Legacy of An Oil Spill – 20 Years After the Exxon Valdez
Table of Contents
The Spill, The Settlement, and The Restoration Plan
The status of Restoration
The Persistence, Toxicity, and Continuing Impact of Exxon Valdez Oil
Long-term Effects of Initial Exposure
The Status of Injured Species and Services
Research, Monitoring and Restoration:
Understanding the Marine Ecosystem
Understanding the Parts: Fish, Wildlife, and Other Projects
Direct Restoration and Infrastructure Projects
Preserving and Providing Access to Information
Habitat Protection Program
Large Parcel Program
Small Parcel Program
Improvements to Spill Prevention and Response
The Effect on People
For certain events, you remember where you were when you heard the news. Like many Alaskans, I can remember how, where, and when I first learned of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and I recall my first reactions to the news: curiosity as to what this meant for Prince William Sound and interest in how the legal issues and inevitable litigation would play out. Mostly I had the reactions of a detached and curious, but uninformed, observer. But within a short time I found myself in a helicopter landing in a cove on an island in Prince William Sound at the heart of the oil spill. I will never forget what I saw and heard and smelled. The juxtaposition of the idyllic beauty of the sound, in which I had spent many weeks kayaking in previous years, and the noisy, smelly, industrial scene before me was overwhelming. I remember two reactions at that time: sadness and anger. There was never again detachment or idle curiosity.
Over the last 20 years, we have made significant progress in restoration of areas impacted by the spill: permanently protecting crucial habitat; increasing our knowledge of the marine ecosystem; and developing new tools for better management of these vital resources. Visitors to Prince William Sound and the North Gulf Coast of Alaska today again experience spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife and see little evidence of the spill. Yet the area has not fully recovered. In some areas, Exxon Valdez oil still remains and is toxic. Some injured species have yet to recover to pre-spill levels. This long-term damage was not expected at the time of the spill and was only just starting to be recognized in 1999, at the 10th Anniversary.
At that time, the majority of species injured by the spill were still struggling with low numbers, such as the depressed herring populations, but it was expected that the ecosystem would recover naturally over time. Now, in 2009, as we reach the end of the second decade, many of these areas and species of concern remain. As we learn more, the picture of recovery is more complicated than was first appreciated.
It is unfortunate that it takes a disaster of this magnitude to shake us from our complacency and make us see how greatly nature has blessed us here in Alaska and elsewhere in our great country, and to understand how easily and quickly humans can despoil it. Such an environmental disaster makes us realize how much we depend on our natural world and how much harm reckless acts can inflict on our lives and the lives of our families. It is important that we remember and learn from such events. It is in that spirit that we present this 20th Anniversary Status Report.
Unlike prior annual reports, which have focused on the details of the Trustee Council’s work in the preceding year, this 20th Anniversary Status Report seeks to present a broader overview of the spill, the subsequent settlement, the Restoration Plan and the Trustee Council’s work in research, monitoring, restoration, and habitat protection. It also discusses the effect of the spill on human communities and the improvements to spill prevention and response that have taken place since the spill.
Deputy Attorney General
Alaska Department of Law
Photo: Craig Tillery inspects a boulder-sized piece of Bligh Reef caught in the torn hull of the Exxon Valdez tanker.
Photo: Water flows from a hose lay down a beach, while workers direct high pressure water hoses to beach areas. The massive cleanup effort mobilized more than 10,000 people, 1,000 vehicles, and 100 airplanes into an environment that prior to the spill was pristine and largely uninhabited.
The Spill, The Settlement, and The Restoration Plan
Alaska North Slope crude oil is produced along the northern coast of Alaska in various fields such as Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk. The oil is heavy crude that is highly toxic and slow to disperse when released into the environment. North Slope crude oil is gathered in Prudhoe Bay and sent 800 miles through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to the Alyeska Marine Terminal located in Valdez, Alaska. From there the oil is loaded on tankers and shipped south through Prince William Sound. Most of the oil ends up in Washington, California, or Texas, where it is refined and distributed for use. For the first 12 years of operation this system - while not without problems - avoided disaster. To a large extent, the shippers of the oil, citizens in the nearby communities, and government regulators grew complacent. But in the early morning hours of March 24, 1989, this complacency was shattered.
Early in the morning on Good Friday, March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. The grounding ripped the bottom of the single-hulled vessel, resulting in the rupture of 11 of the vessel’s crude oil tanks and the release of nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into the environment. It was, and still is, the largest oil spill in United States waters.
For almost three days following the spill, the weather in the Sound was unusually quiet. However, Alyeska Pipeline Company, the initial responder under the terms of the Prince William Sound oil spill contingency plan, was not ready and few pieces of equipment were in the area in a timely manner. By the evening of March 24 only two skimmers, both of which were full at the time, were motoring aimlessly around the growing oil slick. There was little or no containment boom deployed. A test burn was conducted, which worked to some extent, but the water content of the oily mousse soon made burning impractical or impossible. Dispersants were a primary response tool and were tested with somewhat inconclusive results, but neither Exxon Corporation nor Alyeska had sufficient dispersant or the equipment to adequately deploy it.
On the evening of March 26, a severe winter storm blew into the sound. The oil slick went from a relatively compact mass to a widely dispersed collection of patches and streaks, and response vessels were forced to run for shelter in the face of the storm. The oil soon hit the beaches in hundreds of places, overwhelming any efforts to stop it, with a few notable exceptions such as in Sawmill Bay.
Over the next five-and-a-half months the cleanup operations grew exponentially, ultimately becoming the largest private project in Alaska since construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. At one point more than 11,000 people were working on cleanup. According to Exxon Corporation’s count, more than one thousand miles of beach were treated that summer. Additional cleanup continued for the next three summers through 1992.
Assessing the extent of the environmental damage caused by the spill was extremely difficult for a number of reasons: Most importantly, there was little baseline information about the natural resources in the spill area. Even where data existed, such as with commercially harvested salmon runs in the area, the natural variation in those data made pre-spill and post-spill comparisons difficult. Thus, a rather crude measure—carcass counts—became a primary yardstick for describing the damage to the public.
Carcass counts often understated the actual losses, since animal carcasses sank or were never discovered in the huge geographic area covered by the spill. Based on extrapolated studies, scientists estimate the total loss of murres at 250,000—about 40% of the pre-spill population—even though only about 21,000 murre carcasses were found. In some cases no carcasses were found and evidence of injury is circumstantial. For example, no oiled killer whale carcasses were found, but scientists observed that 14 out of the 36 killer whales in the resident Prince William Sound pod disappeared in 1989 and 1990.
Sub-lethal injuries to natural resources were also observed. Following the spill, wild pink salmon, which spawn in intertidal areas as well as in streams, spawned in an oiled intertidal zone, swam through oiled waters and ingested oil particles and oiled prey as they foraged in the sound and emigrated to the sea. As a result, post-spill studies indicated two types of injury: reduced growth rates in juvenile salmon from oiled areas of Prince William Sound and increased egg mortality in oiled versus unoiled streams.
We know there is injury from the spill, but the question remains to what extent. There is large natural variability in some marine resources which makes it difficult to quantify impacts. In the years immediately preceding the spill, the return of wild pink salmon to the sound varied from a high of 23.5 million fish in 1984 to a low of 2.1 million in 1988. Since the spill, the return has varied from a high of 17 million in 2005 to a low of 1.3 in 2002. In 2007 the estimated return was 11.6 million fish. While we can monitor growth and egg mortality rates to assess recovery, it is very difficult, in light of the natural variability, to determine the effect on the run attributable to the spill.
In sum, while we know there was injury to individual species, there was much uncertainty as to the exact amount of that injury and the uncertainty remains. In addition, how the marine ecosystem functions as a system was not studied at all prior to the spill. Nor were some species such as the important forage fish capelin and sand lance.
Photo: An Exxon Valdez oil slick is carried by the ocean current.
Photo: Seabird coated by oil, rests amid oil coating a rocky beach. An estimated 250,000 seabirds were killed by oil in the weeks and months following the spill.
Photo: Oiled sea otter. Carcasses included: 1,000 sea otters, 151 bald eagles, 838 cormorants, 1,100 marbled murrelets and more than 33,189 other birds.
The Settlement with Exxon Corporation and Use of the $900 million Civil Settlement
The settlement among the State of Alaska, the United States government, and Exxon Corporation was approved by the U.S. District Court on October 9, 1991. It resolved various criminal charges against Exxon Corporation as well as civil claims brought by the federal and state governments for recovery of natural resource damages resulting from the spill. The settlement had three distinct parts:
Criminal Plea Agreement
Exxon Corporation was fined $150 million, the largest fine ever imposed for an environmental crime. The court forgave $125 million of that fine in recognition of the corporation’s cooperation in cleaning up the spill and paying certain private claims. Of the remaining $25 million, $12 million went to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund and $13 million went to the National Victims of Crime Fund.
As restitution for the injuries caused to the fish, wildlife, and lands of the spill region, Exxon Corporation agreed to pay $100 million. This money was divided evenly between the federal and state governments.
Exxon Corporation agreed to pay $900 million, with annual payments over a 10-year period. The final payment was received in September 2001. The settlement also contained a "reopener window" between September 1, 2002 and September 1, 2006, during which the governments could make a claim for up to an additional $100 million. The reopener provision was included to address injuries from the spill that were not known or foreseeable from information available or reasonably available at the time of the settlement in 1991. Any funds received as a result of a reopener claim must be used to restore resources that suffered a substantial loss or decline as a result of the spill.
On June 1, 2006, the United States and the State of Alaska notified Exxon Corporation, pursuant to the reopener provision in the civil settlement, that additional restoration would be necessary to address injuries that were not foreseen at the time of the 1991 settlement. The governments have demanded that Exxon fund restoration projects, estimated at $92 million, based on the continued presence of oil in the habitats of Prince William Sound and Gulf of Alaska beaches.
Photo: Aerial view of a small beach with water hoses arrayed across the beach and additional sections in use by beach crews, and 8 boats off shore stationing boom and skimming oil. Cleanup crews and equipment create an industrial scene on a remote beach.
Photo: The cleanup took four summers and cost approximately $2 million dollars.
Use of the Settlement Funds
The following table accounts for how settlement funds have been used (in millions) as of September 30, 2008.
Total Revenue $996.1
Exxon Payments $900.8
Interest/Earnings (Minus Fees Plus Recoveries) $95.3
Reimbursements for Damage Assessments and Response $216.4
Governments (includes Litigation and Cleanup) $176.5
Exxon (Cleanup during 1991 and 1992) $39.9
Research, Monitoring & General Restoration (FY92–FY08) $178.0
FY92-FY07 Work Plans – Restoration Program Projects $173.0
FY08 Work Plans – Restoration Program Projects $5.0
Habitat Protection Program $375.4
Large Parcel and Small Parcel habitat protection programs (past expenditures,
outstanding offers, estimated future commitments and parcel evaluation costs)
Large Parcel Acquisition $347.9
Small Parcel Acquisition * $23.1
Due Diligence Activities $4.4
Annual Program Development and Implementation (FY92-08) $44.7
FY92-FY07 Annual Program Development and Implementation $42.3
FY07-FY08 Annual Program Development and Implementation $2.4
Investment Trust Fund Balance as of September 30, 2008 $177.6
Research Investment Sub-Account $102.0
Habitat Investment Sub-Account $34.4
Koniag Investment Sub-Account $41.2
* Includes sale pending for land along Kenai River.
Note: FY08 Numbers are pre-audit numbers. Audit was not complete at the time of printing.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (Trustee Council) was formed to oversee restoration of the injured ecosystem through the use of the $900 million civil settlement. The Trustee Council consists of three State and three federal trustees (or their designees):
Commissioner, Department of Fish and Game
Commissioner, Department of Environmental Conservation
Attorney General, Department of Law
Rowan Gould (Designee)
Secretary, Department of the Interior
Jim Balsiger (Designee)
Director, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
Joe Meade (Designee)
Secretary, Department of Agriculture
The Public Advisory Committee
The Public Advisory Committee advises the Trustee Council on decisions relating to allocation of funds, restoration activities, and long-term monitoring and research activities. As of January 2009, the group consisted of members chosen to reflect a balanced representation from the public at large, as well as members from selected principal interests.
Patience Anderson, Subsistence
Torie Baker, Marine Transportation
Amanda Bauer, Commercial Tourism
Jason Brune, Public at Large
Kurt Eilo, Sport Hunting and Fishing
Larry Evanoff, Native Landowners
Gary Fandrei, Aquaculture/Mariculture
John French, Regional Monitoring
Jennifer Gibbins, Conservation and Environmental
Sue Johnson, Tribal Government
Bill Rosetti, Science/Technical
Stacy Studebaker, Recreational Users
JoAnn Vlasoff, Public at Large
Open, Commercial Fishing
Open, Local Government
The Restoration Plan
The Trustee Council adopted a Restoration Plan in 1994 after an extensive public process that included meetings in 22 spill-area communities as well as in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. More than 2,000 people participated in the meetings or provided written comments.
As part of the Settlement Agreement, $176.5 million went to reimburse the federal and state governments for costs incurred conducting spill response, damage assessment, and litigation related to the spill. Another $39.9 million reimbursed Exxon Corporation for cleanup work that took place after the civil settlement was reached. The remaining funds were dedicated to implementation of the Restoration Plan, which consists of the following parts:
Research, Monitoring, and General Restoration
Surveys and other monitoring of fish and wildlife in the spill region provide basic information to determine population trends, productivity, and health. Research increases our knowledge about the biological needs of individual species and how each contributes to the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem. Research also provides new information and better tools for effective management of fish and wildlife. General restoration includes projects to protect archaeological resources, improve subsistence resources, enhance salmon streams, reduce marine pollution, and restore damaged habitats.
Protection of habitat helps prevent additional injury to species due to intrusive development or loss of habitat. The Trustee Council accomplishes this by providing funds to government agencies to acquire title or conservation easements on land important for the restoration of resources and services injured by the spill.
This savings account was established in recognition that full recovery from the known effects of the spill would not occur for decades. The reserve fund has been used to support long-term restoration activities after the final payment was received from Exxon Corporation in September, 2001.
Science Management, Public Information, and Administration
This component of the budget includes management of the annual work plan and habitat programs, scientific oversight of research, monitoring, and restoration projects, agency coordination, and overall administrative costs. It also includes the cost of public meetings, publications, and other means of disseminating information to the public.
The status of Restoration
Oil Remains: The Persistence, Toxicity, and Impact of Exxon Valdez Oil
Visitors today experience the spectacular scenery and wildlife of Prince William Sound and the North Gulf of Alaska. However, one of the most stunning revelations of Trustee Council-funded monitoring over the last ten years is that Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment and in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.
This was not expected at the time of the spill or even ten years later. In 1999, beaches in the sound appeared clean on the surface. Some subsurface oil had been reported in a few places, but it was expected to decrease over time and most importantly, to have lost its toxicity due to weathering. A few species were not recovering at the expected rate in some areas, but continuing exposure to oil was not suspected as the primary cause.
In 2001, researchers at the Auke Bay Laboratories, NOAA Fisheries, conducted a survey of the mid-to-upper intertidal in areas of the sound that were heavily or moderately oiled in 1989. Researchers dug over 9,000 pits, at 91 sites, over a 95-day field season. Over half the sites were contaminated with Exxon Valdez oil. Oil was found at different levels of intensity from light sheening; to oil droplets; to heavy oil where the pit would literally fill with oil. They estimated that approximately 16,000 gallons (60,000 liters), of oil remained. The survey also showed a trend of an increasing number of oiled pits as they surveyed lower into the intertidal zone, indicating that there was more oil to be found lower down the beach. In 2003, additional surveys determined that while the majority of subsurface oil was in the mid-intertidal, a significant amount was also in the lower intertidal. The revised estimate of oil was now more than 21,000 gallons (80,000 liters). Additional surveys outside Prince William Sound have documented lingering oil also on the Kenai Peninsula and the Katmai coast, over 450 miles away.
The amount of Exxon Valdez oil remaining substantially exceeds the sum total of all previous oil pollution on beaches in Prince William Sound, including oil spilled during the 1964 earthquake. This Exxon Valdez oil is decreasing at a rate of 0-4% per year, with only a 5% chance that the rate is as high as 4%. At this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely.
The amount of Exxon Valdez oil remaining substantially exceeds the sum total of all previous oil pollution on beaches in PWS, including oil spilled during the 1964 earthquake. This Exxon Valdez oil is decreasing at a rate of 0-4% per year, with only a 5% chance that the rate is as high as 4%. At this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely.
Photo: Surveys of subsurface Exxon Valdez oil in the intertidal zone.
Photo: Oil from Exxon Valdez persists in a shallow pit dug on a beach in Prince William Sound, summer 2004.
All of the subsurface oil fingerprinted back to the source oil of the Exxon Valdez. Slightly weathered, the lightest fraction of aromatic hydrocarbons (single ring compounds like benzene and toluene) was missing, but most of the 2-4 ring polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) were intact and therefore toxic, and in the same proportions as Exxon Valdez oil collected in the first weeks of the spill.
In the weeks following the spill, oil often lay in some of the semi-enclosed bays for days to weeks, going up and down with the tides twice a day. With the daily stranding of the oil in the intertidal zone, some was pulled down into the sediments by the capillary action of the fine sediments beneath the coarse cobbles. The cleanup efforts and natural processes, particularly in the winter, cleaned the oil out of the top 2-3 inches, where oxygen and water can flow, but did little to affect the large patches of oil farther below the surface.
The lower half of the intertidal zone is the biologically-rich area where mussels, clams and other marine life are found in greatest abundance. This raised the question of bioavailability – were animals such as sea otters and harlequin ducks who feed in the intertidal, as well as the species that reside there, being chronically exposed to toxic PAH? In 1996-1998, the Nearshore Vertebrate Project investigated why the populations of several species on Northern Knight Island, which had been heavily oiled, were not recovering. Contrary to anticipated results, food availability was not a limiting factor. Instead, various vertebrate species showed elevated P450 levels compared to non-oiled areas; elevated levels of the enzyme P450 can be induced through exposure to oil. A series of studies in 2004, using passive samplers, also demonstrated that subsurface oil patches still leaked PAH and stimulated a P450 response in fish. Harlequins ducks have continued to show elevated levels through 2007. The elevated levels of P450 would have diminished following initial exposure to oil. Therefore, continuing elevated levels of P450 aren’t attributable to the initial impacts of the Spill, but indicate a continuing exposure to oil.