March 24, 1989: The Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill


The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred when an Exxon-owned oil tanker hit a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, bound for Long Beach, California.

The crash happened at 12:04 AM, spilling 10.8 million gallons of oil over the following couple days. It is considered one of the worst oil spills in the world in terms of environmental impact. It was the largest spill in U.S. waters in terms of volume released until 2010 when BP spilled nearly 210 million gallons.

The area of the spill was extremely remote and was only accessible by helicopter, plane or boat, and thus, response efforts were difficult. The area is home to salmon, sea otters, seals and seabirds. The oil affected over 1,300 miles of coastline.


In any incident this vast and terrible, many factors contributed to the devastation.

One of the primary issues was that the crew was not rested or sufficient to be manning the ship. It was later determined that poorly rested crews were common in the industry, and safety regulations were adjusted accordingly after the disaster.

Because of this, the third mate failed to maneuver the ship properly. Be it because of excessive workload or fatigue, if you are planning to have someone in charge of transporting over 50 million gallons of oil across the ocean, you should ensure they have what they need to do it properly.

Those factors lead to the crash, but the devastation still did not have to be as extensive. One additional factor was that Exxon did not properly maintain their collision avoidance radar. Had it been working properly, the third mate would have been alerted of a potential collision with the reef.

Captain Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the ship, was reported to have been drinking that night, and was not at his controls when the ship struck the reef. Exxon placed most of the blame on him, but he accused them of making him a scapegoat. He was eventually cleared of the charge of being intoxicated after witnesses testified that he was sober at the time of the accident.

Beyond those issues, the ship was not informed that tracking ships out to the reef that was hit was ceased, the oil industry promised but never fulfilled iceberg monitoring equipment, the ship was sailing outside of the normal lane to avoid small icebergs in the area, and vessel inspections were not performed on the ship. Lack of available equipment and staff hampered the cleanup, as well.


The various problems that lined up perfectly the night of the crash can explain why 10.8 million gallons of oil ended up in the ocean, but many blunders afterward can explain the further devastation.

On March 24, the same day as the spill, chemical dispersant was dispersed over the water via helicopter, but the helicopter missed the target area. Additionally, the public, including landowners, fishing groups and conservation organizations were not accepting of widespread chemical treatment, thinking it could just make the problem worse.

And they were probably right. According to a report by David Kirby, the main component of the formulation used during cleanup could be traced to liver, kidney, lung, nervous system and blood disorders in those who helped with the cleanup efforts in Alaska.

Booms and skimmers were used to begin the mechanical cleanup, but they were not available until nearly 24 hours after the spill. And even once they were working, kelp and the thickness of the oil clogged the equipment. Only 10% of the oil was completely cleaned.

Exxon was criticized extensively for the accident, and for their slow response to cleaning up their mess. More than 11,000 Alaskan residents and some Exxon employees worked extremely hard to restore the environment.

The cleanup continued to hit snags. Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves, collecting the oil. The plan was to displace it with high-pressure hot water, but in an unexpected side effect of the decision, it displaced and destroyed the microbial populations that lived on the shoreline, including plankton. These organisms are the base of the marine food chain. At the time, the pressure was about getting everything cleaned up - this direction was coming both from scientists and the public - but in the aftermath, they realized the detrimental effects on the food chain.

Long and short term effects have been studied since the spill. Right away, between 100,000 and 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles and 22 orcas were killed. It is unknown how many salmon and herring died, but it is assumed that it was significant.

A study by the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that in 2001, nearly 90 tonnes of oil remained on the beaches. The remaining oil lasted longer than experts anticipated, and the long-term loss of certain animals continued in a way that was not expected. Experiments showed that levels as low as one per billion of the particles in the oil could be toxic for salmon and herring eggs. Sea otters, ducks and orcas continue to suffer long-term effects. Some shoreline habitats could take up to 30 years to recover in full.

ExxonMobil, however, denied concerns over the remaining oil, saying they had conducted many studies that proved that Prince William Sound had fully recovered and was healthy and thriving.

In 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the spill, scientists reported that some species had, indeed, recovered. The sea otter was the latest creature to return to pre-spill numbers. But scientists have been monitoring the area for the last 25 years to learn the affects, and report that concern remains for one type of local orca whale, believing that one pod may die out.

Scientists also believe that between 16,000 and 21,000 gallons of oil remain on the beaches, and up to 450 miles away from the spill site. The oil doesn't appear to have biodegraded at all. The US government still owes $92 million to Alaska from the original court settlement, and that would be used to clean up the oiled beaches, and attempt to restore the herring population.


In the case of Exxon v. Baker, a jury awarded $287 million for actual damages and $5 billion for punitive damages. Exxon appealed the ruling for the punitive damages, and it was brought down to $4 billion instead. Exxon appealed again, and the punitive damages were brought back up to $4.5 billion. After further appeals and back and forth, Exxon got it down to $2.5 billion, which they appealed again. They appealed up to the Supreme Court, which vacated the $2.5 billion and remanded the case back down to a lower court. They eventually were charged with $507.5 million. In one of the trials, it was said that ExxonMobil was "worse than negligent but less than malicious".

As of December 15, 2009, Exxon had paid the entire $507.5 million in punitive damages.

After the spill, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute was formed. The US congress also passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which prohibited any vessel that had caused a spill of more than 1 million gallons from operating in Prince William Sound. Alaska governor Steve Cowper also issued an executive order requiring tugboats to escort every loaded tanker through the Sound.

According to studies done by the state of Alaska, the spill had effects not just on the marine population, but the state of Alaska as well, including the loss of recreational sports, fisheries, and reduced tourism. The economy of the city of Cordova, Alaska was affected, as stocks in salmon and herring were damaged.

In 2010, a CNN report alleged that those who helped clean up the spill became sick, and a lawyer in Anchorage found it was true for 6,722 of 11,000 worker files. However, Exxon owns the records and they responded with a statement that there was no evidence anyone became sick.

Despite the changes made after this disastrous incident, oil spills still occur, most notably the horrific BP oil spill in 2010. Oil is extremely important in the U.S. and many livelihoods are affected by the transport of oil to where it needs to go, but it is clear that you are playing with fire when transporting millions of gallons of oil over the homes of marine life. This disaster affected so many people, but also so many animals, and I hope it is something we can continue to learn from, 31 years later.



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