The Exxon ValdezCredit: Courtesy of the Office of Response and Restoration, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Prince William Sound is a pristine piece of Alaska—or at least it used to be; until the Exxon Valdez turned it into a disaster area.  No one could imagine March 23, 1989 would change the area possibly forever and trigger new laws and regulations regarding the transport of crude oil across the oceans.  Indeed, Good Friday of March 24, 1989 was not so good.

The Events Leading up to the Oil Spill in Prince William Sound

The Exxon Valdez left the Alveska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m. the evening of March 23.  The Valdez was 987 feet long and was the second newest ship of the Exxon Shipping Company.  The Valdez was carrying over 53million gallons of crude oil to Long Beach, California.[1]   Tankers had made more than 8,700 trips through the Sound with no major disasters and few serious incidents since the trans-Alaska pipeline was up and running.[7]  Three hours after the Exxon Valdez left the terminal, it ran into Bligh Reef and ruptured eight of eleven cargo tanks, spewing almost 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.  That amount equals about 17 Olympic size swimming pools full of black, slick, crude oil.

The details of the actions on the bridge differ from various accounts. According to the document published by the State of Alaska, when the Exxon Valdez departed the terminal an expert ship’s pilot, William Murphy, was at the wheelhouse with Captain Joe Hazelwood; Helmsman Harry Claar was steering.  Once the tanker passed through the Valdez Narrows, Murphy left the tanker and Captain Hazelwood took over the wheelhouse.  Icebergs were encountered in the shipping lanes and thus Captain Hazelwood ordered Claar to take the tanker out of the shipping lanes and go around the icebergs.  He handed control of the wheelhouse over to Third Mate Gregory Cousins with instructions to return to the shipping lanes once a certain point was reached.  At that time, Claar was replaced by Helmsman Robert Kagan.[7]

According to the Final Report of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission,

“Some time during the critical period before the grounding during the first few minutes of Good Friday, March 24, Cousins plotted a fix indicating it was time to turn the vessel back toward the traffic lanes. About the same time, lookout Maureen Jones reported that Bligh Reef light appeared broad off the starboard bow-i.e., off the bow at an angle of about 45 degrees. The lOily Sheen on HabitatCredit: Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council ight should have been seen off the port side (the left side of a ship, facing forward); its position off the starboard side indicated great peril for a supertanker that was out of its lanes and accelerating through close waters. Cousins gave right rudder commands to cause the desired course change and took the ship off autopilot. He also phoned Hazelwood in his cabin to inform him the ship was turning back toward the traffic lanes and that, in the process, it would be getting into ice. When the vessel did not turn swiftly enough, Cousins ordered further right rudder with increasing urgency. Finally, realizing the ship was in serious trouble, Cousins phoned Hazelwood again to report the danger-and at the end of the conversation, felt an initial shock to the vessel. The grounding, described by helmsman Robert Kagan as "a bumpy ride" and by Cousins as six "very sharp jolts," occurred at 12:04 a.m.”[7]

 The Valdez ended up on a pinnacle of Bligh Reef facing roughly southwest.

 Aftermath of the Grounding

According to computations aboard the tanker, just short of six million gallons of crude oil gushed from the breaches in the first three and quarter hours.  When Captain Hazelwood felt the grounding, he rushed to the bridge and gave orders in an attempt to free the ship from the reef.  The ship remained on the “load program up” (which kept the engine running at sea speed full ahead at 78.7 RPM) for approximately 15 minutes after initial impact.  Chief MBirds Dead from Oil SpillCredit: Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council ate Kunkel went to the engine control room and accessed the damage.  He informed the Captain of the damage to the cargo tanks and the captain responded with instructions to perform stability and stress analysis.  The Captain ordered the engines to idle speed at 12:19 a.m.

Five minutes later Captain Hazelwood radioed the Valdez traffic center and reported the situation.   This triggered Alyeska and Exxon to search for cleanup materials and equipment. In the meantime, Chief Mate Kunkel informed the Captain the ship was under unacceptable stress levels but was still stable; however he advised the Captain the ship should not leave the area.  Another five minutes passed and the Captain ordered the engine back on and to full speed in further attempts to free the ship from the reef.  Instructed to continue assessing and analyzing in the control room, Kunkel concluded the ship was not stable without the reef’s support and again advised the Captain not to leave the area.  Captain Hazelwood continued running the engines until 1:41 a.m. before giving up efforts to get free of the reef.

Map of Oil SpillCredit: Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Within another three hours the bulk of the crude oil had escaped from the Valdez.  In general, the oil spread south and west from the point origin. The first few days after the spill, most of the oil was concentrated in a large patch near Bligh Island.   On March 26, a storm changed much of the oil into mousse and tarballs and spread it over a large area. Ultimately, of the more than 9,000 miles of shoreline in the spill region, about 1,300 miles of shoreline were covered in oil; 200 heavilyOiled Otter from the Exxon Valdez Oil SpillCredit: Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council or moderately and 1,100 lightly oiled.



Dead Otter from Oil SpillCredit: Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council




The impact on the marine life in the Sound was catastrophic.  More than 35,000 bird and 1,000 seat otter carcasses were found after the spill, but experts consider these numbers to be a small fraction of the actual deaths. It is estimated as many as 2,800 seat otters died in the days following the oil spill along with 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 250,000 seabirds and 22 killer whales.  Many fish populations were harmed and billions of pink salmon and herring eggs, and 1,000 harlequin ducks died from the oil.[7]

Oiled Eagle from Exxon Valdez SpillCredit: Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council








The Clean-up of the Oil Spill

Cleaning up Shoreline After Oil SpillCredit: Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

ExxonMobil and the U.S. Coast Guard took the lead in the clean-up efforts with ExxonMobil spending, according to the company, over two billion dollars over three years. In early April the oil began to wash ashore in large amounts over wide areas.  The clean-up was concentrated on the on-the water recovery and defensive booming in attempts to keep it from the shoreline.  The on-the-water efforts expanded and Exxon sent more and more vessels and equipment, but it waProtective Boom Around Salmon HatcheryCredit: Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Councils becoming apparent the shoreline clean-up was becoming a bigger priority.

The tides were breaking up parts of the oil on some shores, swirling and lifting it off and onto other shores.   At the time of year of the spill, the weather created tidal fluctuations and coupled with the diverse shoreline, the clean-up of the shoreline was difficult.  Various techniques were attempted, from vacuuming the shoreline to using hot water and pressure hoses.  Exxon suggested a chemical spray but the other involved agencies nixed the idea after a testing.  In 1990 the preferred clean-up equipment was mechanical (tractors, backhoeOff-loading Remaining Oil From Exxon ValdezCredit: Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council s, and the like). 

About 10,000 workers participated in the clean-up effort of Exxon Valdez oil spill.  In addition 1,000 boats and about 100 airplanes and helicopters were put in service for the task.  Volunteers cleaned oiled animals with gallons of Dawn detergent. In 1992 the Coast Guard declared the clean-up job complete.

Plenty of Blame to Pass Around

Some accounts claim the captain was drunk and perhaps some of the crew as well.  Testimony before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), indicated Captain Hazelwood had three alcoholic drinks the afternoon of March 23.  When the crew arrived at the tanker, the departure time had been changed to an hour earlier than originally scheduled.  Testimony also revealed not all protocols were followed in the time leading up to the grounding; for example at different times only one officer was on the bridge when protocol was to have two officers there. 

After its investigation of the incident, the NTSB determined five probable causes for the grounding on the reef:

  1. The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to excessive workload and fatigue;
  2. The master failed to provide a proper navigation watch, possibly due to impairment from alcohol;
  3. The Exxon Shipping Company failed to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez;
  4. The U.S. Coast Guard failed to provide an effective vessel traffic system; and
  5. Effective pilot and escort services were lacking. [7]

Consequences to Exxon Mobil

Much litigation occurred after the oil spill with both the State of Alaska and the federal government bringing both criminal and civil claims against the oil company.   In October 1991 the settlement was approved by the U.S. District Court.  The settlement had three specific parts:

  • Criminal Plea Agreement – Exxon was fined $150 million for environmental crime.  The court forgave $125 million because Exxon had cooperated so he

    Oil Pooled on the BeachesCredit: photo courtesy of the Office of Response and Restoration, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    avily in the clean-up and had paid certain private claims.  The remaining $25 million was divided by North American Wetlands Conservation Fund which received $12 million; and the national Victims of Crime Fund which received the last $13 million.[7]
  • Criminal Restitution -  Exxon agreed to pay $100 million as restitution for the injuries caused to the wildlife, fish and lands of the oil spill areas.  The money was divided evenly between the state and federal governments.[7]
  • Civil Settlement – Exxon agreed to pay $900 million over a 10-year period with the final payment paid in September 2001.  The settlement also contained a “reopener window” between  September 1,2002 and September 1, 2006.  During this period the state or federal (or both) could make a claim for an addition $100 million to restore resources suffering a substantial loss or decline because of the spill and of which injuries could not be known or anticipated by the six trustees at the time of the original settlement.   On June 1, 2006 the U.S. Department of Justice and the State of Alaska Department of Law stated they had taken the first step in making a claim under the “reopener clause” of the settlement by giving ExxonMobil a detailed project plan for the clean-up of lingering oil.  The estimated cost was $92 million.[7]

Combining the clean-up cost and the settlements, ExxonMobil claims it spent almost 5 billion dollars on the Exxon Valdez disaster.[3]

Effects of the Oil Spill - Prince William Sound Today


Prince William Sound 2001Credit: Photo courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

To the surprise of experts, the beaches contaminated by the oil spill continue to have oil and in some places it is almost as toxic as it was the weeks following the spill.  In 2001, researchers estimated 16,000 gallons of oil remain in the environment of the region.  Further studies in 2003 revealed more oil at the sub-surface levels and the new estimate was 21,000 gallons of lingering oil in the Sound.   In addition over 450 miles away on the Kenai Peninsula and the Katmai coast, lingering oil was found.  

Some of the wildlife species have recovered from the oil spill while others are still recovering or are estimated by scientists not to recover at all.  A transient pod of killer whales are thought to have no hope of recoveTransient Killer WhaleCredit: Photo by Andrew Blazejewski; licensed under CCA 3.0 unported ry while the resident pod is recover extremely slowly, but has changed its composition of the pod with some whales breaking off to join another pod.  This is unusual and can hamper the recovery of the pod.  Likewise, some fish and fowl species are recovering or have recovered while others will most likely not recover.  Of course ExxonMobil scientist have data they claim is contrary to data submitted by other agencies.

Economically, the area took a huge hit, but started to recover once thRehabilitated Eagle from the Oil SpillCredit: Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council e fish population bounced back and the tourism regained strength.  The Exxon Valdez oil spill taught many lessons and as a result regulations, policies and protocols were changed or enhanced to prevent further accidents of this nature.  New techniques of cleaning up an oil spill were and are being invented as it was evident some of the techniques used in Exxon Valdez clean-up in some areas created as much or more damage to the shoreline as the oil spill. Scientists, biologists and other experts continue to study and monitor Prince William Sound and the far-reaching areas impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.


The copyright of the article Mankind Messes with Nature; Nature Loses: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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