The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Incident

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon Valdez oil spill was one of the worst accidents involving ocean oil spill. Today, we will uncover the true story behind it.

The indispensability of oil in our day to day lives is unquestionable. The number of industries that are heavily reliant on oil as its source of fuel is vast. But what comes as a blessing, if not handled properly this blessing can turn into a bane.

Over the years with its increased usage it has become a threat to the environment. This is especially due to the improper and careless handling of oil over waterways and accidental spillage. This causes severe distress to the marine life of the region and its nearby areas.

It is important to know that every ecosystem is interconnected. So, when one is disturbed, consequentially the balance in the other ecosystems is disturbed too.

It has been calculated that as much as a few million gallons of oil has been spilled into the oceans, over a period of two centuries, owing to careless handling of oil tankers and rigs. If we take into account the last fifty years or so, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill is one of the most notorious incidents in the history of oil spillage accidents.

Thousands of species were killed when 11 million gallons of oil was released into the Gulf of Alaska. Because of the type of oil that was spilled, it is estimated that the residue of the Exxon Valdez oil spill would be visible on the coast for thirty years.

What actually happened?

Various investigations were carried out to finally uncover the whole truth of the incident. On March 4, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck the Bligh Reef in the Prince William Sound region of Alaska. The tanker was under the command of Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who was allegedly drunk and was fast asleep in his bunk when the accident occurred.

The tanker, loaded with roughly 54 million gallons oil, slammed into the reef at around 12 am local time. In the process, 10.8 million gallons of oil was released into the waters of Prince William Sound. The captain had handed over the ship’s control to the ship’s Third Mate who, unfortunately, failed to maneuver the vessel properly. The tanker collided with the reef causing the hull of the vessel to be torn open.

We cannot fully blame the Third Man for this tragedy. Exxon Valdez, then owned by Exxon Shipping Company, was en route to Long Beach, California from the Valdez Marine Terminal. The route was being taken was known to cause a navigational hazard. Hazelwood, in an attempt to avoid icebergs, had altered the ship’s course. The radar was broken and had been so for more than a year. Hence the Third Mate was unable to control the vessel and ended up colliding with the reef.

Moreover, he was sleep deprived and unqualified for the job. So, it was not the most intelligent thing to do on the captain’s part to give him the job, not that he could have done any better himself, knowing the condition he was in.

There were several other factors that somehow played a part in this tragic incident, which happens to be the second major oil spill in the US territory after the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill. Like many other shipping companies, Exxon too was not following the correct measures as well as taking a route that was not recommended, because of the danger that lay in the path.

Several investigations were carried on and after a year of trial, Hazelwood was finally convicted for the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He was charged with misdemeanor negligence and the allegations of being drunk during the voyage were removed. He had to pay a fine of $50,000 and serve 1000 hours of community service.

Exon Mobil too charted out a clause in order to prevent further marine accidents like the Exxon Valdez. Strict orders regarding the prescribed shipping routes and lanes were given that were to be followed then onwards. Iceberg monitoring devices were also installed.

Exxon Valdez Cleanup
Exxon Valdez Cleanup

Impact of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

As if carelessness in operating the ship and mishandling of the cargo was not enough, there are reports that suggest that there was a delay in the initiation of the clean-up process as well. As a result, despite the accident occurring in the non-continuous coast of Alaska, the impact was much more than what it should have been.

10.8 million gallons of oil was released into the waters of Prince William Sound as 8 of the 11 cargo tanks ruptured when the ship collided with the reef. 250,000 crude oil barrels spread over 1,300 miles of coastline leading to large-scale contamination. Within days the oil spread so fast that it was no longer containable.

As it is global warming was causing problems to the different species across the world, especially those in the cold regions, the Exxon Valdez oil spill only made things worse. As we already know the disturbance caused to one ecosystem disrupts the balance in all other ecosystems as well because they are all inter-dependent. 2,800 sea otters, up to 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and at least 22 killer whales died due to human negligence in this major accident.

A countless number of herrings and salmon were also killed. Along with that 250,000 sea birds died. To bring the situation under control, a ban on commercial fishing of some variety of shrimp and salmon was imposed.

The fisheries for crab, herring, rockfish, salmon, and shrimp, etc. were also closed in the area. Though this caused the fishing industry and the lives of people associated with it were affected drastically, this was a price that had to be paid.

Recreational fishing was a popular thing in the adjacent areas of Prince William Sound. The entire business was hampered because of the oil spill and its penetration into the waters. This caused the industry to take a hit that summed up to $580 million. Tourism too was also affected, resulting in a record low for almost a year. 26,000 jobs were lost. In short, the oil spill burned $2.4 billion dollars’ worth of business.

All this was just the immediate consequence. The impact that the incident left was long-term. The ecosystem once having been disturbed never got back to the previous state. Exxon Mobil, the owner of the Exxon Valdez was responsible enough to contribute a great deal in the clean-up process along the US Coast Guard, but the damage that it had already caused was not easily repairable.

In spite of the fact that years have passed since the incident took place the region has not yet fully recovered from the impact of the oil spill.

The beaches in Alaska are still clogged by the oil discharge of the Exxon Valdez.  Since the incident caused a total collapse of the fishing industry the people whose lives were dependent on fishing totally changed. Unemployment led to trauma and broken families that they are yet to recover from. They have succumbed to depression and consequentially alcoholism.

The Clean-up Process

It is a relief to know that the clean-up operation that was carried out was a great success. This is largely due to the fact that the US government acted promptly and so did the owner of the tanker, Exxon Mobil. A total sum of more than $3.8 billion was spent for the clean-up operations as well as for the compensation of the families, especially fishermen whose livelihood was affected by this incident.

Over 11,000 personnel were employed, and 58 air crafts and 1,400 vessels were used to clear the contaminated region. The entire operation took around three years (1989-1992). Even now the process has not fully stopped as the coastlines are still continuously monitored in case it showed some late side effects.

The entire clean-up process was a complicated one that involved the relocation of many of the marine species to safeguard them until the waters were clean enough to be inhabitable. They were returned once the waters were thought to be safe for them. Other methods included oil burning, mechanical cleaning, and the use of chemical dispersant to mitigate the impact of the oil spill.

Despite all the effort total decontamination has not been possible largely owing to the fact that the oil from Exxon Valdez oil spill had penetrated deep into the waters and clearing such an enormous amount is practically impossible.

The surface oil has been cleaned up as much as possible. But the sub-surface oil still remains. Though it is said that the sub-surface oil is inert in terms of harming the marine life that is far from the truth. The poisonous content can prove to be lethal to the underwater flora and fauna. Currently, about 20 acres of the Alaskan coastline is still contaminated by this sub-surface oil.

The accident caused the company to get involved in a number of legal battles with not just the federal government but also the fishermen’s union of Alaska. A demand of $5 billion was made to the company as compensation because of the damages that had been caused. However, that amount was reduced to $507 million by the U.S. Supreme Court after several appeals.

We are still suffering the consequences of human negligence that caused an accident decade ago and there is no guarantee that this will change in the near future. Still, the efforts put into the righting the wrong by the concerned parties are commendable.

Had they not acted the way they did the Exxon Valdez oil spill could have caused far more dangerous and devastating consequences. We can only hope that a lesson has been learned and that the ship companies would be more careful and alert now on so as to prevent a repetition of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in the future.

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