Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a manmade disaster that occurred when Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker owned by the Exxon Shipping Company, spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history until the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The Exxon Valdez oil slick covered 1,300 miles of coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals and whales. Nearly 30 years later, pockets of crude oil remain in some locations. After the spill, Exxon Valdez returned to service under a different name, operating for more than two decades as an oil tanker and ore carrier.

On the evening of March 23, 1989, Exxon Valdez left the port of Valdez, Alaska, bound for Long Beach, California, with 53 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude oil onboard.

At four minutes after midnight on March 24, the ship struck Bligh Reef, a well-known navigation hazard in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

The impact of the collision tore open the ship’s hull, causing some 11 million gallons of crude oil to spill into the water.

At the time, it was the largest single oil spill in U.S. waters. Initial attempts to contain the oil failed, and in the months that followed, the oil slick spread, eventually covering about 1,300 miles of coastline.

Investigators later learned that Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of Exxon Valdez, had been drinking at the time and had allowed an unlicensed third mate to steer the massive ship.

In March 1990, Hazelwood was acquitted of felony charges. He was convicted of a single charge of misdemeanor negligence, fined $50,000, and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service.

Oil Spill Cleanup

In the months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Exxon employees, federal responders and more than 11,000 Alaska residents worked to clean up the oil spill.

Exxon payed about $2 billion in cleanup costs and $1.8 billion for habitat restoration and personal damages related to the spill.

Cleanup workers skimmed oil from the water’s surface, sprayed oil dispersant chemicals in the water and on shore, washed oiled beaches with hot water and rescued and cleaned animals trapped in oil.

Environmental officials purposefully left some areas of shoreline untreated so they could study the effect of cleanup measures, some of which were unproven at the time. They later found that aggressive washing with high-pressure, hot water hoses was effective in removing oil, but did even more ecological damage by killing the remaining plants and animals in the process.

One of those areas that was oiled but never cleaned is a large shoreline boulder called Mearn’s Rock. Scientists have returned to Mearn’s Rock every summer since the spill to photograph the plants and small critters growing on it. They found that many of the mussels, barnacles and various seaweeds growing on the rock before the spill returned to normal levels about three to four years after the spill.

Environmental And Economic Impacts

Prince William Sound had been a pristine wilderness before the spill. The Exxon Valdez disaster dramatically changed all of that, taking a major toll on wildlife. It killed an estimated 250,000 sea birds, 3,000 otters, 300 seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales.

The oil spill also may have played a role in the collapse of salmon and herring fisheries in Prince William Sound in the early 1990s. Fishermen went bankrupt, and the economies of small shoreline towns, including Valdez and Cordova, suffered in the following years.

Some reports estimated the total economic loss from the Exxon Valdez oil spill to be as much as $2.8 billion.

A 2001 study found oil contamination remaining at more than half of the 91 beach sites tested in Prince William Sound.

The spill had killed an estimated 40 percent of all sea otters living in the Sound. The sea otter population didn’t recover to its pre-spill levels until 2014, twenty-five years after the spill.

Stocks of herring, once a lucrative source of income for Prince William Sound fisherman, have never fully rebounded.

READ MORE: Water and Air Pollution

Oil Pollution Act of 1990

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the U.S. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law that year.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 increased penalties for companies responsible for oil spills and required that all oil tankers in United States waters have a double hull.

Exxon Valdez was a single-hulled tanker; a double-hull design, by making it less likely that a collision would have spilled oil, might have prevented the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Fate of Exxon Valdez

The ship, Exxon Valdez—first commissioned in 1986—was repaired and returned to service a year after the spill in a different ocean and under a different name.

The single-hulled ship could no longer transport oil in U.S. waters, due to the new regulations. The ship began running oil transport routes in Europe, where single-hulled oil tankers were still allowed. There it was renamed the Exxon Mediterranean, then the SeaRiver Mediterranean and finally the S/R Mediterranean.

In 2002, the European Union banned single-hulled tankers and the former Exxon Valdez moved to Asian waters.

Exxon sold the infamous tanker in 2008 to a Hong Kong-based shipping company. The company converted the old oil tanker to an ore carrier, renaming it the Dong Feng Ocean. In 2010, the star-crossed ship collided with another bulk carrier in the Yellow Sea and was once again severely damaged.

The ship was renamed once more after the collision, becoming the Oriental Nicety. The Oriental Nicety was sold for scrap to an Indian company and dismantled in 2012.


Exxon Valdez laid to rest; Nature.
The never-ending history of life on a rock; NOAA.
Economic impacts of the spill; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

On Good Friday, March 24, 1989, 25 years after the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground at Bligh Reef. The vessel spilled 10.8 million gallons of unrefined Alaskan crude oil into Prince William Sound, causing the largest oil spill in North American history at the time.

 No crude oil actually made it into the Port of Valdez, as Bligh Reef is about 25 miles south of the Port. However, winds and tides moved the floating crude oil further south into the Sound and onto beaches. Oil covered over 1200 miles of rocky beaches — the task of cleaning it up was a big one.

The EPA, ADEC, and the US Coast Guard gave Exxon a September 15 cleanup deadline. Since Valdez was the most accessible city close to the spill, Exxon mobilized its response headquarters in the community and began a massive cleanup effort. During the summer of 1989 over 10,000 workers were employed by Exxon and its management company, VECO-Norcon. Each worker had to be supplied with equipment, transportation, food, lodging, logistical support, and supervision.

Valdez, a city of 3,500 people, grew to three times its normal size almost overnight. Bed & Breakfasts sprang up all over the city. Food and clothing stores rolled into town and prices soared. Temporary buildings were erected for Exxon&aposs office space, and rent everywhere went sky-high. Money flowed through town in unprecedented amounts. On average it cost Exxon $1,000 each day to support one worker on a beach cleanup crew. That figure multiplied by 10,000 makes for an astounding sum of money.

Jobs were plentiful. Exxon employed many people in the Prince William Sound area to transport supplies to the villages in the Sound, and to support the cleanup crews throughout the oiled areas. Press crews covered every facet of the spill. Environmental groups worked to save the oiled seals, otters, and birds. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the nonprofit company that manages the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, added a new division to its ranks: SERVS (Service Escort Response Vessels), designed to help prevent another spill and to supply immediate response if one should occur.

The actual cleanup process was time-consuming and ineffective in many ways. Workers would wipe down a beach, the tide would change, and oil-laden water would cover the rocks with a new coating of oil. Cleanup crews sprayed rock faces with steam hoses and manually wiped smaller rocks clean. By midsummer, new techniques and technologies were employed. Microorganisms that "ate" crude oil were sprayed onto some of the beaches, and new materials were used in wiping operations. The work was slow, but every little bit helped.

In 1990, Exxon returned to Prince William Sound with a much smaller workforce for continued cleaning. Long-term damages are still being assessed on fish, marine and land wildlife, and recreation.

Today, years after the Oil Spill cleanup, efforts on some heavily oiled beaches have been reinstated, and with the help of Mother Nature, the Sound will recover more each year. Prince William Sound today flourishes with marine life, waterfowl, bottom fish, and salmon runs. 

Discover More

Visitors to Valdez are able to learn more about the impact of the oil spill on our community at the Valdez Museum&aposs Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Exhibit, which is open year round at the museum on Egan St. 

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon Corporation mobilized huge quantities of equipment and personnel to initiate the first response to the mishap however, their crucial first few hours and days (when containment and cleanup efforts are at a premium) were lost. Fewer than 4,000 gallons of dispersant² were all that was available in nearby Valdez, Alaska, and application equipment or aircraft were non-existent. A trial burn was conducted during the early stages of the spill, in hopes of lifting the oil from the frigid water. Although partially successful, the burning process was abandoned because of unfavorable weather conditions. Three days after the vessel was grounded, a storm pushed large quantities of fresh oil onto the rocky shores of many beaches throughout the sound. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Coast Guard, gave Exxon a September 15 cleanup deadline. Valdez was the most accessible city near the spill, so Exxon quickly transported its recovery headquarters to the small community. The 3,500 residents of Valdez tripled in size, and the price of everything, including food and clothing, reached sky-high figures. Exxon employed many people in the Prince William Sound area to transport supplies to the villages in the sound, and to support the cleanup crews throughout the oiled areas. Many exploited the disaster for money — including media crews that were covering every angle of the spill. Workers would wipe and spray rocks with steam hoses, only to be rewarded by the changing tide — and a new coating of oil. Environmental groups worked feverishly to save oiled seals, otters, and birds. Midway through the summer of 1989, new techniques and technologies were initiated. Microorganisms that break down crude oil were sprayed onto some of the beaches, and new materials were used in the tedious job of wiping operations. Exxon returned to Prince William Sound in 1990 with a much smaller work force for further cleaning. The long-term damages by the oil spill were horrendous. Even today, damage assessments are being conducted on fish, marine, and land wildlife. The damage Three national wildlife refuges, three national parks, wilderness areas, a national forest, and extensive areas that had been inhabited for thousands of years by Alaska Natives, were an oily mess. The spill posed threats to the delicate food chain that supports Prince William Sound's commercial fishing industry and portions of the northern Gulf of Alaska. Also in danger were 10 million migratory shore birds and waterfowl, eagles, hundreds of sea otters, dozens of such other species as harbor porpoises and sea lions, and several varieties of whales. More marine mammals and seabirds were killed directly by the oil than in any man-made disaster ever. Direct mortality of seabirds has been estimated at 300,000 to 645,000, with an additional loss in chick production of more than 300,000 following the spill. Some colonies of murres lost 60 to 70 percent of their breeding birds. The marine mammal death toll included at least 25 killer whales out of an area population of about 180, 3,500 to 5,500 sea otters, and around 200 harbor seals. The 1989 season of herring, which spawned in the near shore zone just as the oil arrived, was essentially lost. Terrestrial mammals, including river otters, brown bear, deer, and mink were all affected. Much of the intertidal zone was essentially cooked by the toxic oil, and invertebrate communities were severely altered. Economically speaking, the studies of sportfishing activity and tourism indicators — vacation planning, visitor spending, and canceled bookings — indicated decreases in activity. The contingent valuation study estimated the lost passive use value at $2.8 billion. Congress makes a financial cleanup On October 9 1991, the settlement among the State of Alaska, the United States government and Exxon was approved by the U.S. District Court. It resolved various criminal charges against Exxon as well as civil claims brought by the federal and state governments for recovery of natural resource damages resulting from the unforgiving oil spill.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - HISTORY

OCTOBER 12, 2012 -- In 1989 when NOAA ecologist Dr. Alan Mearns first caught sight of a certain seaweed-encrusted boulder in Alaska's Prince William Sound, he had little idea he would be visiting that chest-high, relatively nondescript rock year after year . for the next two decades.

Or that, along the way, the boulder would eventually bear his name: Mearns Rock.

This particular rock—like many others in the southwest corner of the sound—was coated in oil after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on nearby Bligh Reef and flooded the salty waters with nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in March 1989.

For the next ten years, Mearns and other NOAA biologists examined how marine life in these tidal areas reacted to the Exxon oiling. Some of the rocky areas in their study had been oiled others had later been cleaned of oil using high-pressure, hot-water hoses, while still others, serving as a "control" or baseline comparison, had been untouched by oil or cleaning efforts—as if the Exxon Valdez had never disemboweled its oily innards at all.

Looking Under a Rock

Over the years, Mearns and his fellow biologists were able to observe [PDF] the many faces of "normal" for this intertidal ecosystem—a dynamic habitat on the edge of land and sea and exposed to the rigors of both. In doing so, they and other scientists found that this ecosystem showed signs of recovery from oiling after about three or four years [PDF].

When the ten-year monitoring study ended, the NOAA team shifted to a smaller-scale, experimental phase of research that continues today. As part of this field-based research, Mearns (or occasionally one of his colleagues) still returns to Mearns Rock and up to eight other rocky sites to record an annual snapshot of the ecological processes there. He has observed the ebb and flow of the mussels, barnacles, and various seaweeds populating these boulders, which are set on sections of beach alternately flooded and drained by the Pacific Ocean's tides.

Photographic Memory

This collection of annual snapshots adds up to an ecological photo-journal of sorts, while also serving as a much less labor-intensive method of research. By taking the same photograph around the same time each year, Mearns is able to examine and compare the general year-to-year variability of the plants and animals living on Mearns Rock. You can see the progression of these annual changes occurring on Mearns Rock in a photo slideshow.

But 24 years into this experiment, Mearns decided it was time for this kind of enduring, localized scientific observation to take on new energy. In January 2012 at the annual Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage, Alaska, he and Office of Response and Restoration colleague John Whitney presented a poster describing the decades of environmental trends at Mearns Rock.

The two hoped to garner the attention of others interested in turning this annual photo-surveillance of Mearns Rock and the other boulders from the original study—nine in all—into a volunteer-led project.

"It worked," Mearns reported. "Scientists and students stopped by to chat. At one point a half dozen of us gathered at the poster and several offered to visit sites in the summer of 2012."

But science requires consistency: everything needs to be done the exact same way. Mearns pulled together a reference guide for these volunteers, which would direct them to the study sites tell them precisely where, when, and how to take photos at each location and provide samples of past photos for comparison.

Passing the Torch

On an exceptionally clear and calm morning this past June, Mearns, other NOAA scientists, and a couple Coast Guard staff cruised across the waters of Prince William Sound aboard a 30-foot charter vessel. They visited three different locations around the sound, including Mearns Rock.

But unlike in the past, the crew wasn’t alone in their efforts. Mearns and Whitney had successfully recruited volunteers to help photograph the other six study areas in the sound.

In fact, the first volunteer, David Janka, skipper of Auklet Charters in Cordova, Alaska, had already taken photos the month before at three NOAA sampling sites on the northern end of Knight Island, which was heavily oiled during the Exxon Valdez spill. Janka was no stranger to this project he had taken the annual snapshot of Mearns Rock several times in the past when Mearns was unable to venture out there himself.

First for Mearns and his crew on that June day, however, was stopping at an unoiled rocky site at Eshamy Bay Lodge, near Whittier, Alaska. It had been several years since their team had been able to photograph a site that had escaped the Exxon oiling, and Mearns was anxious to re-establish this one. While there, they worked on recruiting the manager of the nearby lodge to photograph that boulder in the future. Afterwards, they sped off to a second study site and finally to Snug Harbor, location of Mearns Rock.

A few weeks later, Dr. Thomas Dean, a marine biologist from San Diego working in Prince William Sound, joined the effort and, using Mearns’ reference guide, was able to photograph the seventh site, one on Knight Island’s Herring Bay. With only two study sites left to visit in 2012, Dr. Rob Campbell of the Prince William Sound Science Center pitched in to check off the eighth site. While out doing herring surveys, he stopped by the study site in Shelter Bay long enough to snap photos of two boulders the NOAA team had nicknamed "Bert" and "Ernie."

Finally, thanks to a tip from Dr. Campbell, Mearns reached out to Kate McLaughlin, a scientist and educator living in Chenega Bay, a Native village only a mile from the untouched Crab Bay control site on Evans Island. She happily agreed to help, and in July, she and her dog made a couple trips to that corner of Prince William Sound to secure the last photos.

An Unexpected Legacy

Yet Mearns and his research have managed to inspire an even larger effort which would expand on this type of coastal monitoring in Alaska. John Harper at Coastal and Ocean Resources, Inc. in Victoria, British Columbia, is leading an initiative to engage citizen scientists around the Gulf of Alaska.

One of the goals of this initiative, known as the Three Amigos Intertidal Sampling Program, is "to collect information on the condition of rocky intertidal communities and changes that occur over time." Supported by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, Harper and his colleagues in this endeavor are developing a protocol and model for community-based environmental monitoring and admitted that their proposed approach for this program is inspired directly by Mearns Rock—an exciting legacy for an otherwise average boulder patiently setting at the ocean's edge, year after year.

Important dates:

  • July 1989: At the suggestion of a group of Cordova fishermen, Alyeska met with a group of affected citizens from the region.
  • December 26, 1989: Many of the citizens from that July 1989 meeting, along with others, incorporated to form the Council.
  • February 8, 1990: The Council signed a contract with Alyeska which guaranteed our independence from the industry, access to Alyeska facilities, and annual funding.
  • August 18, 1990: When the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed, it included language which mandated both the Prince William Sound and the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens’ Advisory Councils.

Deepwater Horizon, 2010

Ten years have passed since the nation’s largest and possibly most contentious marine oil spill, which occurred in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and then made its way to the shorelines and marshes of Gulf coast states. Billions of dollars in damages have been litigated, assessed, and paid, and the unprecedented research programs funded by BP and damage assessment investigations are coming to a close. The other defining oil spills we have featured here resulted in significant, groundbreaking new laws and regulations, and certainly there was that expectation for the largest spill response in history that occurred for the Deepwater Horizon.

It didn’t happen. We can debate the reasons why the massive Deepwater Horizon spill did not elicit the kind of unified and decisive Congressional response that seemed to be the norm for the modern history of oil spills in the U.S. But the reality is that there is legislatively little to show for this one iconic American oil spill. In 2012, Congress passed the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act), which allocated most of the Deepwater Horizon administrative and civil penalties to a restoration trust fund. In 2016, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) adopted stricter regulations governing the blowout preventers installed on production wellheads as a last line of defense in the event of an uncontrolled release, and tightened well control requirements (these regulations were relaxed in 2018).

On the industry side, there was a recognition that as oil exploration and production moved into increasingly deeper water, response capabilities needed to be upgraded. In 2010, 10 petroleum-related companies collaborated to create and fund a new response entity, the Marine Well Containment Company, This nonprofit company focuses on providing equipment and personnel to respond to deep water (up to 10,000 feet) blowouts like the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, maintaining a stockpile of so-called “capping stacks” that are capable of shutting off the flow of oil and gas from an uncontrolled well.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - HISTORY

On March 24, 1989 the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of oil. The ecologically sensitive location, season of the year, and large scale of this spill resulted in one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Exxon settled in 1991 with funds disbursed in three discrete parts: criminal plea agreement ($25 million), criminal restitution ($100 million), and civil settlement ($900 million).

What Were the Impacts?

The spill affected more than 1,300 miles of shoreline, with immense impacts for fish and wildlife and their habitats, as well as for local industries and communities.

  • An estimated 250,000 seabirds
  • 2,800 sea otters
  • 300 harbor seals
  • 250 bald eagles
  • As many as 22 killer whales
  • Billions of salmon and herring eggs

More than 25 years since the spill, the following species remain in a “Not Recovering” or “Unknown” status:

  • Killer whales (family group known as pod AT1)
  • Kittlitz’s murrelets
  • Marbled murrelets
  • Pigeon guillemots

What’s Happening Now?

Settlement funds have been used to fund multiple restoration and protection projects throughout Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Alaska, and for habitats outside of the state that are important for migratory species. More than 600,000 acres of land have been protected using settlement funds and matching funds from numerous restoration, research, and monitoring programs.

Current restoration activities are focused on:

  • Long-term herring research and monitoring
  • Long-term monitoring of marine conditions and injured resources
  • Shorter-term harbor protection and restoration projects
  • Lingering oil
  • Habitat protection

Long-term monitoring of marine conditions and restoration effectiveness is ongoing.

Ultimately, the Exxon Valdez spill resulted in a close examination of the status of oil spill prevention, response, and cleanup in the United States. One result was the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which led to the establishment of NOAA’s DARRP program.


Beginning in 1990, SSO deposits became an issue of concern and resulted in the following specific shoreline surveys (denoted by acronyms given by the joint federal, state, and Exxon teams):

SSAT in 1990 documented intertidal SSO deposits, defined as oil >5 cm below surface boulder/cobble armor.

MAYSAP (1991) and FINSAP (1992) surveyed sites where SSO was found by earlier surveys.

The number of shoreline subdivisions and segments surveyed decreased from year to year as subdivisions with no observed SSO in previous surveys were eliminated. These comprehensive shoreline surveys for SSO in 1989–1992 provided the basis for assessing oil distribution and persistence (Table 1 Neff, et al., 1995), allowing for a prediction of conditions prior to 2000. From 2001 through 2007, NOAA and Resource Planning, Incorporated (RPI, in 2007) conducted a series of shoreline surveys in PWS focusing on the presence of SSORs. The initial 2001 NOAA survey was based on results of the 1991 MAYSAP survey (Neff et al., 1995 Short et al., 2002) and served as much of the basis for the subsequent NOAA and RPI surveys. In parallel, Exxon and their scientific team performed shoreline surveys between 2001 and 2009 documenting the observed SSOR. These observations were classified as trace (TR), light oil residue (LOR), moderate oil residue (MOR), and heavy oil residue ([HOR) (Figure 1 Page et al., 2008), depending on the observations of oil in dug pits within the intertidal beaches. Along with these observations, the chemical compositional changes due to weathering, along with the depletion of the remaining shoreline SSO hydrocarbons, were quantitatively determined (Page et al., 2008 Boehm et al., 2008).

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - HISTORY

MARCH 24, 2016 -- While oil spills happen almost every day, we are fortunate that relatively few make such large or lasting impressions as the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez spills.

Before 2010, when the United States was fixated on a gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, most Americans could probably only name one spill: when the tanker Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

Here we've gathered 10 photos that help tell the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its impacts, not only on the environment but also on science, policy, spill response, school kids, and even board games. It has become a touchstone event in many ways, one to be learned from even decades after the fact.

1. Time for safety

Long before the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, a series of events were building that would enable this catastrophic marine accident to unfold as it did. These actions varied from the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s to the decision by the corporation running that pipeline to disband its oil spill response team and Exxon’s efforts to hold up both the tanker Exxon Valdez and its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, as exemplars of safety.

Captain Hazelwood received two Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988, the years leading up to March 1989, which was coincidentally the month the Exxon Valdez was featured on an Exxon Shipping Company calendar bearing the warning to "take time to be careful - now."

2. A law for the birds

Photos of oil-soaked birds and other wildlife in Prince William Sound reinforced just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at preventing or addressing the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

While lawmakers took nearly a year and a half—and a few more oil spills—to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, this landmark legislation was without a doubt inspired by that major oil spill. (After all, the law specifically "bars from Prince William Sound any tank vessels that have spilled over 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989." In other words, the Exxon Valdez .) In the years since it passed, this law has made huge strides in improving oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration.

3. The end of single-hull tankers

This image of a damaged ship is not showing the T/V Exxon Valdez , and that is precisely the point. The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker with a single hull, which meant that when it hit ground, there was only one layer of metal for the rocks to tear through and release its tanks of oil.

But this 2009 photo shows the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla after it sustained a major gash in its double-sided hull—and didn't spill a drop of oil. Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all new tankers and tank-barges were required to be built with double hulls to reduce the chance of another Exxon Valdez situation. January 1, 2015 was the final deadline for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters.

4. Oiled otters and angry kids

Policymakers weren't the only ones to take note and take action in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, California, was quite upset that the oil spill was having such devastating effects on one of her favorite animals: sea otters. So, on April 13, 1989, she wrote and illustrated a letter to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to let him know she felt that the oil spill was "killing nature."

Indeed, sea otters in Prince William Sound weren’t declared recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill until 2013. Other species still haven’t recovered and in some sheltered beaches below the surface, you can still find pockets of oil.

5. Oil and killer whales do mix (unfortunately)

One of the species that has yet to recover after the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the killer whale, or orca. Before this oil spill, scientists and oil spill experts thought that these marine mammals were able to detect and avoid oil spills. That is, until two killer whale pods were spotted swimming near or through oil from this spill. One of them, a group nicknamed the "AT1 Transients" which feed primarily on marine mammals, suffered an abrupt 40% drop in population during the 18 months following the oil spill.

The second group of affected killer whales, the fish-eating "AB Pod Residents," lost 33% of their population, and while they have started to rebound, the transients are listed as a "depleted stock" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and may have as few as seven individuals remaining, down from a stable population of at least 22 in the 1980s.

Building on the lessons of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, NOAA has developed an emergency plan for keeping the endangered Southern Resident killer whale populations of Washington and British Columbia away from potential oil spills.

6. Tuna troubles

How does crude oil affect fish populations? In the decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, teams of scientists have been studying the long-term effects of oil on fish such as herring, pink salmon, and tuna. In the first couple years after this spill, they found that oil was in fact toxic to developing fish, curving their spines, reducing the size of their eyes and jaws, and building up fluid around their hearts.

As part of this rich research tradition begun after the Exxon Valdez spill, NOAA scientists helped uncover the precise mechanisms for how this happens after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The photo here shows both a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top) and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom).

The oil-exposed larva exhibits a suite of abnormalities, showing how toxic chemicals in oil such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can affect the embryonic heart. By altering the embryonic heartbeat, exposure to oil can transform the shape of the heart, with implications for how well the fish can swim and survive as an adult.

7. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Not all impacts from an oil spill are as easy to see as deformed fish hearts. As NOAA scientists Alan Mearns and Gary Shigenaka have learned since 1989, picking out those impacts from the noisy background levels of variability in the natural environment become even harder when the global climate and ocean are undergoing unprecedented change as well.

Mearns, for example, has been monitoring the boom and bust cycles of marine life on a large boulder—nicknamed "Mearns Rock"—that was oiled but not cleaned after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What he and Shigenaka have observed on that rock and elsewhere in Prince William Sound has revealed large natural swings in the numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles, changes which are unrelated to the oil spill as they were occurring even in areas untouched by the spill.

8. A game culture

Just as the Exxon Valdez oil spill touched approximately 200 miles of remote and rugged Alaskan shoreline, this spill also touched the hearts and minds of people far from the spill. References to it permeated mainstream American culture in surprising ways, inspiring a cookbook, a movie, a play, music, books, poetry, and even a board game.

That's right, a bartender from Valdez, Alaska, produced the board game "On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill" as a result of his experience employed in spill cleanup. Players vied to be the first to wash all 200 miles of oiled shoreline without running out of time or money.

9. Carrying a piece of the ship

One NOAA scientist in particular, Gary Shigenaka, who kicked off his career working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was personally touched by this spill as well. After receiving a small chunk of metal from the ship's salvage, Shigenaka began amassing a collection of Exxon Valdez –related memorabilia, ranging from a highball glass commemorating the ship's launch in 1986 (ironic considering the questions surrounding its captain being intoxicated the night of the accident) to the front page of the local paper the day of the spill.

10. The infamous ship's fate

After causing the largest-to-date oil spill in U.S. waters, what ever happened to the ill-fated Exxon Valdez ship? It limped back for repairs to San Diego Bay where it was built, but by the time it was sea-ready again, the ship had been banned from Prince William Sound by the Oil Pollution Act and would instead be reassigned to the Mediterranean and Middle East and renamed accordingly, the Exxon Mediterranean .

But a series of new names and bad luck continued to follow this ship, until it was finally sold for scrap in 2011. Under its final name, Oriental Nicety , it was intentionally grounded at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, in 2012 and dismantled in its final resting place 23 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground half a world away.

Watch the video: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: In the Wake of Disaster. Retro Report. The New York Times (January 2022).

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