Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Exxon Valdez Spill—Still a Mess After all These Years

11,000 workers tried to cleanup the mess ashore.

On March 23, 1989 the Exxon Valdez, a so-called super tanker outward bound from the Valdez, Alaska oil depot filled with Prudhoe Bay crude oil ran aground on a reef spilling about 10.8 million gallons.  
The ship was outside normal shipping lanes due to icebergs in the usual out-bound route.  With Coast Guard permission, it was sailing in the inbound lanes under auto-pilot.  The ship’s radar had been inoperable since leaving port. Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who had been drinking, left the bridge shortly before the accident leaving a junior officer in charge and a seaman at the helm.  Both men were working without required rest when the ship struck the reef just after midnight. 
While there have been several worse oil releases around the world, until the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 few, if any, had the devastating environmental impact of this wreck.
The prevailing winds and tides drove the thick oil slick into the rocky coves and shores of Prince William Sound contaminating one of the world’s richest natural fisheries teaming with marine mammals, abundant water fowl, and avian raptors.  The remoteness of the location made bringing in booms, skimmers and other customary equipment to isolate and contain a spill difficult.  When equipment finally did arrive it was too little too late.  A coat of tar-like crude inches thick was born ashore contaminating mile after mile of shore line. 
Despite on shore rescue and clean-up efforts that ultimately involved 11,000 workers and volunteers, wild life was devastated.  Up to a quarter million sea birds, 2000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orca whales were killed.  The red salmon fishery lost most of that season’s eggs, and the population has remained stunted more than twenty years later. 
Litigation against Exxon and the crew has dragged on for years with Exxon stubbornly fighting for ever greater reductions in an original $5 billion punitive damage award—the equivalent of one year of profit for the giant oil company at the time.  An account of the case and its many appeals is too tedious—and disheartening to report here.  Suffice it to say that the Supreme Court ultimately decided that punitive awards could not exceed the compensatory damages in the suit, calculated at $507.5 million.  Even figuring in perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees fighting the case, Exxon walked away with a slap on the wrist. 
Of course there were separate civil and criminal findings amounting to a billion or so and Exxon claims it spent $2 billion on the still incomplete clean-up. 
Today, the company continues to operate dangerous and vulnerable single hull tankers like the Exxon Valdez on the Prudhoe Bay run.  Congress has not mandated much safer double-hulled ships until 2015.  Experts believe an accident as bad or worse could occur at any time in Prince William Sound. 

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