In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. An eighteen foot wide hole was ripped into the hull, and 10.9 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the ocean. In the following weeks, many things transpired. This paper will discuss the cleanup, the damage, and the results of the biggest oil spill in United States history.
On March 24, 1989, in Prince William Sound Alaska, the Exxon Valdez was moving South West after leaving Port Valdez. The ship was carrying over fifty million gallons of crude oil. When the Valdez was only twenty-eight miles from the port, it ran aground on Bligh reef. The bottom was ripped open, and 10.9 million gallons of North Slope Crude Oil spilled into the frozen Alaskan waters at a rate of two hundred thousand gallons per minute. The remaining forty-two million gallons were off loaded. In the ensuing days, more than 1,200 miles of shoreline were hit with oil. This area included four National Wildlife Refugees, three National Parks, and Chugach National Forest.
Within hours, smaller tanker vessels arrived in order to off load the remaining oil. Unfortunately, the cleanup effort was hindered by an inadequate cleanup plan that had been created during the 1970’s. These plans outlined how an oil spill would be handled, including provisions for maintaining equipment such as containment booms and “skimmer boats.” The plans also called for a response team to be on twenty-four hour notice. Unfortunately, the plans were good on paper only. A spill of this size had not been anticipated. Therefore, the response teams had been demobilized, and the equipment that was supposed to be ready at all times was either too far away or nonexistent.. Precious hours were also wasted as Corporations, the Alaskan State Government, and the National government argued over who should take control of the situation. The arguments ensued after debates over who would pay for what, who was responsible for what, and who would do the best job.
The local fishermen were a big help with the cleanup effort. They battled with the oil in order to protect their industry. Many fisherman were seen in row-boats in the small coastal inlets. The fishermen worked by hand to clean up the oil, using buckets to scoop up the oil, which was several inches thick on top of the water in some places. Fishermen would leave in the morning and return when their boat was filled with oil. The oil that they scooped out was then deposited at special collection sites. The fishermen also used their boats to help with the deployment of containment booms. The booms would be fastened behind the boats and then dragged into place. However, the booms were not always helpful do to choppy seas. Many fishermen also became temporary employees of Exxon, receiving excellent pay on an hourly basis.
The cleanup was a long and tiring process which was plagued by many difficulties. Inexperience was a major problem. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Clyde Robbins explained in disgust that, “It was almost as if that spill was the first one that they had ever had.” The equipment was not ready and not in perfect shape and the response teams were not equipped to deal with a spill of the magnitude that occurred. Other difficulties arose due to the format that was used by the executive committee in charge of the cleanup spill. They had set themselves up in such a way that every member of the committee had veto power. This was a result of the original conflicts that took place between corporations the state government and the National government. It was nearly impossible to get all of the members of the committee to agree on one particular plan of action.
The natural factors also made the cleanup a difficult process. The Alaskan wilderness is a rugged country. Rocky shorelines made beach work difficult, and the cold weather made working long hours very difficult. Another problem with the cold weather was that it prevented the oil from breaking down. Under normal weather conditions, the oil would have began to decompose, which would have made it easier to deal with. There were also problems with high winds, which were often in excess in of forty knots. Perhaps the most interesting problem that cleanup workers had to deal with was with the wildlife. There was actually one reported case of an Alaskan brown bear attacking a worker that was on the beach. All of these factors combined to make the cleanup more difficult then anticipated.
The cleanup process was probably the most expensive oil spill cleanup in history. However, the total cost is unknown and still growing. Exxon paid more than five billion dollars, including twenty million to study the spill. Part of the reason that the cleanup effort was so expensive was the amount of workers that were used in the effort. Exxon had approximately eleven thousand men and women on its payroll, including temporary workers. The average worker received $16.69 per hour. Although there was no set number of hours that the workers competed per week, one thousand eight hundred dollars was a normal paycheck for one week. Exxon was also in need of many small boats to help with the deployment of containment buoys, and to be used as floating observation stations. Local fisherman charged up to eight thousand a day for the usage of their boats. This combined with their hourly wages made cleaning up after the oil spill more profitable then fishing on a daily basis for many people. They could receive more money in a shorter amount of time, doing less strenuous work. Another expensive aspect of the cleanup effort was in dealing with oil soaked wildlife. It is estimated that the cost of saving one otter was $40,000. This is due to the amount of people required, transporting the animal to a cleanup site, and the rehabilitation process. As I said earlier, the total economic cost of the spill is still unknown and still growing. This is also true about the environmental cost. Millions of animals in the spill area were killed, as well as plants and microorganisms. Studies are still taking place to assess the damage that was caused by the spill. These studies will continue far into the future also.
In the end, the cleanup effort was relatively successful. Perhaps the most successful part of the cleanup involved an experimental technique. This technique involved the use of Inopol EAP22. Inopol22 is a nitrogen phosphorous fertilizer mix. The compound is sprayed on oil that has been washed up on beaches. The fertilizer then encourages the growth of “oil eating” bacteria which naturally exist in small numbers. The Inopol technique was very successful, but it was not widely used due to uncertainty as to the possible side effects. Later studies showed the side effects to be negligible. Other more standard techniques were used as well. The technique that was used to clean the beaches involved concentrating oil on the shoreline. This is done by using powerful pumps to move sea water up the beach. This water then flows through a perforated hose on high ground that runs parallel to the water front. This creates a continuos flow of water to push the oil downhill towards the shore line. High pressure hoses spray one hundred forty degree water to “blast” the oil of the rocks. This oil is also moved down hill towards the shore line. Cold water is used at the shore line to move the oil towards a central point, where it can be collected by skimmer vessels. Containment booms were also used to “corral” the oil. The booms, which are large pieces of rubber are dragged between two boats. The booms extend a foot or more under the surface in order to collect all of the oil. The oil is condensed, and then collected by skimmer boats. The cleanup effort after the Exxon Valdez spill was very intense. One worker exclaimed, “Everything from paper towels to kitchen utensils are being used.”
The most publicized aspect of the Exxon Valdez spill was the damage to the wildlife in the surrounding area, especially the animals. Hundreds of birds, sea otters, fish, shell fish, and marine mammals were killed.
More than eighty-eight species of birds were affected by the spill. One hundred thousand birds are believed to been killed, including more than one hundred fifty bald eagles. The majority of these birds died due to hypothermia. After their feathers became soaked with oil, they lost their insulating ability, which then led to hypothermia. Another cause of death for the birds is anemia. When oil gets into the blood stream, it causes the red blood cells to “wrinkle” which causes anemia.
More than seven thousand sea otters were killed also. This is a significant proportion of the total sea otter population. The sea otters were killed by a variety of conditions including hypothermia. Many otters were killed as a result of oil getting into the blood stream. When the oil gets into the blood, it could cause a variety of things to happen. It could cause nose bleeds due to blood thinning, which then lead to infection. It could cause liver and kidney damage, because these are the organs which attempt to clean the oil out of the system. Damage to these organs would lead to death. It could also lead to emphysema which compromises the diving ability of the otters and eventually leads to death. Another cause of death is blindness. If oil were to get into an otter’s eye it could cause blindness which would then cause starvation.
Fish were also affected by the oil spill, however, the extent of the casualties is unknown. Fishing is a huge industry in Alaska, so there has been much concern over the welfare of the fish. Many natives also live by subsistence fishing. Pink salmon and herring were the two species that people were most concerned about. Pink salmon is the biggest commercial fish in Alaskan waters, many people were afraid that the salmon population would need years to recover, however, studies have shown that the effect of the oil on spawning, eggs, and fry was negligible. Chromatography tests have also shown that there are no hydrocarbons in the flesh of most of the fish. Those that do have hydrocarbons in their flesh have a level that is so low as to be measured in the parts per billion range. Herring is also a huge commercial fish in Alaska. The 1988 catch yielded twelve point three million dollars. In 1989, after the spill, herring was declared “off limits” to fishermen. However, this was compensated by a salmon catch that was six times as big as it had been in 1988. In 1990, when herring fishing resumed, it returned to normal levels. The damage to the fishing industry was not nearly as bad as had been anticipated.