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Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Causes, Effects & Clean-up

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  • 0:04 The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
  • 1:22 Causes of the Spill
  • 3:06 Effects of the Spill
  • 4:21 Cleanup of the Spill
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Oil spilling into a pristine ecosystem sounds like a bad deal. This lesson will explore why the Exxon Valdez spilled oil into Prince William Sound, the effects of the spill, and how crews tried to clean up one of the worst man-made disasters to occur in the United States.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

When oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989 into Alaska's pristine waters, animals and birds felt the immediate effects. For example, shortly after the spill, one quarter of a million seabirds, 2,800 otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas were killed. Decades after the spill, oil can still be found on the shoreline. How could this happen?

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred March 24, 1989, in Prince William Sound. 250,000 barrels of crude (or 10.8 million gallons) were released into the Gulf of Alaska after the oil tanker Exxon Valdez crashed into a rocky reef. This impacted 1,300 miles of coastline as well as the waters of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.

The story begins on March 22, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez arrived in Valdez, Alaska, and was loaded with crude oil destined for Long Beach, California. The tanker departed Valdez at 9:12 pm on March 23, loaded with 53 million gallons of crude oil. Three hours after leaving port the tanker hit Bligh Reef, which ruptured several tanks, spilling crude into Prince William Sound.

Causes of the Spill

Many tankers had previously traversed Prince William Sound, avoiding Bligh Reef. So what happened?

Captain Joseph Hazelwood was at the helm of the tanker, and he altered the ship's course to avoid icebergs. At 11:53 pm, Hazelwood gave control of the ship to the Third Mate, Gregory Cousins, who tried to steer back to the original course. Unfortunately, Cousins didn't see Bligh Reef because the vessel's radar was broken (in fact, it had not worked for a year). So, on March 24th at 12:04 am, the Exxon Valdez collided with Bligh Reef.

Hazelwood received much of the blame, being painted as a drunk who passed out and gave control of the vessel to his sleep-deprived Third Mate, Cousins. Stories of Hazelwood drinking in bars earlier that day surfaced and several charges were levied against him, including operating a vessel while intoxicated, reckless engagement, and illegally discharging oil. In the end, only the last charge stuck and he had to do community service and pay a $50,000 fine.

It should be noted that Exxon had not fixed the radar, had ignored reports that Hazelwood had been drinking for three years prior to the accident (his driver's license had even been revoked due to drinking and driving), and it had failed to provide adequate equipment for oil spills. In fact, ten months prior to the spill, oil companies from Alaska (including Exxon) met to discuss the challenges that would occur if a tanker spilled oil in the middle of Prince William Sound. At the meeting, the companies discussed the impossibilities of a clean up in the area and indicated that, to have an effective cleanup, they would need to spend millions of dollars on equipment. So they voted against dedicating additional funds for such cleanup efforts.

Effects of the Spill

Thousands of animals and birds were killed from crude oil, but the spill had other lasting impacts on Alaska. Crab, herring, salmon, shrimp, sablefish, and rockfish fisheries were closed through 1990. Tourism in the area also took an immediate hit as well with a loss of 26,000 jobs and around $2.4 billion in revenue. The industry began to recover in 2003.

Exxon spent over $3.8 billion to cleanup the area. Later, Exxon paid more through lawsuits and fines until the Supreme Court determined that the total Exxon would have to pay was $507.5 million.

No humans died during the actual oil spill, but four were killed during the cleanup. Furthermore, many workers involved in the cleanup fell ill. Respiratory illnesses (of which 6,722 were reported) were thought to be colds or flus and were even called 'the Valdez crud.' Today, this 'crud' is thought to have been caused by toxic fumes and contact with crude oil. Many of the workers who fell ill later died or are permanently disabled, and this is thought to be related to being exposed to oil and fumes from the cleanup efforts.

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