‘Exxon Valdez’ Oil Spill Fouls Pristine Alaskan Waters
At 12:04 on the morning of March 24, 1989, the huge oil tanker Exxon Valdez smashed into Bligh Reef, ripping holes in its hull and spilling 10.9 million gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. At its greatest extent oil covered 1,300 square miles. It was not the largest oil spill in history, but it occurred in an area teeming with life and had devastating environmental consequences. We will never know the full mortality caused by the oil spill, but as many as a quarter-million seabirds may have died, along with thousands of other animals including sea otters, seals, orcas and bald eagles.
Not surprisingly, this huge disaster was front-page news, and the clean-up efforts and legal battles kept the story in the news. The day after the oil spill, this copyrighted article was published by the Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia) on the front page of its March 25, 1989, issue:
Oil Tanker Spills Load off Alaska
By Susan Gallagher, Associated Press
Anchorage, Alaska—A tanker ran aground on a reef and ripped holes in its hull Friday, spilling thick crude oil into pristine Prince William Sound at a rate of 20,000 gallons an hour, the largest spill of North Slope crude in history.
An oil slick snaked about five miles from the ship as wind and tide pushed the crude oil into the sound and away from shore.
The Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot tanker owned by Exxon Shipping Co. Inc., rammed Bligh Reef about 25 miles from Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in the United States, and spilled an estimated 200,000 barrels or 8.4 million gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, the Coast Guard said.
Exxon was bringing in three planeloads of cleanup crews from around the world.
Don Cornett, Alaska coordinator for Exxon, said by telephone from Cambridge, “As a result, a large shoreline area will most likely be polluted and undoubtedly the cleanup will be very extensive and labor intensive.”
In Washington, Interior Department spokesman Steve Goldstein said efforts had begun to evacuate waterfowl, sea otters and other wildlife from the danger area. “Obviously some of the waterfowl have already died,” he said.
The vessel had loaded 1.26 million barrels of oil at the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. marine terminal at Valdez and left late Thursday for Long Beach, Calif.
The terminal was closed to tanker traffic early Friday while officials tried to deal with the spill. The Federal Aviation Administration closed airspace for six miles around the tanker to keep sightseers at bay.
Officials cut the flow in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline to 800,000 barrels daily from 1.2 million barrels, which would let the terminal operate for nine days before the line has to shut down, said Alyeska spokesman Tom Brennan.
Coast Guard Petty Officer John Gonzales said the tanker’s captain was experienced and may have been maneuvering to avoid icebergs from Columbia Glacier when the vessel ran aground. Two Coast Guard investigators went aboard the tanker, he said.
“The rock they hit is definitely not in tanker lanes,” said Coast Guard Lt. Greg Stewart in Juneau. He said the reef is about 1 ½ miles outside normal lanes.
Gonzales said employees of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the trans-Alaska oil pipeline for a consortium of oil companies, were working to contain the oil with floating booms.
Gov. Steve Cowper arrived in Valdez on Friday to evaluate the spill.
“The problem is that chemical use can have a bad effect on marine life,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough judgment call.”
Cowper said conventional responses, such as booms, probably would not work because the spill is so large. “You probably couldn’t do it (contain the spill) with all the equipment available in North America. This is a major spill by any reckoning.”