The big spill
An ocean struggles to recover a decade after the United States' worstenvironmental disaster.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.