A Look at the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Any Lessons Learned?

The 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska was the nation’s largest oil spill in our history – before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill 21 years later that devastated the Gulf of Mexico. It was on March 24, 1989 when the 987-foot tanker, which was carrying 53 million gallons of crude, struck Bligh Reef, off the Coast of Bligh Island in Prince William Sound. Within hours, it unleashed an estimated 11 million gallons of thick, toxic crude oil into the water. Storms and currents then smeared it over 1,300 miles of shoreline. This oil spill is seared into the memories of a generation of people with images of sea otters, herrings and birds soaked in oil and workers washing crude off the rugged beaches.

Complacency and a lack of responsiveness by the government and the oil industry were major issues at the time that made a bad situation even worse. There had been safe shipments over a dozen years. So when the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, the protocols needed to effectively address the spill were not undertaken. In fact, when the tanker ran aground the spill response equipment was buried under snow. At that time, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. had 13 oil skimmers, five miles of boom and storage capacity for 220,000 gallons of spilled oil. Today, because of that spill, the company has 108 skimmers, 49 miles of boom and on-water storage capacity of almost 38 million gallons. Additionally, nearly 400 local fishing boat owners are trained to deploy and maintain boom. That’s the good news.

However, in a recent article in the Washington Post byFrances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, there are still serious issues. Many lessons from the Exxon Valdez oil spill indeed had not been applied, and the country once again struggles with an industry ill-prepared to respond. According to Beinecke, the oil industry is still using the same ineffective technology to clean up oil in water as it was 25 years ago. Beinecke says that when the Deepwater Horizon spill occurred, the oil industry showed up with the same tools: containment booms and dispersants. “Companies spent billions of dollars to advance drilling technology but only a fraction on cleanup research. They had nothing new to offer. And those booms managed to pick up just 3 percent of the oil spilled in the Gulf,” the article states.

We’ve also learned because of Exxon Valdez that the chronic effects of oil in the environment persist for decades. According to scientists, most of the species have recovered but it took 24 years. What’s more, some wildlife along with some of those living in the region is still struggling. For example, the salmon are back and the shrimp are slowly coming back. Pacific herring have reached only 15 percent of pre-spill levels, gutting what was once a $12 million fishery in Prince William Sound. And while one pod of orca whales hit hard by the spill is recovering slowly, the other is headed for demise.

Has the government done anything to strengthen safeguards for offshore drilling and protect our environment and wildlife? One year after the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) and generated important improvements in tanker safety. The OPA was enacted to improve the nation’s ability to prevent and respond to oil spills by establishing provisions that expand the federal government’s ability, and provide the money and resources necessary, to respond to oil spills. The OPA also created the national Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is available to provide up to one billion dollars per spill incident. Yet after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Congress still hasn’t passed any new legislation.  What are we waiting for?


photo credit: Kris Krug cc