Exxon Valdez: An Oil Spill Nightmare

The Exxon Valdez sits in place in Prince Williams Sound after running aground. The Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 23, 1989 spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil, which resulted in the largest oil spill in U.S. history. U.S. Coast Guard photo. - See more at: http://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2015/07/225-years-of-service-to-nation-marine-environmental-protection/#sthash.gORqxpCD.dpuf
The Exxon Valdez sits in place in Prince Williams Sound after running aground. The Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil, which resulted in the largest oil spill in U.S. history. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Today is the 27th anniversary of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and subsequent oil spill.

Here are some things you may not know about the environmental disaster.

The supertanker was carrying about 55 million gallons of crude oil from Valdez, Alaska, to Long Beach, California. Valdez is the southern end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

It left Valdez at 9:12 p.m. on March 23, 1989, and headed out through the Valdez Narrows. After clearing the narrows, the harbor pilot left the ship and returned to port, leaving the ship in the hands of its crew, captained by Joseph Hazelwood.

According to the official report from the state of Alaska, the Exxon Valdez left the outbound traffic lane due to ice in the water, crossing the separation zone and entering the inbound lane in Prince William Sound. This wasn’t a problem as there were no inbound ships that night. At 11:39, with the ship in the separation zone, Hazelwood ordered a course change to 180 degrees. At 11:47, the ship left the eastern boundary of the traffic lanes. At 11:53, the captain left the bridge, leaving third mate Gregory Cousins as the only officer in the wheelhouse, which was a violation of company policy. A few minutes after midnight, the lookout spotted the Bligh Reef Light broad off the starboard bow, or 45 degrees ahead to the right. The light should have been on the port side. Cousins gave a rudder command for a course change and called the captain to report the situation. At the end of the conversation, at 12:04 a.m., the crew felt six sharp jolts as the tanker ran aground.

Eight of the ship’s 11 cargo tanks had been punctured, and about 5.8 million gallons of oil leaked in the first three hours and 15 minutes.

Estimates place the total amount of oil spilled at between 11 million and 32 million gallons. The spill covered 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean. As many as a quarter-million seabirds died, along with 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles and 22 orcas.

The National Transportation Safety Board found five major causes of the disaster: Failure of the third mate to properly maneuver the vessel; failure of the master to provide a proper navigation watch, possibly from impairment from alcohol; failure of Exxon to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew; failure of the Coast Guard to provide an effective vessel traffic system; and the lack of effective pilot and escort services.

During a trial following the disaster, Hazelwood was accused of being drunk. He admitted to having two or three vodkas between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. and his blood alcohol content was found to be .061. His defense argued that the test was taken too long after the incident and that the samples were mishandled. He was found not guilty of all felony charges. He was convicted of a misdemeanor, negligent discharge of oil, and fined $50,000 and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service.

Exxon was sued and was found liable for the spill and paid $900 million in damages. Most of the wildlife populations have since recovered to pre-spill levels. A few, such as the marbled murrelet and Pacific herring have not recovered.

The Exxon Valdez spill was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters until 2010 when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico released 210 million gallons of oil.

Our question, who is Bligh Reef named after?

Today is World Tuberculosis Day.

It’s National Cocktail Day and National Chocolate Covered Raisins Day.

It’s the birthday of magician Harry Houdini, illustrator Joseph Barbera and actor Steve McQueen.

We did 1989 earlier this week, so we’ll move one year forward to 1990.

This week in 1990, the top song in the U.S. was “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles.

The No. 1 movie was “The  Hunt for Red October,” while “The Bourne Ultimatum” by Robert Ludlum topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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