Monday is the Exxon Valdez 25th anniversary – Spill still echoes in Prince William Sound

Oil spills are devastating for marine environments. 25 years on and the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill are still being felt, possibly more so than the Deepwater Horizon aftermath. The Exxon Valdez spill devastated the herring population, reductions in fish populations affect those livelihoods built on commercial fishing. The spill also killed large numbers of predatory sea otters, the knock-on effects of inflated grazer numbers and over-grazing of food sources are commonplace where predators are absent – collapse of  fish and their predator populations follows. Double hulled tankers are now required when entering Prince William Sound enabling safer transport of crude oil in and out of the protected sound – the less crude oil spilled the happier the fishing industry will be, not to mention oil and gas company investors. JB

Sea otters were among 20 marine species threatened by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Many sea otters died from exposure to the 40,000 tons of sticky crude oil spilled in the tanker disaster. Their population has since rebounded to nearly 4,300 in picturesque Prince William Sound, according to a study by the US Geological Survey.

“Although recovery timelines varied widely among species, our work shows that recovery of species vulnerable to long-term effects of oil spills can take decades,” said Brenda Ballachey, lead author of the study. Even 25 years later, though, remnants of the oil linger in the sea and on the 2,400 kilometres of contaminated shoreline in and around Prince William Sound, a marine ecosystem protected from the open Gulf of Alaska by barrier-like islands.

Prince William Sound’s landscapes are as ruggedly majestic as ever, and the rocky coast is clean, at first glance. “Quite frankly, I didn’t think (oil) would be there because it’s been so long,” marine biologist Gail Irvine said. Under rocks along the shoreline, though, oil lingers. “Today, if you dig in the sand six inches (15 centimetres) deep, you still find oil,” said Roy Robertson of the Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council, a group of local residents affected by the spill.

The supertanker Exxon Valdez had just been pumped full of 163,000 tons of crude and was headed out through icy waters toward California, down the Pacific Coast. Captain Joseph Hazelwood was asleep in his cabin, and the inexperienced third mate was at the helm shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989. The vessel suddenly ground to a halt in a screeching, crunching din of metal against a reef. One of the worst environmental disasters in US history was underway. In the aftermath, more than 250,000 marine birds died.

Along with the otters, other marine mammal casualties included seals and whales, while local herring populations were devastated. In the cold, unforgiving Alaskan climate, the cleanup was slow, by many accounts. “First there were not the necessary tools,” Robertson recalled. A storm two days later caused further delays. “The oil is still there, and it is still toxic,” marine biologist Richard Steiner, one of the harshest critics of the cleanup, told dpa. “The idea of an oil spill cleanup is a myth.” As horrific as it was, the Exxon Valdez disaster is far from the largest offshore oil spill in US history.

The 2010 sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killed 11 crew members and left an oil well gushing on the seafloor, more than 1,500 metres below the surface. Before it was capped after 87 days, the well is estimated to have spilled close to 500,000 tons or more of oil.

The environmental impact in the Gulf of Mexico was significant, but in many ways fleeting compared to Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez spill was in partly confined, shallow and coastal waters, while the Deepwater Horizon was in the open sea. Importantly, crude oil broke down much faster in the warm, nearly tropical environment of the Gulf of Mexico, compared to frigid Alaska, scientists have said.

Captain Hazelwood was acquitted on charges of being drunk but convicted of negligence. He was fined 50,000 dollars and ordered to serve 1,000 hours of community service. Exxon eventually paid 4.4 billion dollars in fines, damages and cleanup costs. Today, only double-hulled tankers are allowed in Prince William Sound.

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