On March 24, 1989, an oil tanker called Exxon Valdez struck the Bligh Coral Reef in Alaska. 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Prince William Sound, which was a location in the Gulf of Alaska known to be hazardous to navigate. The oil slick left 11,000 miles of water and 1,300 miles of shoreline covered in crude oil, affecting alaskan commercial fishing business and killing millions of animals.This was the largest spill in history until the BP oil spill in the gulf of Mexico in 2010. Exxon paid over 1 billion dollars in cleanup and legal fees after the spill. The Exxon Valdez oil spill devastated the ecosystem and crippled the economy in the surrounding area.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill hit the ecosystem in the area extremely hard. Millions of animals were killed because of this disaster and many of the species have still yet to recover from this tragedy. Charles H Peterson and his team think habitats near the shorelines affected by the spill will take up to 30 years to recover fully. (Grahm, 1). Sea otters got covered in oil and were unable to stay warm in the cold water. More than three thousand otters died becuase of the oil spill. Some sea otters tried to lick the oil off of their fur, which would make them very sick.”An animal rehabilitation center has been set up at Valdez, where experts have been washing birds with Dawn, a brand of detergent that biologists say is particularly good at cleaning oily waterfowl.”(Brown, 1). Many volunteers came to Valdez to try and help. Volunteers would help wash animals, give medical treatment, and see to the recovery of the animals. These people worked long hours and packed the once small town of Valdez.
The entire ecosystem surrounding the sound was severely damaged by the disaster, Food chains were unbalanced and animal homes were destroyed. Animals struggled to find food and to even survive at all in most cases. Fish and shellfish were dying in large numbers in the billions. Sea birds in the area struggled to find food, and some dove into the water only to become covered in oil and unable to fly. Over 250 thousand seabirds and 250 bald eagles died in the years following.
Pacific Herring were spawning when the oil tanker spilled. This species of fish is very lucrative for fishermen and provided almost half of their income. Pacific herring has been closed to commercial fishing and put a huge strain on fisherman in the area. More than 32 thousand fisherman and other alaskans filed a lawsuit against exxon mobil which awarded them 5 billion in damages. (Shin, 1) Salmon had eggs laid in Prince William Sound when the spill occured. The Salmon eggs were exposed and the mortality rate increased drastically over the years following. Humans have been destroying animal habitats since before this disaster, but not many single events compare. People apart of the ecosystem were also hurt. People were unable to eat plants or animals from the oily waters, losing a big chunk of their food supply. “By 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported most of the affected species had recovered, but the sound had not returned to pre spill conditions.” ( Shin, 2)
The cleanup of the spill was a huge effort that took a lot of money and people. Many fisherman who lost work due to the spill were compensated by Exxon hiring them for cleanup. Exxon paid 2 billion in cleanup costs and 1.8 billion to restore habitats.( History, 1) People washed the oily beaches and getting oil off of the waters surface. Chemicals were put into the water in an effort to disperse the oil.
Immediately after the spill, Exxon sent a group of talented lawyers to fight the spill.(Struver, 1) Exxon was fined 125 million dollars because of the clean water act, a federal law that regulates pollution. The company was also fined another 25 million dollars because of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal law that protects certain species of migratory birds. (Liszka, 7) The company only ended up paying a total of 25 million dollars. The fine was lessened because Exxon paid billions in cleanup, and for their cooperation and behavior after the incident. The National Transportation Safety board investigated the spill and looked for causes as to how it happened. The board came to the conclusion that the captain was drunk and had failed to properly navigate the ship. Captain Joseph Hazelwood was known to have a drinking problem, amd he insisted on crew reduction on the ship. The Captain was charged with second degree criminal mischief, operating a watercraft while intoxicated, endangerment, negligent discharge of oil. He had one thousand hours of cleanup and had to pay 50 thousand dollars. The captain pleaded no contest to drunkeness. The ship was supposed to have 24 men on it, but Exxon reduced the crew to 14 to save money. The crew was also not properly trained and fatigued. There was not a watch officer on deck.
The United States made regulations on ship hulls, forcing ships to have a double hull. The Exxon Valdez was repaired a year after the spill and was used in European waters under the name Exxon Mediterranean. Single hull ships were banned in U.S. waters but could still be used in some other waters like Europe.( History, 1) In 2002, Europe banned single hull tankers, so the Exxon Mediterranean moved to Asian waters under the name Dong Feng Ocean as an ore ship. In the year 2010, the ship collided with another ship, and was later sold as scrap metal. Today, the rate of oil spills dropped tremendously due to the many regulations now in place. Some companies like BP use tankers well over the legal requirements. (Struver, 2)