The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
The Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, did not only have a direct effect on future oil transportation issues, but it devastated the coastal environment along southern Alaska’s shore - The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill introduction. Following the spill, oil spread over an 11,000 square mile area, making this the largest environmental catastrophe caused by man ever to occur at sea.
Summary of the Spill
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The oil Tanker Exxon Valdez spilled over 10.8 million gallons of oil into the waters of Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, after which the currents and waves washed the oil out to sea and in to shore, killing millions of marine organisms and birds. After unsuccessful cleanup methods and attempts, the United States Coast Guard had to resort to skimming the oil off of the water, which proved strenuous, and was made even more difficult by unsatisfactory weather conditions. Exxon was widely criticized for its lethargic attitude when it came to assisting in the cleanup, as the coast guard started the efforts without any help from the oil company.
Impact on the Environment
The environmental damages caused by the spill were devastating. Marine life was significantly altered, and much life in the area still shows some of the effects of the spill today. According to studies performed after the spill by the National Transportation Safety Board and environmental groups, millions of fish were killed, and between a quarter and half a million seabirds, over a thousand otters, 250 bald eagles, 22 orcas (killer whales), 300 harbor seals, and billions of fish (mostly herring and salmon) eggs were destroyed within a day of the spill. Life expectancy for marine animals in the area decreased in the years following the spill, as the oil contaminated the water and found its way into the diets of many marine and oceangoing animals. Much of the oil was never corralled, and an estimated 26 thousand gallons is still mixed in with the sand along the shore of Prince William Sound. Though Exxon Mobil denies statements made by researchers that the spill will continue to effect coastal ecosystems for decades to come, many habitats and the organisms within them have still not recovered, twenty years after the spill.
Legal Policies Following the Spill
After the spill, Alaska Law was changed to require every full oil tanker to be accompanied by two tugboats. But within a decade, a new ship was designed, with the specific purpose of escorting tankers out of Prince William Sound. Restrictions have since been placed on drilling for, and transporting oil, as people worldwide want to try their best to eliminate possibilities of future spills. The National Transportation Safety Board reviewed the incident thoroughly, and one year after the spill, congress passed the Oil Pollution Act, which prohibited vessels with a history of spills of over one million gallons of oil from operating in Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez spill occurred. Exxon responded to the OPA by allowing that it unfairly limited their ability to collect and transport oil in that area of Alaska. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute was also created after this spill.
The cleanup that followed the spill required collaboration from private companies, Exxon, The United States Coast Guard, and other government programs. First, a solvent mixture was used to try and break up the oil, but that did not work. Workers then tried an explosion technique, which broke the oil up into residue after it burned, but that technique could not be applied to the 11,000 square miles of water that was blanketed by a layer of oil. The coast guard and Exxon employees were joined by 11,000 Alaskan residents, and they began the cleanup by skimming the oil from the water, or displacing it by spraying it with hot water where it collected in coves. Displacing the oil by spraying hot water also damaged plant life and microorganisms that lived along the rocky coves where these methods were applied. Many tax dollars that were reserved for other purposes had to be spent by the state on the cleanup, as much equipment was needed, and personnel was required to man the equipment. Perhaps the only positive consequence of the spill was that it motivated people to learn the most effective response methods for cases of future spills.
New Tanker Designs to Minimize Effects of Spills
The Oil Pollution Act also required research to be done on double-hulled tankers, and now the act has a policy that only double-hulled oil vessels will be allowed into Prince William Sound. Researchers for the National Transportation Safety Board reported that if the Exxon Valdez had exhibited the double-hulled design, the spill would still likely have occurred (as the tanker ran up on a reef) but they also hypothesized that only about 40% of the oil spilled (decreased to just over four million gallons) would have been spilled, instead of the approximate 10.8 million gallons that flooded into the Alaskan waters.
To put how much oil was spilled into perspective, had that oil been refined, it would be worth approximately $20 million by today’s standards. That was the most oil to have ever been spilled in an attempt to transport the precious substance, and it not only devastated the environment, but it set forth serious restrictions and policies on oil transportation that are still developing today. The Exxon Valdez spill in Prince Edward Sound, Alaska, sparked many of the regulations and restrictions that we have today on oil transportation and collection.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. Oil Spill Facts. February 1990. http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/facts/details.cfm. 22 March 2009
Oil Spill Recovery Institute. Background of the Institute. 2008. http://www.pws-osri.org/about_osri/background.shtml. 22 March 2009.