it, and its environmental effects. Informative, although clearly biased against industry and government; contains many small factual errors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodgson, Bryan. “Alaska’s Big Spill: Can the Wilderness Heal?” National Geographic, January, 1990, 5-43. Presents a straightforward account of the environmental damage done by the spill and attempts at remediation. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keeble, John. Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound. 2d ed. Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1999. Describes the accident and pertinent events before and after. Informative, despite apparent bias against industry and government. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leacock, Elspeth. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. New York: Facts On File, 2005. Provides a straightforward, clearly written description of the spill, cleanup efforts, and the disaster’s long-term effects. Includes map, photographs, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loughlin, Thomas R., ed. Marine Mammals and the Exxon Valdez. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1994. Collection of essays provides factual accounts of spill effects on marine mammals and of responses to the accident. Includes maps and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Piper, Ernest. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Anchorage: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, 1993. The state of Alaska’s final report on the spill and the response to it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Conrad. Media and Apocalypse: News Coverage of the Yellowstone Forest Fires, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, and Loma Prieta Earthquake. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Focuses on how the mass news media cover environmental disasters. Describes the Exxon Valdez grounding and analyzes news coverage of the event.

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