Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Categories: Oil SpillSeaWater

On its route from Valdez, Alaska towards Los Angeles, California, an oil tanker named as Exxon Valdez on 24th march 1989 caused an oil spill. The oil spill disaster specifically took place in Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Normal route of this tanker was changed in order to avoid ice. The tanker was carrying a large quantity of crude oil and as the historians have reported, approximately 53 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude oil was loaded on the ship, out of which approximately 11 million gallons were lost in the spill.

Out of eleven tanks, eight tanks were damaged on the tanker. It was later estimated by the marine scientists that more than 1,100 miles of the Alaska coastline would face the effects of this spill that has made this spill one of the greatest marine disasters in the history (Townsend, 2006, p. 67). The spill received a lot of attention from the personnel as compared to the other oil spills in the US history.

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It was realized that oil spill can cause great dangers to the marine life in the coastline thereby the response management team and personnel included fuel, meals for response teams, berthing, expensive and constant supply of response equipment, waste management including other resources. It has been reported that more than 11,000 response management personnel, 1,400 vessels and approximately 85 aircrafts were involved in the response management of oil spill. Realizing the importance of oil spill, shoreline cleanup began in April 1989 and concluded in September 1989.

Apart from the cleanup activities, it was seen that response activities continued until 1991.

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There was an increased media frenzy associated with the oil spill and the images that were delivered to the public included springs that will see highly oiled shorelines, dying marine life and response management teams working as hard as possible to clean up the shorelines. Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska has been considered as one of the most important ecological zones in US thereby public along with some lobbies of environmentalists took this oil spill as an environmental insult.

One of the reasons of an importance of Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska was it being home to many marine life species that were considered extinct elsewhere (Chandler, and Streissguth, 2002, p, 45). The cleaning activities and response management failed to stop the spread of this oil spill beyond Prince William Sound. However, this spread did call up for the largess of its kind cleanup and response action. Even in these days, scientists are carrying out studs’ on ways in which these oil spills can affect marine life and ecosystems.

Exxon Valdez is considered one of the greatest human disasters the humans have created. Apart from other disasters, this oil spill has been most widespread in its impacts and environmental damage. Causes of the Oil Spill Exxon Valdez started its journey on the 23rd of March 1989 from Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal. The heavy 986 foot vessel was to be passed by the experts from Valdez Narrows including William Murphy who was in charge of the wheel with Joe Hazelwood being the captain of the vessel.

After passing Valdez Narrows, as has been reported, Captain Hazelwood was the in charge of the wheel as William Murphy resigned from the vessel charge. Icebergs were faced by Exxon Valdez in the shipping lanes that were more of a challenge to handle thereby orders to take over the shipping wheel were passed down from the captain to Harry Claar who was responsible for steering the ship. And in the same way the steering controls and wheeling positions were being switched in face of ice being faced by the tanker (Kvasnikoff, 2007, p. 56).

Other than this, additional investigations have been carried out by the National Transportation Safety Board and five main causes have been highlighted.

  1. Excessive workload had made the shipping wheel controller unable to control the wheel in ice as more concentration and calculation was required that was not taken into consideration at that time.
  2. Captain of the ship was responsible for the provision of a proper navigation watch which was not provided as there was a lot of alcohol consumption on the ship that made it hard to concentrate for the captain.
  3. Sufficient and expert crew of Exxon Valdez was not provided by the Exxon Shipping Company along with no supervision or guidance provided to the captain of the ship.
  4. There was a need of effective vessel traffic system for a proper maneuvering of the ship along with proper navigation that was not provided by the U. S. Coast Guard.
  5. There was a need to provide the ship with an effective pilot and escort services that were lacking.
  6. An additional factor that has been seen to play an important role in the oil spill included failure of Exxon Shipping Company to make required repairs on RayCan Sonar systems. If these sonar systems had been repaired than chances of informing the ship of approaching Bligh Reef.
  7. Many investigations have been carried out on the topic and it has been reported that captain of the ship did not manage his responsibilities as required instead, during critical ship maneuvering, captain was below decks.
  8. The sonar system of the ship was not properly working neither was it given any consideration by the technical crew as required as the system was out of order for more than a year (Margulies, 2003, p. 67).

Interventions and Counter Measurements

The first notification of the oil spill was received by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and as a much-needed primary response, a team of personnel was sent on the spill site in order to stabilize the vessel. It has been reported that within 356 hours, the site of oil spill was surrounded by respondents and team of oil cleaners. It was realized that the oil spill will cover a greater area and there was a lesser number of experiences workers in order to control the site of spill thereby a large number of inexperienced workers were also deployed at the site.

This was the cause of ineffective handling and cleaning and in some cases, the damaged sites. It has been reported that skimmers were deployed for the purpose of open water oil recovery. However, this skimming intervention had failed as the oil started to spread and mix with debris. In this case, the greatest number of skimmers was provided by US navy, Marco sorbent lifting-belt skimmers. Recovery of oil was managed by the use of sorbents. After a few months of using sorbent for oil recovery, it was seen that they consumed much great amount of resources and were causing greater amount of solid waste.

It was noticed that storage space for keeping and storing the recovered oil was lesser as anticipated. Thereby in order to create storage space for oil. Storage tanks and skimmers were emptied for any water present. After the completion of all offloading operations, the damaged tanker was towed for any repairs, approximately 25 miles from Naked Island in Prince William Sound (Michalowski, and Kramer, 2006, p. 90).

Treatment of the Shoreline

In order to ensure that the shoreline is cleaned properly of any left away oil residues, an importance of shoreline assessment was realized. These assessments were necessary as site specific treatment strategies were to be designed that could help in cleaning up the shore. The assessments were designed to give information about geomorphological, biological, archaeological and oiling on the shoreline. Biological activities that were noticed in order to test the effects of oil spillage included haul out activities of the seals, fish spawning, fishing seasons and eagle nesting.

Activities of marine animals were also taken into consideration for making significant observations in this regard. In 1989, first strategy used to clean oil from the shores was to spray seawater using hoses in order to flush and remove oil from seashores. By the help of this strategy, a great amount of oil was released from the offshore boom and the water was removed by using skimmers as well as vacuum trucks. There was a group of areas that was hard to reach to remove oil thereby heated seawater was used to flush oil from seashores.

For beach washing operation, it was seen that strategies of Converted vessels and barges was used. Larger equipment would take much more time than usual thereby smaller vessels were used to clean up the shores (Baura, 2006, p. 40). Stakeholders Effected

Negative effects of Oil spill

Several small-scale studies were carried out to analyze the effects that the oil spill had on the marine life of shorelines.

Sport Fishing Companies

An effect was estimated by the researcher of the oil spill on sport fishing activities on the beaches. Impact was studied by taking into consideration the number of people attending teh sport fishing trips, number of involved anglers, areas fished by the tourists, species of fish that was targeted and length of these fishing trips. All these factors add up to the revenue generated by the support fishing companies. The calculations reported in 1989 added up to US$ 600 million that gradually reduced to US$ 50 million in 1990.

Tourism Companies

Positive and negative effects are associated with the spills. During the time period of cleaning of oil from the shores it was seen that there was a reduced traffic of visitors and tourists, residents or nonresident from the nearby areas and this reduction has been linked to the lack of tourism related services in spill affected areas. These services included accommodations, air taxis, and charter boats (Townsend, 2006, p. 100).

There was a severe labor shortage observed in 1989 and 1990 in the visitor labor industry that was defined as a blow to the tourism industry.

This was because of the fact that cleaning industries had increased all incentives for any workers who helped in cleaning operations on the shorelines thereby most of the workers had joined these cleaning operations.

It was observed during 1989 and 1990 that almost 59% of tourism businesses were canceled or had faced severe losses in spill affected areas. Other than this, in terms of revenue generation, there was an overall 18% reduction in revenues generated by the tourism industries in spill-affected areas (Kvasnikoff, 2007, p. 50).

Positive Effects Of Oil Spill

The only business that flourished in the oil spill affected areas was that of cleaning and repair on the shoreline. Other than this, hotels, car/RV rentals, taxis, and boat charters related businesses also flourished.

In the case of soil, several calculations and estimations were made by the economists in case of the existence value or non usage value of the oil spill region of Prince William Sound. As a result of the oil spill, certain market based changes were observed that caused the customers to pay for the related changes in quality or quantity of goods unavailable as a result of changes in market.

Other than this, the customer’s willingness to accept an unavailability of goods was also calculated. These major changes in the market totaled to US$ 7 billion as this amount reflected the amount that the public was ready to pay for prevention of any further oil spills.

Replacement Costs Of Wildlife

Oil spill had a great effect on the wildlife on the shoreline along with the effects that were seen on marine life. Additional costs were needed in order to rehabilitate, relocate and replacement of wildlife of the seashore. This wildlife broadly included seabirds, sea mammals, marine life, and shoreline marine life.

Additional costs calculated in case of sea mammals including whales, sea otters, and sea lions, a total of US$ 300,000 were required per marine animal. On the other hand, calculations made on the replacement costs on terrestrial animals in the oil spill effected area, ranged from US$200 and US$ 500 per terrestrial animal. US$ 6000 was required for seabirds and eagles (Townsend, 2006, p. 99).

Failure to Control Oil Spill Effects

Natural Phenomena

It has been estimated that oil remained in waters even after six hours of wreckage until cleaning teams arrived.

Near blight area, now reported as a potentially manageable area to reduce oil spread the oil remained concentrated for two days. Winds after two days at the speed of 70 mph played important roles in spreading the oil farther into Prince William Sound and the oil spread until 90 miles across from spill site. Another important factor that played important roles in spreading of the oil were increased spring tidal waves as high as 18 feet and these tidal fluctuations carried the oil onto the surrounding beach lands.

Cleaning Teams Failure

Other than highlighted natural phenomena that caused the oil tp spread in sea and on land, cleaning teams further aggravated the situation in oil spill affected areas. In order to collect oil that had accumulated in the rocky coves, hot water was sprinkled by the workers as has been mentioned. This strategy was an irresponsible act that caused death of microorganisms that were a part of food chain. Later, many reports suggested that these microorganisms could have been important in biodegradation of oil.

According to a recent study conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, until the year of 2007, more than 27000 gallons of oil is still trapped in sand residues along Alaska shorelines and beaches. d. Lawsuits Many faces of lawsuits were seen after the oil spill. the first lawsuit surfaced in 1989 by the Alaska jury demanding ExxonMobil to pay $287 million for actual damages to the shorelines and beaches of Alaska along with US$ 5 billion that were to be paid in punitive damages. In 2006, punitive damages were reduced to half by the appeals court.

Further reduction in punitive damages was authorized by the US Supreme Court to US$ 507. 5 million

Remaining Oil Sediments

More than 96 sites spreading 8000 miles of Alaska coastline were investigated for the remaining oil sediments in a 2001 report released by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. An important point that was highlighted in this report was the difference between surface oil and buried oil. Report highlighted that as compared to surface oil, buried oil is of more concern as it has an ability to remain dormant, it is more toxic and it can be more bio-available for the marine life.

This buried oil can be introduced into the water as a result of the activities of burrowing animals and severe storms (Baura, 2006, p. 101). Subsurface pits were investigated to be heavily oiled as all of the interstitial spaces were saturated by repugnant oil. Oil in these pits resembled the oil encountered in 1989 spill, just being liquid, in addition to being highly odiferous and lightly weathered. Subsurface oil was present at heights lower than usual tide heights as these pits were closely located to the intertidal zones, which is a zone known for the biological production.

Estimated Effects on the Marine Life

Greater life risks are faced by the sea birds and terrestrial animals in face of floating oil as these animals are in constant contact with surface of the sea. It has been estimated by the scientists and environmentalists that more than 3000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, and more than 300,000 seals were affected by the oil spill. Because of oiled shores, there was an increase in death rates of macro algae and benthic invertebrates (Margulies, 2003, p. 70).


Millions of dollars were spent on cleaning the oil shores and beaches to get rid of oil spilled which was all caused because of lack of responsibility of Exxon Shipping along with the crew handling the ship. In addition to the disasters faced by the oil spills already, much more damage was dome by the cleaning crew thereby there is a need that shipping companies realize their responsibility as oil transporters through seas as the oil spills are not only the cause of economic losses but also ecological losses.


  1. Baura, G. D. (2006). Engineering ethics: an industrial perspective. Academic Press.
  2. Chandler, G., and Streissguth, T. (2002). The Exxon Valdez: the oil spill off the Alaskan Coast, Disaster! Series Disaster! (Captstone) Disaster! (Capstone High-Interest Books). Capstone Press.
  3. Kvasnikoff, K. (2007). Exxon Valdez 18 Years and Counting. Lulu. com.
  4. Margulies, P. (2003). The Exxon Valdez oil spill, When disaster strikes! The Rosen Publishing Group.
  5. Michalowski, J. M. , and Kramer, C. R. (2006). State-corporate crime: wrongdoing at the intersection of business and government; Critical issues in crime and society. Rutgers University Press.
  6. Townsend, J. (2006). Exxon Valdez, When disaster struck. Raintree.

Cite this page

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/exxon-valdez-oil-spill-essay

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

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