Originally published on March 16, 2014
On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, shortly after midnight. The accident caused the oil tanker to spill more than 11 million gallons of crude oil. which equals roughly 1,264,155 barrels, or 17 olympic-sized swimming pools.
The Exxon Valdez departed from the Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal at 9:12 pm March 23, 1989. The ship ran aground on Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m., threatening the delicate food chain that supports Prince William Sound's commercial fishing industry. Also in danger were ten million migratory shore birds and waterfowl, hundreds of sea otters, dozens of other species, such as harbor porpoises and sea lions, and several varieties of whales.
Many factors complicated the cleanup efforts following the spill, including the size of the spill and its remote location, which was accessible only by helicopter and boat. The spill affected the area region from Bligh Reef 460 miles to the tiny village of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula.
A U.S. Coast Guard at USCG investigator, along with a representative from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, visited the scene of the incident to assess the damage. By noon on Friday, March 25, the Alaska Regional Response Team was brought together by teleconference, and the National Response Team was activated soon thereafter.
Alyeska, the association that represents seven oil companies who operate in Valdez, including Exxon, first assumed responsibility for the cleanup, in accordance with the area's contingency planning. Alyeska opened an emergency communications center in Valdez shortly after the spill was reported and set up a second operations center in Anchorage, Alaska.
Three methods were tried in the effort to clean up the spill: burning, mechanical cleanup, and chemical dispersants. A trial burn was conducted during the early stages of the spill. A fire-resistant boom was placed on tow lines, and two ends of the boom were each attached to a ship. The two ships with the boom between them moved slowly throughout the main portion of the slick until the boom was full of oil. The two ships then towed the boom away from the slick and the oil was ignited. The fire did not endanger the main slick or the Exxon Valdez because of the distance separating them. Because of unfavorable weather, however, no additional burning was attempted in this cleanup effort.
Mechanical cleanup was started using booms and skimmers. However, skimmers were not readily available during the first 24 hours following the spill. Thick oil and heavy kelp tended to clog the equipment. Repairs to damaged skimmers were time consuming. Transferring oil from temporary storage vessels into more permanent containers was also difficult because of the oil's weight and thickness. Continued bad weather slowed down the recovery efforts.
A trial application of dispersants was performed. The use of dispersants proved to be controversial. Alyeska had less than 4,000 gallons of dispersant available in its terminal in Valdez, and no application equipment or aircraft. A private company applied dispersants on March 24, with a helicopter and dispersant bucket. Because there was not enough wave action to mix the dispersant with the oil in the water, the Coast Guard representatives at the site concluded that the dispersants were not working and so their use was discontinued.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was involved in providing weather forecasts for Prince William Sound, allowing the cleanup team to adapt their methods to changing weather conditions.
Meanwhile, specialists from the Hubbs Marine Institute in San Diego, California, set up a facility to clean oil from otters, and the International Bird Research Center of Berkeley, California, established a center to clean and rehabilitate oiled waterfowl.
High pressure cold water treatment and hot water treatment involved dozens of people holding fire hoses and spraying the beaches. Hot water treatment was popular until it was determined that the treatment could be causing more damage than the oil. Small organisms were being cooked by the hot water. The water, with floating oil, would trickle down to the shore. The oil would be trapped within several layers of boom and either be scooped up, sucked up or absorbed using special oil-absorbent materials.
In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez incident, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which required the Coast Guard to strengthen its regulations on oil tank vessels and oil tank owners and operators. Today, tank hulls provide better protection against spills resulting from a similar accident, and communications between vessel captains and vessel traffic centers have improved to make for safer sailing.
The name of the Exxon Valdez was later changed to the Sea River Mediterranean, but was prohibited by law from returning to Prince William Sound.