On March 24, 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The spill was devastating to the local ecosystem and, though it doesn’t even rank among the largest spills in history, it sparked decades of research into oil spills and changes in government regulations. Today, the Exxon Valdez remains a rallying cry for environmentalist and activist groups.
The event itself damaged nearly 1,300 miles of shoreline, and oil can still be found lurking beneath the first few layers of soil. The environmental impacts were nothing short of catastrophic. USA Today reports that “...the oil spill killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, at least a dozen killer whales and billions of salmon and herring eggs.”
The sound's coastal ecosystem is permanently damaged. Thousands of gallons of Exxon Valdez oil still pollute the beaches; this oil is still toxic and still hurting the ecosystem near the shore.
The government considers, as of 2010, only 13 of the 32 monitored wildlife populations, habitats and resource services that were injured in the spill as fully "recovered" or "very likely recovered." Some are still listed today as "not recovering." This includes a pod of orcas, which lost 15 of its 22 members after the spill, and has not produced a calf since. Given only one older female is left, scientists are certain that this unique pod of orcas will go extinct -- it's just a matter of time. The government conclusion is that "there appears to be no hope for recovery."
The "not recovering" list also includes Pacific herring, one of the sound's keystone species. Once the source of a vibrant commercial fishery, herring declined so precipitously that a fishery closed, and has not reopened.
Researchers found that one of the reasons for the collapse of the herring was a group of compounds in the oil that affected the development of the herrings’ hearts when they were still eggs.
But the spill wasn't just devasting to fish and birds. It hurt the human community as well. NPR reports:
The disaster upended life in Cordova for years. Fishermen were docked. Businesses went bankrupt. Drug and alcohol abuse went up, along with reports of domestic violence and depression. The mayor committed suicide. Those paid by Exxon to work the cleanup were jealously labeled "spillionaires."
This once close-knit community changed, says Patience Andersen Faulkner, Andersen's sister. "You couldn't look at your neighbor to help you. You didn't trust your neighbor, you didn't trust your brother. It was very, very sad."
Legal suits related to the case are still going on, twenty five years later. When the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred in 2010, with over 200 million gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists tried to apply lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill to the event in the Gulf, with mixed results.
With warming temperatures opening up the Arctic to even more oil exploration and transportation through icy waters, many in the area worry about the environmental impact of a spill in Alaska today.
"There is an increased push to drill offshore into ever deeper and riskier frontier waters of the Arctic," Heiman says."Those waters are ice-covered for eight to nine months of the year and in almost complete darkness for nearly three of those months. Even during the summer, when the ice pack has mostly receded, the Arctic experiences high seas, wind, freezing temperatures, dense fog, and floating ice hazards."
Even more challenging is the lack of major highways, airports, and ports, Heiman says, adding cleanup technology has not improved much in the last 25 years.
But oil spills happen with surprising frequency all over the world. On Saturday, a tanker spilled 168,000 gallons of oil into the Houston Ship Channel after a collision. On Monday, the shipping channel near Galveston remains closed, and oil from the spill has been detected in the Gulf of Mexico.