The big spill
An ocean struggles to recover a decade after the United States' worstenvironmental disaster.
VALDEZ, ALASKA — It was just past midnight on a Good Friday, a clear, calm night in Alaska's Prince William Sound, when the tanker captain's voice crackled over the radio.
"We've fetched up - ah - hard aground north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef, and - ah - evidently leaking some oil," Joseph Hazelwood told the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office back in Valdez, a somber resignation in his tone. "We're gonna be here for a while."
"Some oil" turned out to be an estimated 11 million gallons of North Slope crude bound for Los Angeles and now oozing out of the ruptured 987-foot Exxon Valdez in what would become the United States' worst environmental disaster.
The sight of cleanup workers futilely trying to hose off oiled rocks and gathering the carcasses of dead seals and birds shocked a world hungry for the oil that heats its homes and powers its vehicles.
But that 1989 event also has spurred new laws and procedures designed to prevent future spills and to respond more quickly and effectively if one should occur. It's also provided scientists with an unprecedented laboratory for studying the effects of marine pollution.
Motoring over the sound on a sparkling late-winter day with bush pilot Patrick Kearney, snow-capped Chugach Mountains plummeting to dark blue waters as a stunning backdrop, the sound today looks as healthy as ever. But some Exxon Valdez oil from 10 years ago still can be found here, lodged under rocks on places like Knight Island.
"You can actually see a sheen coming off the beaches on a hot summer day," says Mark King, a fisherman from Cordova who's had his own boat since he was 13.
Campers and kayakers still avoid parts of the shoreline. And according to government scientists, the oil continues to hamper the recovery of what once was pristine habitat for countless seals, shore birds, killer whales, salmon, and other species.
"The ecosystem is well on its way to recovery, but the long-term impacts on individual populations may take decades to fully heal," says Molly McCammon, executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, a coalition of federal and state agencies set up in 1991 to oversee restoration efforts.
In fact, according to the council's latest findings, only two of 23 injured species - bald eagles and river otters - have fully recovered. Pink salmon, Pacific herring, sea otters, and mussels are making a comeback. But harbor seals, killer whales, and harlequin ducks "are showing little or no clear improvement since spill injuries occurred," says the council.
But Exxon - which hired its own scientists - maintains that "the environment in Prince William Sound is healthy, robust, and thriving."
"Certainly there were severe short-term impacts on many species due to the spilled oil, and they suffered damages," acknowledges the Texas-based oil company, which paid nearly $3 billion in cleanup and compensation costs (but is appealing a $5 billion punitive award to fishermen, native Americans, and Alaskan communities). "But there has been no long-term damage caused by the spilled oil."
No one disputes the spill's death toll during the spring and summer of 1989 as thick oil spread over 10,000 square miles, contaminating a national forest, four national wildlife refuges, three national parks, five state parks, four "critical habitat areas," and a state game sanctuary along 1,500 miles of Alaska shoreline. Casualties included 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, as many as 22 killer whales, and an estimated quarter-million seabirds. It's unclear how many billions of salmon and herring eggs and intertidal plants succumbed to oil smothering.
One reason is that no one knows exactly how much oil leaked for the 10 hours before help arrived and days afterward. The Coast Guard says "more than 11 million gallons." Some who helped clean it up say more than 30 million gallons of the 53 million gallons on board could have been lost. The difference is important, because penalties against Exxon were based on the size of the spill, as were new regulations for spill prevention.
In any case, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Auk Bay fisheries laboratory in Juneau found oil to be "much more toxic and persistent in the environment than previously thought."
"The results from the long-term studies following the spill have surprised us," these scientists reported recently. "Oil is 100 times more toxic to developing fish than previously thought," meaning that very small amounts - parts per billion, or the equivalent of a teaspoon in an Olympic-sized swimming pool - are believed to cause genetic damage resulting in "higher mortality rates in eggs, more deformed juveniles, and less growth and survival in adults."
"This spill has basically changed the way we understand the effects of oil in a marine ecosystem," says Riki Ott, a marine biologist whose doctoral studies at the University of Washington in Seattle focused on ocean pollution. "We understand now that oil is toxic at way lower levels, and it causes multigenerational effects."
Government scientists think this is why wild salmon and herring runs remain below historic levels. Both fish are commercially valuable, and their initial "crash" and incomplete recovery have meant continuing bad news for thousands of fishermen.
But beyond the impact on human livelihoods, the herring situation has been felt across the ecosystem. Herring are high-calorie, high-fat fish preferred by harbor seals and many seabirds - animals farther up the food chain who have yet to fully recover.
Studies also show that some intertidal mussel beds here still are contaminated. Mussels can withstand the pollution, but the animals that feed on them - such as juvenile sea otters and harlequin ducks - continue to have elevated levels of mortality in places hardest hit by the spill.
Part of the argument over the degree of recovery stems from a lack of pre-spill baseline scientific knowledge of Prince William Sound. Among other things, the area has seen a slight rise in average temperatures in recent years that may be having an effect on wildlife here beyond that caused by oil pollution.
Ocean as a petri dish
Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says, "It really is a myth that the oceans are so vast that we can't affect them."
"The reality is that we are changing the chemistry of the oceans, we're changing the physical structure, and we're changing the biology of oceans - especially coastal systems," says Dr. Lubchenco. "And the sum total of those changes has not really been appreciated by most folks."
Here in Prince William Sound, those changes are very much appreciated as the restoration work continues.
And whatever became of the Exxon Valdez? Ten years later, the infamous ship has been renamed the SeaRiver Mediterranean, banished from Alaskan waters, and now carries Mideast oil to European ports.
Ex-captain Hazelwood, now working as a claims adjuster in a New York law office, soon will begin 1,000 hours of community service picking up trash along Alaskan highways. He was cleared of a charge of piloting the tanker while drunk, but was convicted of negligently discharging oil. A great deal of oil.