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Exxon Valdez cleanup holds lessons for Gulf oil spill

Oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 may take centuries to disappear, says Exxon. How long will the Gulf oil spill linger?

By Yereth Rosen/ Correspondent / May 13, 2010

An Alaskan fishing boat returns from Prince William Sound. The state’s rocky shoreline still has pockets of spilled oil from the Exxon Valdez. The Gulf oil spill could have the same effect on the southeastern US coastline.

Mark Thiessen/AP


Anchorage, Alaska

Two decades after the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground and ripped open its cargo tanks, the spill still marks Alaska's environment. Pockets of fresh crude are buried in beaches scattered around Prince William Sound and segments outside it, in isolated spots along more than 1,200 miles of coastline that received oil in 1989.

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The discovery confounded earlier predictions that remnant crude would quickly weather and disperse as waves washed it into the sea.

"At this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely," concluded the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the federal-state panel that administers the $900 million civil settlement struck in 1991 between the governments and Exxon for natural resource damages.

IN PICTURES: Destructive Oil Spills

The lingering oil was a revelation to scientists like Gail Irvine of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), who found some still-fresh crude hundreds of miles away from Bligh Reef, along the Alaska Peninsula far outside Prince William Sound. "I was surprised," she says. "It was still goopy and aromatic. It was not asphalt."

The remnant oil represents a tiny fraction of the 11 million gallons that spilled – just 20,000 to 22,000 gallons, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But it is a symptom as well as a symbol of a persistent oil spill disaster.

Creatures large and small still are struggling. One pod of killer whales lost nearly half its members, has failed to reproduce, and is likely to go extinct. Another pod lost about a third of its members and is still struggling. The big schools of Pacific herring that supported a rich commercial fishery are gone. Sea otter populations in heavily oiled areas are about half as big as would be expected.

While there have been far bigger spills, the Exxon Valdez disaster ranks, by far, as the most devastating in North America to marine life. The immediate toll included hundreds of thousands of seabirds and thousands of marine mammals. Commercial fisheries were closed, and traditional native American harvests of wild foods were halted.