30th anniversary: Exxon Valdez oil spill lessons and legacies
Thirty years ago this Sunday, on its way out of the Port of Valdez, the first sign of trouble came on the radio from the skipper of the Exxon Valdez.
“We’ve fetched up, ah, hard aground north of, ah, Goose Island, off Bligh Reef, and evidently leaking some oil,” Capt. Joe Hazelwood said over the radio.
The ship ran aground at 12:04 a.m. Hazelwood’s call came in 20 minutes later. Not long afterward, Coast Guard Commander Steve McCall got on the radio with Hazelwood who told him he had tried to rock the ship off the underwater ridge it was lodged upon. McCall urged him not to.
“Before you make any drastic attempt to get underway, you make sure you don't start doing any ripping. You got a rising tide,” McCall warned. “You got another about an hour and a half worth of tide in your favor. Ah, once you hit that max, ah, I wouldn't recommend ah, ah doing much wiggling.”
The ship was headed to Long Beach to deliver 53 million gallons of crude. Ultimately about 11 million gallons leaked into Prince William Sound from a gash in the hull. From Valdez, the oil spread about 460 miles to Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula and soiled more than a 1,300 miles of coastline.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council puts the estimated wildlife death toll in the disaster’s wake at 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and about a quarter of a million seabirds, not to mention billions of salmon and herring eggs.
Exxon fired Hazelwood, who a Coast Guard officer said smelled of alcohol when he arrived on scene. The company spent more than $2 Billion cleaning up the spill.
Today, the Exxon Mobil Corp. is one of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas companies.
When KTVA requested an interview, we received a statement from Rebecca Arnold, Exxon’s corporate media advisor.
“We deeply regret the incident," the statement said. "While it was a low point in our long history, it also served as a turning point and catalyst that prompted our management to completely reevaluate how the company understands and manages risk. Our management’s charge was simple and sweeping: When it comes to people, facilities, and especially the environment, safety would come first – period.”
The statement also said that Exxon, by putting safety first, had strengthened its business, but the community of Cordova, one of the hardest hit by the spill, took little comfort in that sentiment.
Although no oil touched its shores, Cordova’s economy, which was heavily dependent on commercial fishing, was nearly destroyed.
"So March 24th 1989. I think most of us remember that day,” Rev. Belle Mickelson said in a sermon delivered before the spill anniversary. "The sun was out. The sun was shining. And 50 miles away from us the ocean was covered in black goo. Animals were dying."
Mickelson, who is the rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Cordova, talked about how she and other fishermen who helped to clean up the spill experienced post traumatic stress after seeing so many animals and birds die from the oil, which until the Deep Water Horizon blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico, was one of the worst spills in U.S. history.
Despite all of that, Mickelson’s message for the 30th anniversary of the spill is one of reconciliation.
"One of the things that Jesus tells us is really important and really hard, is that we need to forgive. We need to forgive the oil companies. We need to work together with them to build a better world," Mickelson said.
While some in Cordova may be ready to forgive, they say they will never forget. Dave Janka, owner of Auklet Tours, has traveled Prince William Sound in his boat, tracking and documenting where spilled oil remains. He remembers when he first saw the spill.
"The lack of any activity was startling,” Janka said. “It was calm for three days where a lot of work could have been done.”
Janka now helps with research projects and gives natural history tours in his boat. He says the oil still lingers, just beneath the rocks on nearby islands.
"It's still toxic. Not much different than what the oil was like just a few days after the spill,” Janka said. "We've got to keep paying attention."
Tom Barrett, president of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, says he doubts the oil will be gone, even by the 40th anniversary of the spill.
“They've made a conscious decision, at least for now, that to try to get it up might do more harm than good,” Barrett said.
Alyeska, which is owned by the major oil companies, operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the Valdez oil terminal.
Barrett says he doesn’t believe a spill like the Exxon Valdez would happen in Prince William Sound today, not like it did in 1989, mainly due to the requirement that oil tankers have double hulls.
“So if it happened today, the tanker might have gone up on the reef; if it did, it wouldn't hole. It would be tethered when it goes out there,” Barrett said. “We have a tug tethered to it at that point in the transit. It would keep it in the shipping lane, or where it is supposed to be.”
Barrett says a culture of safety has evolved today, in which the focus is on prevention.
“Once oil gets in the water, it's very hard to deal with, even the best stuff,” Barrett said. “We've the best skimmers. We practice and drill. We've got the vessels to help us near shore.”
While it’s good to mark the anniversary, Barrett says it’s important to look ahead because today’s threats are very different than 1989.
“If we focus totally, from a risk profile point of view, on the Exxon Valdez, we're going miss the next thing," he said.
Rick Steiner, a conservation biologist who was on scene in the first days of the spill and continues to track it, says complacency remains the enemy.
“One pre-eminent lesson we learned from Exxon Valdez is you have to be vigilant in preventing these things in the first place. Once they’ve happened, you’ve lost the battle. There’s never been a major marine oil spill cleaned-up,” he said. “I remember one Native elder that year, called it ‘the day the water died,’ and that sort of summed it up.”
Steiner says the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, a watchdog group formed after the spill, is one of the success stories that came out of the disaster.
“It allows me to go to sleep at night knowing the council is there, holding the feet to the fire of government and industry — to make absolutely certain that they’ve got the best system in place.” he said.
One of the ironies, Steiner said, is that a local citizens advisory council tried to form two years prior to the spill but met resistance from the oil industry, the state government and the Coast Guard.
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