A generation after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, commercial fishing, recreation, tourism, and subsistence have not recovered, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Oil is still present along the shore, sometimes in unaltered pockets, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
The Arctic is more vulnerable and slower to heal than warmer areas, yet there is demand to seek oil in the Arctic.
Some species have bounced back over 25 years, but many have not. Otters have rebounded, according to the USGS, and so have salmon. But many birds, herring, sea mammals, and other creatures have not recovered.
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon tanker ran aground and spilled more than 11 million gallons of oil, fouling 1,300 miles of shoreline. It was America’s worst environmental disaster until the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. According to the WWF, the BP spill sent an estimated 172 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of months.
For a generation of people around the world, the spill was seared into their memories by images of fouled coastline in Prince William Sound, of sea otters, herring, and birds soaked in oil, of workers painstakingly washing crude off the rugged beaches.
“The take-home lesson from Exxon Valdez is this: if we genuinely care about a coastal or marine area, such as the Arctic Ocean or Bristol Bay, we should not expose it to the dangerous risks of oil development,” said Rick Steiner, a professor and international oil spill expert involved with the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup and restoration, in a statement.
“Even with the best safeguards possible, spills will undoubtedly occur. And when they do, they can’t be cleaned up; they can cause long-term, even permanent, ecological injury; human communities can be devastated; and restoration is impossible. This would be particularly true of a major spill in ice-covered waters of the Arctic Ocean.”
Before the accident, complacency among government officials and the oil industry had set in after a dozen years of safe shipments, said Mark Swanson, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council and a former Coast Guard officer.
Spill Drills and Precautions
When the tanker ran aground, for instance, spill response equipment was buried under snow. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. in 1989 had 13 oil skimmers, 5 miles of boom, and storage capacity for 220,000 gallons of spilled oil.
Now, Alyeska has 108 skimmers, 49 miles of boom, and on-water storage capacity of almost 38 million gallons. North Slope oil must be transported in double-hull tankers, which must be escorted by two tugs. Radar monitors the vessel’s position as well as that of icebergs.
The company conducts two major spill drills each year, and nearly 400 local fishing boat owners are trained to deploy and maintain booms to control oil.
No matter what kind of training and precautions are developed, it is necessary to move to other, cleaner energy sources than fossil fuels, according to Gene Karpinski, League of Conservation Voters president.
“It’s time to learn the lessons of the Exxon Valdez. Since this accident, we’ve witnessed the BP spill in the Gulf, Enbridge’s pipeline in Michigan, coal waste spills across Appalachia, and countless other disasters,” said Karpinski in a statement. “Our addiction to the dirty energy that’s fueling climate change continues to come at a tremendous environmental cost.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.