Crucial time passed before containment, but surprising lessons were learned from the zealous remediation process.

 

“No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time,” an account by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission would later report about the 1989 disaster. 

After nearly a dozen years of routine daily passages through Prince William Sound, Alaska, an oil tanker ran aground, rupturing the hull. Supertanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and spilled more than 260,000 barrels of oil, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. Some consider the spill amount used by Alaska’s Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council as too conservative.

Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989.

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.

When the 987-foot tanker hit the reef shortly after midnight, “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,” according to the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s initial 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,” the commission report noted. Complacency about giant oil tankers ended on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef.

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“The vessel came to rest facing roughly southwest, perched across its middle on a pinnacle of Bligh Reef,” noted the commission’s 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.”

Map showing days of Exxon oil spill spreading on Alaskan coast in 1989.

“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 technologies resulted in supersized vessels.

“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,” the report explained.

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, according to 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,” the report concluded.

Containing Oil Spills

At the time, spill response capabilities to deal with the spreading oil will be found to be unexpectedly slow and woefully inadequate, according to the Oil Spill Commission’s report.

“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,” the report explained.

illustration of oil tanks inside super tanker Exxon Valdez

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.

The commission added that 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.”

Spill Cleanup Lessons

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,” reported the authors of “Scuba Techniques Used to Assess the Effects of the Exxon Valdez.” 

The report also noted:

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.

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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.

Within a year of the spill, a study conducted by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission resulted in the February 1990 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.

According to ExxonMobil, the company spent $4.3 billion as a result of the accident, “including compensatory payments, cleanup payments, settlements and fines. The company voluntarily compensated more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses within a year of the spill.”

Field and laboratory studies have examined affects of the oil spill, which resulted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Two decades before the Exxon Valdez grounding, an oil spill from a Union Oil offshore platform six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, led to the modern environmental movement and the 1970 establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Learn more about California’s 1969 offshore spill in Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill.

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Recommended Reading:  The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Perspectives on Modern World History (2011); Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill (2018). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/exxon-valdez-oil-spill. Last Updated: March 20, 2022. Original Published Date: March 24, 2009.

 

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