On March 24, 1989, an oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez, hit the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and things have never been the same for this pristine area. Alaskans are watching the cleanup process that is beginning on the shores of Louisiana, and Alabama. Florida and Mississippi’s shorelines are also threatened. The oil that leaked from the Exxon Valdez is still ranked #1 in environmental damages; however, it has been dropped from the top fifty international oil spills. The damage to the fishing industry in Alaska, as well as tourism and other resources suffered immensely. On the outside, it is vastly improved; but on the inside, Alaskans who were involved are scarred.
According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and determined that the probable causes of the grounding were:
1. The failure of the third mate to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue and excessive workload;
2. The failure of the master to provide a proper navigation watch, possibly due to impairment from alcohol;
3. The failure of Exxon Shipping Company to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez;
4. The failure of the U.S. Coast Guard to provide an effective vessel traffic system
5. The lack of effective pilot and escort services.
The ship’s captain had received permission to use the inbound lane rather than the outbound lane, due to the presence of icebergs. However, once the ship passed the icebergs, it didn’t get back into the correct passage and became grounded on the reef.
Four summers were spent cleaning up the shores. More than 1,000 boats and 100 airplanes and helicopters were involved, as well as more than 11,000 Alaska residents and some Exxon employees working together to restore the area. Imagine 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools full of oil; that is equal to the amount of oil that leaked from the tanker. Some of the wildlife and sea creatures of Alaska have come back; the herring have not.
Even though residents received monetary compensation, which took years in some cases, due to appeals, they feel they were not repaid for years that they were unable to make a living, most of them by fishing.
It’s unclear what will happen on the Gulf Coast, but massive efforts are being made to protect the wildlife and do what can be done to prevent the same devastation of livelihoods in that area as happened in Alaska. After a thorough investigation, time will allow us to know what caused the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, taking the lives of eleven persons, as well as injuring several others. Until that time, our thoughts are with those who are trying to stop the oil spill, in addition to those who are struggling to protect the Gulf shores.