On March 24, 1989, an oil tanker called the Exxon Valdez hit a reef off the coast of Alaska and dumped millions of gallons of oil into the ocean. It was one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in U.S. history.
What was the Exxon Valdez?
The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker owned by the oil company Exxon. When the accident occurred it was a fairly new ship as it first went into service in 1986. The Exxon Valdez was 987 feet long and could carry over 50 million gallons of oil.
How did the spill happen?
The ship had just picked up 53 million gallons of oil and was traveling south from the port of Valdez, Alaska to Long Beach, California. Captain Joseph Hazelwood was in his quarters and the ship's third mate was at the controls. Earlier, the captain had ordered the ship to move out of the normal shipping lanes to avoid icebergs.
The captain had given orders for the ship to turn back into the shipping lanes at a specific point. Unfortunately, the turn was never made. At 12:04 a.m., the ship crashed into Bligh Reef. A large hole was ripped into the side of the ship and oil began to spill into Prince William Sound and the Pacific Ocean.
How much oil was released?
Estimates put the total amount of oil spilled at around 11 million gallons.
Why is an oil spill bad?
Oil spills are very bad for the surrounding environment. Oil clings to everything and is absorbed by the plant life. It kills the local wildlife including birds, plants, marine mammals, and fish. Over the long term, oil spills can damage habitats and destroy breeding grounds.
Cleaning Up the Mess
The first plan of action was to remove the oil remaining on the damaged tanker. This wasn't easy because the workers had to remove the oil without causing any more to spill. Next, plastic devices called booms were put into the water to try and prevent the oil from spreading. Then skimmers worked to siphon up the oil from the water's surface.
Despite this effort, the oil quickly spread. Oil was found on the ocean and along the coastline for hundreds of miles. More than 10,000 workers tried to clean up the mess for the next four years. Billions of dollars were spent trying to clean up the spill.
Did it kill any animals?
Yes, the spill had a serious impact on the environment. No one is sure just how many animals were killed, but estimates say that around 250,000 birds, over 2,000 sea otters, hundreds of seals, 22 killer whales, and billions of fish eggs were killed by the spill. As of 2006, there were still areas along the coast of Prince William Sound affected by the spill.
What happened to the ship?
The ship was repaired and was still used as an oil tanker for many years. It was eventually converted to an ore carrier. In 2012, the ship was retired and beached in India.
Other Oil Spills
While the Exxon Valdez oil spill is one of the most famous oil spills in history, there have been many larger oil spills including the Gulf War Oil Spill, the Lakeview Gusher, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and the Ixtoc I Oil Spill. What makes the Exxon Valdez spill so famous is the environmental impact. Because of the cold weather and the location, it is often considered one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in world history.
Interesting Facts About the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
They initially tried to burn the oil in order to remove it. Bad weather, however, caused the burning method to fail.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed by Congress to help prevent future accidents.
In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill passed the Exxon Valdez spill to become the largest to occur in U.S. coastal waters.
By 2014, some species had still not recovered from the spill including the herring (a fish) and the pigeon guillemot (a bird).
A movie was made of the event called Dead Ahead: the Exxon Valdez Disaster.