Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

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In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on Bligh Reefin Prince William Sound, Alaska.An eighteen foot wide hole was ripped into thehull, and 10.9 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the ocean.In thefollowing weeks, many things transpired.This paper will discuss the cleanup,the damage, and the results of the biggest oil spill in United States history.

On March 24, 1989, in Prince William Sound Alaska,the Exxon Valdez wasmoving South West after leavingPort Valdez.The ship was carrying over fiftymillion gallons of crude oil.When the Valdez was only twenty-eight miles fromthe port, it ran aground on Bligh reef.The bottom was ripped open, and 10.9million gallons of North Slope Crude Oilspilled into the frozen Alaskan watersat a rate of two hundred thousandgallons per minute.The remaining forty-twomillion gallons were off loaded.In the ensuing days, more than 1,200 miles ofshoreline were hit with oil.This area included four National Wildlife Refugees,three National Parks, and Chugach National Forest.

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Within hours, smaller tanker vessels arrived in order to off load theremaining oil.Unfortunately, the cleanup effort was hindered by an inadequatecleanup plan that had been created during the 1970’s.These plans outlined howan oil spill would be handled, including provisions for maintaining equipmentsuch as containment booms and “skimmer boats.”The plans also called for aresponse team to be on twenty-four hour notice.Unfortunately, the plans weregood on paper only.A spill of this size had not been anticipated.Therefore,the response teams had been demobilized, and the equipment that was supposed tobe ready at all times was either too far away or nonexistent..Precious hourswere also wasted as Corporations, the Alaskan State Government, and the Nationalgovernment argued over who should take control of the situation.The argumentsensued after debates over who would pay for what, who was responsible for what,and who would do the best job.

The local fishermen were a big help with the cleanup effort.Theybattled with the oil in order to protect their industry.Many fisherman wereseen in row-boats in the small coastal inlets.The fishermen worked by hand toclean up the oil, usingbuckets to scoop up the oil, which was several inchesthick on top of the water in some places.Fishermen would leave in the morningand return when their boat was filled with oil.The oil that they scooped outwas then deposited at special collection sites.The fishermen also used theirboats to help with the deployment of containment booms.The booms would befastened behind the boats and then dragged into place.However, the booms werenot always helpful do to choppy seas.Many fishermen also became temporaryemployees of Exxon, receiving excellent pay on an hourly basis.

The cleanup was a long and tiring process which was plagued by manydifficulties.Inexperience was a major problem.Coast Guard Vice Admiral ClydeRobbins explained in disgust that, “It was almost as if that spill was the firstone that they had ever had.”The equipment was not ready and not in perfectshape and the response teams were not equipped to deal with a spill of themagnitude that occurred.Other difficulties arose due to the format that wasused by the executive committee in charge of the cleanup spill.They had setthemselves up in such a way that every member of the committee had veto power. This was a result of the original conflicts that took place between corporationsthe state government and the National government.It was nearly impossible toget all of the members of the committee to agree onone particular plan ofaction.

The natural factors also made the cleanup a difficult process.TheAlaskan wilderness is a rugged country.Rocky shorelines made beach workdifficult, and the cold weather made working long hours very difficult.Anotherproblem with the cold weather was that it prevented the oil from breaking down. Under normal weather conditions, the oil would have began to decompose, whichwould have made it easier to deal with.There were also problems with highwinds, which were often in excess in of forty knots.Perhaps the mostinteresting problem that cleanup workers had to deal with was with the wildlife. There was actually one reported case of an Alaskan brown bear attacking a workerthat was on the beach.All of these factors combined to make the cleanup moredifficult then anticipated.

The cleanup process was probably the most expensive oil spill cleanup inhistory.However, the total cost is unknown and still growing.Exxon paid morethan five billion dollars, including twenty million to study the spill.Part ofthe reason that the cleanup effort was so expensive was the amount of workersthat were used in the effort.Exxon had approximately eleven thousand men andwomen on its payroll, including temporary workers.The average worker received$16.69 per hour.Although there was no set number of hours that the workerscompeted per week, one thousand eight hundred dollars was a normal paycheck forone week.Exxon was also in need of many small boats tohelp with thedeployment of containment buoys, and to be used as floating observation stations.

Local fisherman charged up to eight thousand a day for the usage of their boats. This combined with their hourly wages made cleaning up after the oil spill moreprofitable then fishing on a daily basis for many people.They could receivemore money in a shorter amount of time, doing less strenuous work.Anotherexpensive aspect of the cleanup effort was in dealing with oil soaked wildlife. It is estimated that the cost of saving one otter was $40,000.This is due tothe amount of people required, transporting the animal to a cleanup site, andthe rehabilitation process.As I said earlier, the total economic cost of thespill is still unknown and still growing.This is also true about theenvironmental cost.Millions of animals in the spill area were killed, as wellas plants and microorganisms.Studies are still taking place to asses thedamage that was caused by the spill.These studies will continue far into thefuture also.

In the end, the cleanup effort was relatively successful.Perhaps themost successful part of the cleanup involved an experimental technique.Thistechnique involved the use of Inopol EAP22.Inopol22 is a nitrogen phosphorousfertilizer mix.The compound is sprayed on oil that has been washed up onbeaches.The fertilizer then encourages the growth of”oil eating” bacteriawhich naturally exist in small numbers.The Inopol technique was verysuccessful, but it was not widely used due to uncertainty as to the possibleside effects.Later studies showed the side effects to be negligible.Othermore standard techniques were used as well.The technique that was used toclean the beaches involved concentrating oil on the shoreline.This is done byusing powerful pumps to move sea water up the beach.This water then flowsthrough a perforated hose on high ground that runs parallel to the water front. This creates a continuos flow of water to push the oil downhill towards theshore line.

High pressure hoses spray one hundred forty degree water to “blast”the oil of the rocks.This oil is also moved down hill towards the shore line. Cold water is used at the shore line to move the oil towards a central point,where it can be collected by skimmer vessels.Containment booms were also usedto “corral” the oil.The booms, which are large pieces of rubber are draggedbetween two boats.The booms extend a foot or more under the surface in orderto collect all of the oil.The oil is condensed, and then collected by skimmerboats.The cleanup effort after the Exxon Valdez spill was very intense.Oneworker exclaimed, “Everything frompaper towels to kitchen utensils are beingused.”The most publicized aspect of the Exxon Valdez spill was the damage tothe wildlife in the surrounding area, especially the animals.Hundreds of birds,sea otters, fish, shell fish, and marine mammals were killed.

More than eighty-eight species of birds were affected by the spill.Onehundred thousand birds are believed to been killed, including more than onehundred fifty bald eagles.The majority of these birds died due to hypothermia. After their feathers became soaked with oil, they lost their insulating ability,which then led to hypothermia.Another cause of death for the birds is anemia. When oil gets into the blood stream, it causes the red blood cells to “wrinkle”which causes anemia.

More than seven thousand sea otters were killed also.This is asignificant proportion of the total sea otter population.The sea otters werekilled by a variety of conditions including hypothermia.Many otters werekilled as a result of oil getting into the blood stream.When the oil gets intothe blood, it could cause a variety of things to happen.It could cause nosebleeds due to blood thinning, which then lead to infection.It could causeliver and kidney damage, because these are the organs which attempt to clean theoil out of the system.Damage to these organs would lead to death.It couldalso lead to emphysema which compromises the diving ability of the otters andeventually leads to death.Another cause of death is blindness.If oil were toget into an otter’s eye it could cause blindness which would then causestarvation.

Fish were also effected by the oil spill, however, the extent of thecasualties is unknown.Fishing is a huge industry in Alaska, so there has beenmuch concern over the welfare of the fish.Many natives also live bysubsistence fishing.Pink salmon and herring were the two species that peoplewere most concerned about.Pink salmon is the biggest commercial fish inAlaskan waters, many people were afraid that the salmon population would needyears to recover, however, studies have shown that the effect of the oil onspawning, eggs, and fry was negligible.Chromatography tests have also shownthat there are no hydrocarbons in the flesh of most of the fish.Those that dohave hydrocarbons in their flesh have a level that is so low as to be measuredin the parts per billion range.Herring is also a huge commercial fish inAlaska.The 1988 catch yielded twelve point three million dollars.In 1989,after the spill, herring was declared “off limits” to fishermen.However, thiswas compensated by a salmon catch that was six times as big as it had been in1988.In 1990, when herring fishing resumed, it returned to normal levels.Thedamage to the fishing industry was not nearly as bad as had been anticipated. Usha Varanasi, director of the NOAA’s .

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Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. (2019, May 16). Retrieved from


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