oil spill

Field studies continue to examine the effects of the Exxon supertanker’s disastrous grounding on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. Photo courtesy Erik Hill, Anchorage Daily News.

“No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time,” begins an account by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission.

On March, 24, 1989, after nearly a dozen years of daily tanker passages through Prince William Sound, Alaska, the super-tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef.

The accident spilled about 260,000 barrels of oil, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. Some consider the spill amount,used by the State of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, too conservative.


When the 987-foot-long tanker hit the reef that night, “the system designed to carry two million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked perhaps too well,” explains the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s report.

“At least partly because of the success of the Valdez tanker trade, a general complacency had come to permeate the operation and oversight of the entire system,” notes the report. The complacency was shattered when the Exxon Valdez ran hard aground shortly after midnight.

oil spill

“Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”

“The vessel came to rest facing roughly southwest, perched across its middle on a pinnacle of Bligh Reef,” notes the report. “Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”

Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely transited Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times during the previous 12 years. Improved shipbuilding technology brought supersized vessels around the world.

“Whereas tankers in the 1950s carried a crew of 40 to 42 to manage about 6.3 million gallons of oil…the Exxon Valdez carried a crew of 19 to transport 53 million gallons of oil.”

Alaskan weather conditions – 33 degrees with a light rain – and the remote location added to the 1989 disaster, the report continues.

With the captain not present, the third mate made a navigation error, adds  another 1990 report, Practices that relate to the Exxon Valdez by the National Transportation and Safety Board. “The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload,” it concludes.


At the time, spill response capabilities to deal with the spreading oil will be found to be “unexpectedly slow and woefully inadequate.”

“The worldwide capabilities of Exxon Corporation would mobilize huge quantities of equipment and personnel to respond to the spill – but not in the crucial first few hours and days when containment and cleanup efforts are at a premium,” declares the Oil Spill Commission’s report.

“The U.S. Coast Guard would demonstrate its prowess at ship salvage, protecting crews and lightering operations, but prove utterly incapable of oil spill containment and response,” the commission adds.

oil spill

At 987 feet long and 166 feet wide, the Exxon Valdez – delivered to Exxon in December 1986 – was the largest ship ever built on the West Coast.

Exxon began a cleanup effort that included thousands of Exxon and contractor personnel, according to ExxonMobil. More than 11,000 Alaska residents and volunteers rushed to the coastline to assist.

“Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water,” reports a Wikipedia article, adding:

However, this also displaced and destroyed the microbial populations on the shoreline; many of these organisms (e.g. plankton) are the basis of the coastal marine food chain, and others (e.g. certain bacteria and fungi) are capable of facilitating the biodegradation of oil.

At the time, both scientific advice and public pressure was to clean everything, but since then, a much greater understanding of natural and facilitated remediation processes has developed, due somewhat in part to the opportunity presented for study by the Exxon Valdez spill.

Read the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s Details about the Accident report.

Experts continue to review the effects of the Exxon Valdez grounding on Bligh Reef.  Most scientists today say the ecosystem in Prince William Sound, although still recovering, is healthy.

Since the supertanker’s accident, ExxonMobil has spent more than $5.7 billion in compensatory and cleanup payments, settlements and fines. Field and laboratory studies still examine the spill, which resulted in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

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