Exxon Valdez oil spill
The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989, when Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker owned by Exxon Shipping Company that was bound for Long Beach, California struck Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef, 1.5 mi (2.4 km) west of Tatitlek, Alaska at 12:04 a.m. and spilled 10.8 million US gallons (257,000 bbl) (or 37,000 tonnes) of crude oil over the next few days.
|Exxon Valdez oil spill|
|Location||Prince William Sound, Alaska|
|Date||March 24, 1989|
|Cause||Grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker|
|Operator||Exxon Shipping Company|
|Volume||10.8×106 US gal (260,000 bbl; 41,000 m3) (or 37,000 metric tonnes)|
|Shoreline impacted||1,300 mi (2,100 km)|
It is considered the worst oil spill worldwide in terms of damage to the environment. The Exxon Valdez spill is the second largest in U.S. waters, after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in terms of volume of oil released. Prince William Sound's remote location, accessible only by helicopter, plane, or boat, made government and industry response efforts difficult and made existing response plans especially hard to implement. The region is a habitat for salmon, sea otters, seals, and seabirds. The oil, originally extracted at the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field, eventually affected 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline, of which 200 miles (320 km) were heavily or moderately oiled.
Multiple factors have been identified as contributing to the incident:
- Exxon Shipping Company failed to supervise the master (ship's captain) and provide a rested and sufficient crew for Exxon Valdez. The NTSB found this practice was widespread throughout the industry, prompting a safety recommendation to Exxon and to the industry.
- The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload.
- Exxon Shipping Company failed to properly maintain the Raytheon Collision Avoidance System (RAYCAS) radar, which, if functional, would have indicated to the third mate an impending collision with the Bligh Reef by detecting the "radar reflector," placed on the next rock inland from Bligh Reef for the purpose of keeping ships on course. This cause was brought forward by Greg Palast and is not present in the official accident report.
Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who was widely reported to have been drinking heavily that night, was not at the controls when the ship struck the reef. Exxon blamed Captain Hazelwood for the grounding of the tanker, but, Hazelwood accused the corporation of making him a scapegoat. As the senior officer in command of the ship, he was accused of being intoxicated and thereby contributing to the disaster, but he was cleared of this charge at his 1990 trial after witnesses testified that he was sober around the time of the accident.
Journalist Greg Palast stated in 2008:
Forget the drunken skipper fable. As to Captain Joe Hazelwood, he was below decks, sleeping off his bender. At the helm, the third mate may never have collided with Bligh Reef had he looked at his RAYCAS radar. But the radar was not turned on. In fact, the tanker's radar was left broken and disabled for more than a year before the disaster, and Exxon management knew it. It was just too expensive to fix and operate.
Other factors, according to an MIT course entitled "Software System Safety" by Professor Nancy G. Leveson, included:
- Ships were not informed that the previous practice of the Coast Guard tracking ships out to Bligh Reef had ceased.
- The oil industry promised, but never installed, state-of-the-art iceberg monitoring equipment.
- Exxon Valdez was sailing outside the normal sea lane to avoid small icebergs thought to be in the area.
- Coast Guard vessel inspections in Valdez were not performed, and the number of staff was reduced.
- Lack of available equipment and personnel hampered the spill cleanup.
This disaster resulted in International Maritime Organization introducing comprehensive marine pollution prevention rules (MARPOL) through various conventions. The rules were ratified by member countries and, under International Ship Management rules, the ships are being operated with a common objective of "safer ships and cleaner oceans."
In 2009, Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph Hazelwood offered a "heartfelt apology" to the people of Alaska, suggesting he had been wrongly blamed for the disaster: "The true story is out there for anybody who wants to look at the facts, but that's not the sexy story and that's not the easy story," he said. Hazelwood said he felt Alaskans always gave him a fair shake.
Clean-up and major effects
Chemical dispersant, a surfactant and solvent mixture, was applied to the slick by a private company on March 24 with a helicopter, but the helicopter missed the target area. Scientific data on its toxicity were either thin or incomplete. In addition, public acceptance of new, widespread chemical treatment was lacking. Landowners, fishing groups, and conservation organizations questioned the use of chemicals on hundreds of miles of shoreline when other alternatives might have been available."
According to a report by David Kirby for TakePart, the main component of the Corexit formulation used during cleanup, 2-butoxyethanol, was identified as "one of the agents that caused liver, kidney, lung, nervous system, and blood disorders among cleanup crews in Alaska following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.
Mechanical cleanup was started shortly afterward using booms and skimmers, but the skimmers were not readily available during the first 24 hours following the spill, and thick oil and kelp tended to clog the equipment. Despite civilian insistence for a complete clean, only 10% of total oil was actually completely cleaned. Exxon was widely criticized for its slow response to cleaning up the disaster and John Devens, the mayor of Valdez, has said his community felt betrayed by Exxon's inadequate response to the crisis. More than 11,000 Alaska residents, along with some Exxon employees, worked throughout the region to try to restore the environment.
Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil was collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water. 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. 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. Despite the extensive cleanup attempts, less than ten percent of the oil was recovered.
Both long-term and short-term effects of the oil spill have been studied. Immediate effects include the deaths of between 100,000 and 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, and an unknown number of salmon and herring.
Although the volume of oil has declined considerably, with oil remaining only about 0.14–0.28% of the original spilled volume, studies suggest that the area of oiled beach has changed little since 1992. A study by the National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA in Juneau, determined that by 2001 approximately 90 tonnes of oil remained on beaches in Prince William Sound in the sandy soil of the contaminated shoreline, with annual loss rates declining from 68% per year prior to 1992, to 4% per year after 2001.
The remaining oil lasting far longer than anticipated has resulted in more long-term losses of species than had been expected. Laboratory experiments found that at levels as low as one part per billion, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are toxic for salmon and herring eggs. Species as diverse as sea otters, harlequin ducks, and orcas suffered immediate and long-term losses. Oiled mussel beds and other tidal shoreline habitats may take up to 30 years to recover.
ExxonMobil denied concerns over the remaining oil, stating that they anticipated the remaining fraction would not cause long-term ecological impacts. According to the conclusions of ExxonMobil's study: "We've done 350 peer-reviewed studies of Prince William Sound, and those studies conclude that Prince William Sound has recovered, it's healthy and it's thriving."
On March 24, 2014, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the spill, NOAA scientists reported that some species seem to have recovered, with the sea otter the latest creature to return to pre-spill numbers. Scientists who have monitored the spill area for the last 25 years report that concern remains for one of two pods of local orca whales, with fears that one pod may eventually die out. Federal scientists estimate that between 16,000 and 21,000 US gallons (61 to 79 m3) of oil remains on beaches in Prince William Sound and up to 450 miles (725 km) away. Some of the oil does not appear to have biodegraded at all. A USGS scientist who analyses the remaining oil along the coastline states that it remains among rocks and between tide marks. "The oil mixes with seawater and forms an emulsion...Left out, the surface crusts over but the inside still has the consistency of mayonnaise – or mousse." Alaska state senator Berta Gardner is urging Alaskan politicians to demand that the US government force ExxonMobil to pay the final $92 million (£57 million) still owed from the court settlement. The major part of the money would be spent to finish cleaning up oiled beaches and attempting to restore the crippled herring population.
Litigation and cleanup costs
In October 1989, Exxon filed a suit against the State of Alaska, claiming that the state had interfered with Exxon's attempts to clean up the spill by refusing to approve the use of dispersant chemicals until the night of the 26th. The State of Alaska disputed this claim, stating that there was a long-standing agreement to allow the use of dispersants to clean up spills, thus Exxon did not require permission to use them, and that, in fact, Exxon had not had enough dispersant on hand to effectively handle a spill of the size created by Exxon Valdez.
Exxon filed claims in October 1990 against the Coast Guard, asking to be reimbursed for cleanup costs and damages awarded to plaintiffs in any lawsuits filed by the State of Alaska or the federal government against Exxon. The company claimed that the Coast Guard was "wholly or partially responsible" for the spill, because they had granted mariners' licenses to the crew of the Valdez, and because they had given Exxon Valdez permission to leave regular shipping lanes to avoid ice. They also reiterated the claim that the Coast Guard had delayed cleanup by refusing to give permission to immediately use chemical dispersants on the spill.
Also, in 1991, Exxon made a quiet, separate financial settlement of damages with a group of seafood producers known as the Seattle Seven for the disaster's effect on the Alaskan seafood industry. The agreement granted $63.75 million to the Seattle Seven, but stipulated that the seafood companies would have to repay almost all of any punitive damages awarded in other civil proceedings. The $5 billion in punitive damages was awarded later, and the Seattle Seven's share could have been as high as $750 million if the damages award had held. Other plaintiffs have objected to this secret arrangement, and when it came to light, Judge Holland ruled that Exxon should have told the jury at the start that an agreement had already been made, so the jury would know exactly how much Exxon would have to pay.
In the case of Exxon v. Baker, an Anchorage jury awarded $287 million for actual damages and $5 billion for punitive damages. To protect itself in case the judgment was affirmed, Exxon obtained a $4.8 billion credit line from J.P. Morgan & Co., who created the first modern credit default swap so that they would not have to hold as much money in reserve against the risk of Exxon's default.
Meanwhile, Exxon appealed the ruling, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the trial judge, Russel Holland, to reduce the punitive damages. On December 6, 2002, Holland announced that he had reduced the damages to $4 billion, which he concluded was justified by the facts of the case and was not grossly excessive. Exxon appealed again and the case returned to Holland to be reconsidered in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling in a similar case. Holland increased the punitive damages to $4.5 billion, plus interest.
Exxon appealed again. On May 23, 2007, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied ExxonMobil's request for a third hearing and let stand its ruling that Exxon owed $2.5 billion in punitive damages. Exxon then appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. On February 27, 2008, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments. Justice Samuel Alito, who at the time owned between $100,000 and $250,000 in Exxon stock, recused himself from the case. In a decision issued June 25, 2008, written by Justice David Souter, the court vacated the $2.5 billion award and remanded the case back to the lower court, finding that the damages were excessive with respect to maritime common law. Exxon's actions were deemed "worse than negligent but less than malicious." The punitive damages were further reduced to an amount of $507.5 million. The Court's ruling was that maritime punitive damages should not exceed the compensatory damages, supported by a precedent dating from 1818. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy has decried the ruling as "another in a line of cases where this Supreme Court has misconstrued congressional intent to benefit large corporations."
Exxon's official position was that punitive damages greater than $25 million were not justified because the spill resulted from an accident, and because Exxon spent an estimated $2 billion cleaning up the spill and a further $1 billion to settle related civil and criminal charges. Attorneys for the plaintiffs contended that Exxon bore responsibility for the accident because the company "put a drunk in charge of a tanker in Prince William Sound." Exxon recovered a significant portion of clean-up and legal expenses through insurance claims associated with the grounding of Exxon Valdez.
Political consequences and reforms
Coast Guard report
A 1989 report by the Coast Guard's U.S. National Response Center summarized the event and made many recommendations, including that neither Exxon, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the State of Alaska, nor the federal government were prepared for a spill of this magnitude.
Oil Pollution Act of 1990
In response to the spill, the United States Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA). The legislation included a clause that prohibits any vessel that, after March 22, 1989, has caused an oil spill of more than 1 million US gallons (3,800 m3) in any marine area, from operating in Prince William Sound.
In April 1998, the company argued in a legal action against the Federal government that the ship should be allowed back into Alaskan waters. Exxon claimed OPA was effectively a bill of attainder, a regulation that was unfairly directed at Exxon alone. In 2002, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Exxon. As of 2002, OPA had prevented 18 ships from entering Prince William Sound.
OPA also set a schedule for the gradual phase in of a double hull design, providing an additional layer between the oil tanks and the ocean. While a double hull would likely not have prevented the Exxon Valdez disaster, a Coast Guard study estimated that it would have cut the amount of oil spilled by 60 percent.
The Exxon Valdez supertanker was towed to San Diego, arriving on July 10. Repairs began on July 30. Approximately 1,600 short tons (1,500 t) of steel were removed and replaced. In June 1990, the tanker, renamed Exxon Mediterranean, left harbor after $30 million of repairs. In 1993, owned by SeaRiver Maritime, it was named S/R Mediterranean, then in 2005 Mediterranean. In 2008 the vessel was acquired by a Hong Kong company that operated it as Dong Fang Ocean, then in 2011 renamed it Oriental Nicety. In August 2012, it was beached at Dalian, China, and dismantled.
In the aftermath of the spill, Alaska governor Steve Cowper issued an executive order requiring two tugboats to escort every loaded tanker from Valdez out through Prince William Sound to Hinchinbrook Entrance. As the plan evolved in the 1990s, one of the two routine tugboats was replaced with a 210-foot (64 m) Escort Response Vehicle (ERV). Tankers at Valdez are no longer single-hulled. Congress enacted legislation requiring all tankers to be double-hulled as of 2015.
Economic and personal impact
In 1991, following the collapse of the local marine population (particularly clams, herring, and seals) the Chugach Alaska Corporation, an Alaska Native Corporation, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It has since recovered.
According to several studies funded by the state of Alaska, the spill had both short-term and long-term economic effects. These included the loss of recreational sports, fisheries, reduced tourism, and an estimate of what economists call "existence value", which is the value to the public of a pristine Prince William Sound.
The economy of the city of Cordova, Alaska was adversely affected after the spill damaged stocks of salmon and herring in the area. The village of Chenega was transformed into an emergency base and media outlet. The local villagers had to cope with a tripling of their population from 80 to 250. When asked how they felt about the situation, a village councilor noted that they were too shocked and busy to be depressed; others emphasized the human costs of leaving children unattended while their parents worked to clean up. Many Native Americans were worried that too much time was spent on the fishery and not enough on the land that supports subsistence hunting.
In 2010, a CNN report alleged that many oil spill cleanup workers involved in the Exxon Valdez response had subsequently become sick. Anchorage lawyer Dennis Mestas found that this was true for 6,722 of 11,000 worker files he was able to inspect. Access to the records was controlled by Exxon. Exxon responded in a statement to CNN:
In popular culture
Several weeks after the spill, Saturday Night Live aired a pointed sketch featuring Kevin Nealon, Phil Hartman, and Victoria Jackson as cleanup workers struggling to scrub the oil off of animals and rocks on a beach in Prince William Sound.
In the 1995 film Waterworld, Exxon Valdez is the flagship of the movie's villain, "The Deacon," the leader of a band of scavenging raiders. In the ship is a portrait of their patron saint, Joseph Hazelwood.
Composer Jonathan Larson wrote a song called "Iron Mike" about the oil spill. The song is written in the style of a sea shanty. It was first professionally recorded by George Salazar for the album The Jonathan Larson Project.
The 1992 made-for-television film Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster, produced by HBO, dramatized the oil spill disaster.
- List of oil spills
- Deepwater Horizon oil spill
- Ixtoc I oil spill
- Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster, 1992 HBO movie
- Martin County coal slurry spill
- Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill
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