Exxon Valdez and the Worst Oil Spill in our History

On this day in 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez went off course in a 10-mile wide channel in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and hit submerged rocks on a reef. The hull of the tanker was gashed in several places and over 11 million gallons of crude oil (22% of its cargo) leaked out, causing one of the worst oil spills and environmental disasters in US waters.

Delayed efforts to contain the spill and naturally strong winds and waves dispersed the millions of gallons of North Slope crude oil across the sound. The spill eventually polluted 1,300 miles of indented shoreline, as well as adjacent waters, as far south as the southern end of Shelikof Strait between Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula.

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens emerged as a strong proponent of federal funding to pay for the damage. Thousands of workers and volunteers helped in a massive cleanup after the oil spill, and Exxon provided $2.1 billion in funding. Despite these efforts, the spill exterminated much native wildlife, including salmon, herring, sea otters, bald eagles, and killer whales. Undaunted, Exxon also sued the State of Alaska and Coast Guard, alleging they both interfered with company efforts to mitigate the spill.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) eventually assigned the bulk of the blame for the oil spill to Exxon, citing its incompetent and overworked crew. The board also faulted the Coast Guard for an inadequate system of traffic regulation. After evidence suggested that Joseph J. Hazelwood, the ship’s captain, had been drinking before the accident, Exxon terminated his employment.

In 1990 the U.S. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act in direct response to the Exxon Valdez accident. Among other measures, the act created procedures for responding to future oil spills, established the legal liabilities of responsible parties, and set a schedule for banning single-hulled tankers from U.S. waters by 2015.

Hazelwood, now 73, never had his master’s license revoked and it remains valid to this date.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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