It’s evening and the Exxon Valdez supertanker is leaving the Alyeska Pipeline terminal in Alaska. The supertanker is carrying nearly 1.3 million barrels of crude oil. The waters are icy and the captain decides to sail outside the shipping lane to avoid the ice. He leaves the bridge and puts the third mate in charge. The man who is left alone makes an incorrect manoeuvre because he is overworked and tired. Not until it is too late does he discover that the ship is headed for the shallow Bligh Reef. Just past midnight, the supertanker runs aground with massive force, ripping parts of the hull. Mere hours later, the U.S. Coast Guard approaches the Exxon Valdez through a sea covered in thick oil. Once on board, they quickly estimated how much crude oil had already leaked out. The number they arrived at was daunting. Before six in the morning on the day of the accident, nine million barrels of oil had already leaked into the sea. The final count ended up at 11 million barrels. One of the largest oil spills in history was a fact.
“ The accident had huge consequences due to the massive spill in a highly vulnerable environment. Difficult weather conditions, geographic location and what turned out to be poor emergency preparedness, led to the extensive spread of oil and major ecological consequences,” says CEO Ann-Helen Ernstsen at the Norwegian Centre for Oil Spill Preparedness and Marine Environment.
A preparedness nightmare
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established the Office of Response and Restoration in 1976. The Office’s responsibilities include preparedness and monitoring against threats to the marine environment in the US. In their report 25 years after the accident, the lack of preparedness is described as “a nightmare of bad preparation and execution”. The staff that Valdez harbour was supposed to provide were on holiday. The equipment was in poor condition due to lack of maintenance. Furthermore, the equipment was not in the correct location and no one had trained much on how to use it. This delayed the response to prevent the spill from spreading. Different types of dispersants (substances that dissolve oil) were used, but with little effect. On 25 March, the collected oil was ignited, which turned out to be an effective method in this situation. The following day, a storm prevented the plan of further ignition. The storm also reduced the effect of oil booms and other equipment, and the crude oil spread over a geographic area measuring well over 1000 kilometres.
The ecological consequences
The numbers say it all when it comes to the immediate effect that the oil spill had on the ecology in the Prince William Sound, a clear illustration of just how much can be lost immediately following a spill. According to final calculations, 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 otters, 300 seals, 22 orcas and billions of salmon and herring eggs were lost in the actual spill. The long-term effects of the oil spill are being monitored and there is still oil in the ground along the Sound. Many species had recovered 25 years after the spill, while a handful of species are still affected. The orcas are at risk of extinction and the herring population, which plays a major role in the ecosystem, collapsed four years after the spill and has still not recovered. However, there is considerable disagreement regarding whether the oil spill is the sole cause as regards the herring population. Species along the Sound are also more vulnerable to disease, which could indicate that the environment is still under stress due to the spill. There is also considerable variation from place to place and depending on the methods used in the clean-up. For example, boiling water was flushed along the coastline to remove the oil, which killed all living organisms in the ground and ultimately proved to be ineffective in removing the oil. The only thing that was achieved was improving the appearance on the surface.
“The Exxon Valdez accident demonstrates the importance of continued work on oil spill preparedness, and the particular importance of focusing on the challenges that such spills can cause in vulnerable environments in the Arctic. The environmental consequences in these areas could be particularly serious,” says Ann-Helen Ernstsen.