America’s worst oil disaster still isn’t over

Impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill linger.

Exxon Valdez. Its name still evokes disaster. Tomorrow (March 24) marks the 20th anniversary of the ship’s grounding on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Throughout the week, I’ll take a look at changes in its wake — including environmental impacts that linger from this, the nation’s biggest oil spill.

THE SPILL’S TRAJECTORY This map depicts the time course of the spill’s advance. EVOSTC
Sea lions love hanging out on buoys. But after the spill, this one wore an oily coat.
OIL-COATED SEA LION Sea lions love hanging out on buoys. But after the spill, this one wore an oily coat. EVOSTC
SPILL VICTIMS Here’s a row of carcasses from animals that succumbed in the early days of the spill. EVOSTC

Although the sight and smell of Exxon Valdez oil no longer plagues waters and beaches in southern Alaska, subtle and disturbing residues remain, according to a joint state-and-federal body known as the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

For instance, the spill’s oil hasn’t truly vanished the way it was expected to. Animals still show biochemical evidence of lingering poisoning. Some populations of impacted animals continue to struggle for survival (one group of killer whales faces extinction).

Yet controversy remains about whether these and other still-suffering animals owe their plight to the oil. For its part, ExxonMobil (as the company is now known) acknowledges, “The 1989 Valdez accident was one of the lowest points in ExxonMobil’s 125-year history.” The company challenges, however, the Trustee Council’s assessment of the environment. In a prepared statement, ExxonMobil contends that it has, over the years, hired “independent” scientists who have published extensively on the post-spill environment from in-depth investigations of “all pertinent aspects related to the effect of the Valdez oil spill on [Prince William Sound’s] plants, water, shoreline and wildlife. These scientists have each individually concluded that the environment in Prince William Sound is healthy, robust and thriving.”

My blogs will address current environmental conditions in spill-affected areas, beginning tomorrow with the issue of lingering oil — and its toxicity.

But first, a recap of the accident, because it happened so long ago.

At nine minutes after midnight on Good Friday morning in 1989, a 987-foot oil tanker ran aground. Some 2.5 hours earlier, this three-year-old ship — Exxon’s newest tanker — had loaded up with 1.3 million barrels of North Slope crude and left the port of Valdez, Alaska.

The waters were calm, visibility good and the ship captained by Joseph Hazelwood, a 42-year-old with plenty of tanker experience. When he found icebergs in his path — not a rare occurrence — the captain informed the Coast Guard that he would be steering his ship on a slightly different path than originally charted. Hazelwood knew it would take him near Bligh Reef, but he also knew to steer clear at the last minute.

Alas, he left the bridge a few minutes before that was to occur. The third mate that he directed to take over was tired (the day before he had helped get the huge ship into port). This mate also lacked federal certification to pilot the tanker in such waters. Why Hazelwood would turn command over at such a crucial time — and to an inexperienced officer — will never be known with certainty. The captain claimed he needed to go below and attend to some urgent messages.

In their new book The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster, Sharon Bushell and Stan Jones have collected dozens of brief reminiscences.

As soon as his ship ran “hard aground,” as Hazelwood phrased it in his immediate radio alert to the Coast Guard, the Exxon Valdez began spilling oil. Though a Coast Guard captain advised Hazelwood to stay put, he recalls the Exxon Valdez captain informing him that he would attempt to rock the boat so that he could free his ship from the reef. Good thing Hazelwood didn’t succeed. Bushell and Jones quote the Coast Guard captain from an interview he gave a few days after the accident. The Exxon Valdez was so unstable, he said, “it would have sunk.” The reef that had snagged the vessel was, afterward, apparently the only thing keeping it afloat.

Hazelwood’s problem with alcohol has been cited repeatedly as a likely contributing factor to the poor judgment he exhibited throughout that evening. The Spill quotes Hazelwood as noting that on his brief shore leave hours before the accident, “I had a couple of drinks.” Other individuals reported smelling alcohol on his breath. And nearly a half-day after the grounding, Bushell and Jones report, Hazelwood’s blood-alcohol level was 50 percent higher than federal law permits for ship-operating crews.

Whatever the state of the captain’s mental clarity, a catastrophe happened on his watch. Some 20 percent of the vessel’s load — nearly 11 million gallons of oil — hemorrhaged into Alaska’s southern coastal waters from 11 of the ship’s breached cargo tanks. This crude blanketed rocks and shorelines, fouled coastal waters, left a lethal viscous coating on birds, sea mammals and shellfish.

And during the early days, there was little to do but take stock of the resulting devastation. Alaska — as with most of the nation’s coastal states — had no contingency plans for dealing with a catastrophic oil spill. It didn’t have anywhere near sufficient on-hand emergency equipment: pumps to vacuum up the oil, barges on which to offload it, or booms sufficient to corral a spill (especially in potentially violent seas as developed on March 26 when a severe winter storm blew in).

Then again, this spill was so big, some challenge whether any amount of equipment could have halted this spill’s spread. Among them: environmental chemist Jeffrey Short who studied damage from this spill for most of his career with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to Short, the oil slick created by the Exxon Valdez “expanded at a rate of nearly half a football field per second, and it continued expanding at this rate for two and a half days. By the time it was daylight a few hours later, containment was probably not feasible even in optimal circumstances and no matter how well prepared the responders were. Once a winter storm developed three days later, any remaining hope of contaminment was lost.” Short, who now works for Oceana, a marine-conservation group, will be testifying before the House Committee on Natural Resources tomorrow in a session that focuses on energy development on the U.S. outer continental shelf.

Oil drifted largely unchecked in the weeks following the accident, eventually blackening a nearly 500-mile swath of beaches and island-dotted waters. Clean-up efforts were slowed and sometimes foiled by weather, the area’s hydrology, and a paucity of science on the chemistry of this oil’s weathering, toxicity and movement throughout the environment. Eventually, up to 11,000 people were working at one time on cleanup efforts. According to Short (in testimony prepared for tomorrow’s hearing), “only about eight percent of the oil was ever recovered. This recovery rate is fairly typical for a large oil spill.”

In 1993, four years after the accident, Exxon scientists reported that Alaska’s Prince William Sound “has almost fully recovered from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.” They were presenting data at an environmental session of an American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) meeting in Atlanta.

I covered the report at that time, and the controversy it provoked. Sixteen years later, although many environmental indicators throughout the spill’s path show big improvements, a number of Alaska-based researchers charge that it’s still too early to say the environment has almost fully recovered.

Next: Exxon Valdez oil lingers, as does it toxicity

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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