February 9, 2009
Valdez is a frost- free port on the southern side of Alaska where the Alyeska pipeline ends. To reach the vast sea, oil tankers have to take a dangerous path through the Prince William Sound and onward into the Gulf of Alaska.
A bit past mid-night on March 24, 1989, in almost ideal weather, a super tanker named Exxon Valdez wandered off course and hit the Bligh Reef. The ship’s hull was severely damaged and its load of 50 million tonnes of crude oil started leak into the sea.
“10 million shore birds and water fowl, at least 13 whales, and over 5,000 sea otter killed.”
Quote from page 101 of class text book.
The Prince William Sound where the Exxon Valdez crashed is prone to earthquakes, tidal waves severe gales, dense fogs, and rough seas. There are also dangerous ice burgs braking off from glaciers, many rocky islands and submerged reefs and the only way out into the open sea is through a dangerous narrow outlet.
However none of these contributed to the accident. The disaster did not occur because of any natural dangers but because of human blunder. It was the ship’s 28th voyage through the Prince William Sound so the captain must have known the Shipping lane like the back of his palm. Being very confident, one can assume, the captain would give one of his mates control of the ship under his supervision perhaps for training. It turns out that on this night the captain was drunk and gave the ship to a third mate and did not supervise him.
From the damaged and immobilized tanker an oil slick 10 cm deep quickly spread 1,000 km into the sea and 1,700 km of coastline was oiled.
“Government and industry plans, proved to be wholly insufficient
The spill destroyed a very fragile ecosystem. In a few days more than 10 million birds were reported dead. A lot of the fish, sea weed and other seafaring life were poisoned and practically wiped out. Animals that live on the land like Caribou were intoxicated by eating oiled seaweed. There was also a great loss of coastline vegetation. The not only the natural aspect of the area was affected but also the industry. Commercial fish hatcheries were ruined and the tourist industry suffered loss of business. The results of the spill were huge, fatal and long-term.
The Clean up
Exxon Mobil the company responsible, moved in to clear the mess. The clean-up exercise was complex, expensive, and not entirely successful. Exxon spent 843 million Euros and paid 11,000 people to clean oil from the shorelines. The company also decided to spend 600 million Euros during the next 10 years to restore the location to its usual condition.
Initially Exxon tried to burn out the oil that had spilled on the sea. Although the test was successful, bad weather prevented any further burning of the oil spill. Using booms and skims, mechanical cleaning began shortly afterward. Sadly, the skimmers could not start working until the next day when the oil slick was very thick.
The National Response Team made the following recommendations to the President of the United States;
Prevention is the first line of defense.
Preparedness must be strengthened.
Response capabilities must be enhanced to reduce environmental risk.
Law on responsibility and compensation is needed.
The US should accept the International Maritime Organization set of rules.
Government planning for oil spills must be improved.
Studies of the long-term environmental and health effects must be undertaken.
Evaluation of response
The response team stated that the Government and industry plans, proved to be insufficient to control the oil spill. They said very large spill size, the remote location, and the character of the oil was beyond their capabilities. Exxon could not get equipment on scene fast enough and once deployed the equipment could not cope with the spill. Moreover, the government agencies and the Exxon communicate their plans well. This resulted in confusion and delayed the cleanup.
According to some observers, America did not respond fast enough or well enough. If they were faster, the situation would not have been as bad and the oil would not have spread out very far. Despite the extensive cleanup attempts, a study conducted by government showed in 2007 more than 98,000 L of oil remain in the sandy soil of the shoreline.
Reducing future risk
In 1989 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill the Ship Escort/Response Vessel System (or SERVS) was formed. It is a system that is used to guide tankers through the Prince William Sound.
The disater led to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which permits that loaded single-hull tankers be guided by at least two towing vessels as they pass through Prince William Sound.
Prince William Sound today
Although Exxon spent the promised 600 million Euros to restore the environment the area still has not recovered.
Oil still stays on the shores and the flora and fauna have still not completely recovered. People do not believe they ever will.
Local news reports
Current newspapers report that oil still ooze from beaches and populations of plants and animals have not completely recovered. Although little of the spilled oil remains, oily leftovers are still found on many beaches. The plant and animal populations are still adjusting themselves in response to the spill.
Some of the study's findings have changed people’s thinking about spill response. There are court cases going on and there are people opposed to drilling oil in Alaska. There is also experimental research going on that begun in 2001.
Ship being tugged through Prince William Sound
The effects of the disaster are still lingering in the environment and it is much less likely for another accident due to the measures that have been taken by the United States government. Some of the measures recommended by the National Response Team were implemented. For example the SERVS is able to prevent ships having accidents and also increasing preparedness with the oil spill response exercise program.
Photos from Wikipedia, Google Images