Exxon Valdez : The Prince William Sound Oil Spill and the Oil Plague [audiovisual documentation of the cover up]

On March 23, 1989 the Exxon Valdez an oil supertanker operated by Exxon and under the command of Captain Joseph J. Hazelwood left the port of Valdez headed for Long beach, CA with 53,094,510 gallons of oil on board. Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the supertanker collided with Bligh Reef, a well known navigation hazard, ruptured 8 of its 11 cargo tanks and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. The result was catastrophic. Although the spill was radioed in shortly after the collision Exxon’s response was slow. In fact, there was no recovery effort for three days while Exxon searched for clean up equipment. During that time millions of gallons of oil began to spread down the coast. Days later as the clean up effort began the oil slick was no longer containable. It eventually extended 470 miles to the southwest, contaminated hundreds of miles of coastline and utterly destroyed the ecosystem.



Photo Credit: Composite done by the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council from an original map by the Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation.

Description: Blue areas illustrate oil slick spread of 11,000 sq. miles.

These are the well known facts of the spill but there is much more to the story. Here is the Whole Truth. The history of the spill really began back in 1973 when Congress authorized the Trans-Alaska pipeline. This allowed oil companies including Exxon to access the crude oil from Alaska’s North Slope and transport it to the lower 48 states. While this meant great wealth for the oil companies it also jeopardized the waters of the Prince William Sound and the fisheries which drove the economy in the region.



Exxon, along with the rest of the oil industry knew that navigating a large supertanker through the icy and treacherous waters of Prince William Sound was extremely complicated. It also knew that Alaska was not equipped to contain a large oil spill. In fact the contingency plan in place at the time acknowledged that a spill over 8.4 million gallons could not be contained and would result in long term consequences. Armed with this knowledge the oil companies promised to use great care to avoid a spill.

Exxon broke that promise. Despite the risk of a spill, Exxon knowingly allowed Captain Hazelwood, a relapsed alcoholic, to command its supertanker through these treacherous waters. For nearly three years before the spill Exxon officials ignored repeated reports of Hazelwood’s relapse and failed to enforce its substance abuse policies. In fact, Hazelwood was allowed to continue operating the supertanker even though his driver’s license had been revoked for operating a motor vehicle under the influence.

It was no surprise that on the evening of March 23, 1989 Hazelwood visited two local bars and consumed between 5 and 9 double shots (15 to 27 ounces of 80 proof alcohol) before boarding the ship. Even though he was the only officer on board licensed to navigate through Prince William Sound, in his drunken state, he turned the helm over to a fatigued third mate who was not qualified to steer the ship. Shortly thereafter, as the Exxon Valdez picked up speed it left the shipping lanes and collided with Bligh Reef. Today the Exxon Valdez oil spill is still considered the worst oil spill in our nation’s history.

The first call

Hazelwood radios in to inform the Valdez Traffic Center he has hit Bligh Reef with the ExxonValdez oil tanker.

Excerpt of transcript of radio transmission recorded by the Vessel Traffic Center, Valdez, Alaska on March 23 and 24, 1989 relating to the grounding of the Exxon Valdez.

Written transcript:LISTEN NOW

HAZELWOOD: Yeah, Valdez Traffic. EXXON VALDEZ. Over.

VTC: EXXON VALDEZ. Valdez traffic.

HAZELWOOD: Yeah. Ah, it’s VALDEZ back. Ah, we’ve— ah, should be on your radar there— we’ve fetched up, ah, hard aground north of, ah, Good Island off Bligh Reef. And, ah, evidently, ah, leaking some oil, and, ah, we’re gonna be here for a while. And, ah, if you want, ah, so you’re notified. Over.

Exxon promised to make Prince William Sound whole again.


Alaska President of Exxon, Dan Cornett, spoke to the citizens of Prince William Sound and promised to make them whole. This is an excerpt of this speech, filmed during a community meeting in Prince William Sound following the oil spill.”

Written transcript:

MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Is Exxon shipping company prepared to reimburse commercial fisherman for the lost income, fisheries –

DAN CORNETT: You won’t have a problem. I don’t care if you believe that, that’s the truth. You have had some good luck and you don’t realize it. You have Exxon and we do business straight.

MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Don’t stand up there and lie to us.

DAN CORNETT: We will consider whatever it takes to keep you whole. Now, that’s– you have my word on that. Dan Cornett. I told you that.

The U.S. Government has at times orchestrated and participated in the cover-up, suppression, and or the delay in release of scientific findings related to historical events, sometimes based on sound reasoning out of a calculated sense of duty to ensure the survival of the Republic, and even the human race, while at other times out of what can only be characterized as arrogance or paranoid delusion and a sense of entitlement by a certain class of individuals that believe democracy works better in the shadows than in the light of day.

Of the more recent and perhaps unintentional cover-ups is that of the facts, findings, and lessons learned on the March 24th, 1989 Alaskan Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Complicit in the cover-up are a few corporate bag-men, slick revolving-door lobbyists, corrupt politicians, and bought and paid for mainstream news media mouthpieces that through greed, lies, omissions, misinformation, political pandering, double-speak, and ignorance of the past, now have a black stain on their hands that will not wash away anytime soon, no sooner at least than the sorrow of a nation. This book will hopefully bring much of this information to the light of day.

Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, oil persists in the region and, in some places, “is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill,” according to the council overseeing restoration efforts.

“This Exxon Valdez oil is decreasing at a rate of 0-4 percent per year,” the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council stated in a report marking Tuesday’s 20th anniversary of the worst oil spill in U.S. waters. “At this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely.”

The council’s findings come two decades after the March 24, 1989 disaster, when the single-hulled Exxon tanker hit a reef, emptying its contents into Alaskan waters. The spill contaminated more than 1,200 miles of shoreline and killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals.

Captain convicted of misdemeanor
The council, made up of three state and three federal appointees, was created to administer the $900 million that Exxon paid to settle lawsuits filed after the accident, which also resulted in criminal charges against the ship’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood.

Hazelwood, was accused but then acquitted on a charge of being drunk at the time. He was, however, convicted of negligent discharge of oil, a misdemeanor, and sentenced to a $50,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service.

In the weeks and months following the spill, thousands of people tried to clean up the contamination. But two decades later, oil persists and is estimated to total around 20,000 gallons, according to the council. One of the lessons learned is that a spill’s impacts can last a long time in a habitat with calm, cold waters like Prince William Sound, the council said.

“Following the oil and its impacts over the past 20 years has changed our understanding of the long-term damage from an oil spill,” the council stated. “We know that risk assessment for future spills must consider what the total damages will be over a longer period of time, rather than only the acute damages in the days and weeks following a spill.”

“One of the most stunning revelations” from studies over the last decade, the council said, “is that Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment and, in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.”

As a result, some sea otter populations as well as bird species have been slow to recover. Overall, some 200,000 seabirds and 4,000 otters were thought to have died from the contamination.

Oil found 450 miles away
Moreover, surveys “have documented lingering oil also on the Kenai Peninsula and the Katmai coast, over 450 miles away,” according to the council.

None of that was expected “at the time of the spill or even ten years later,” it added. “In 1999, beaches in the sound appeared clean on the surface. Some subsurface oil had been reported in a few places, but it was expected to decrease over time and most importantly, to have lost its toxicity due to weathering. A few species were not recovering at the expected rate in some areas, but continuing exposure to oil was not suspected as the primary cause.”

It turns out that oil often got trapped in semi-enclosed bays for weeks, going up and down with the tide and some of it being pulled down into the sediment below the seabed.

“The cleanup efforts and natural processes, particularly in the winter, cleaned the oil out of the top 2-3 inches, where oxygen and water can flow,” the council said, “but did little to affect the large patches of oil farther below the surface.”

Sea otter concerns
That area is also biologically rich with mussels, clams and other marine life that help sustain sea otters and ducks.

“Sea otters usually have very small home ranges of a few square kilometers,” the council said. “In these small ranges, it is unlikely that the otters are avoiding areas of lingering oil when foraging.

As a result, “while overall population numbers in western Prince William Sound have recovered, local populations in heavily oiled areas have not recovered as quickly.”

There is a plus side to the foraging by otters, since digging in oiled areas does release the contaminants to the water, where they are diluted and dispersed.

Bird concerns
The American Bird Conservancy issued its own warning, stating that while many bird species have recovered several significant ones have not.

The spill killed 5-10 percent of the world’s population of Kittlitz’s Murrelets, the group said, a species whose numbers declined 99 percent from 1972 to 2004.

“Prior to the spill, the rate of decline was 18 percent per year, but since 1989 that rate has increased to 31 percent,” the group stated. “The growing impact of global warming in the Arctic and the melting of glaciers, caused by the burning of oil and other fossil fuels, may also be a factor in this decline.”

Two other species cited are: the Pigeon Guillemot, whose populations have steadily declined throughout the sound since the spill; and the Marbled Murrelet, which has not met the recovery objective of a stable population.

The group cited a faster transition to double-hulled oil tankers as the best protection for wildlife. Single-hulled tankers are still allowed in U.S. waters until 2015.

“A similar requirement for double-hulled tankers needs to be made globally to protect birds and other wildlife from future spills,” said Michael Fry, the group’s conservation director. “Additional marine reserves and no-go zones for tankers during sensitive breeding and staging seasons should also be implemented to protect the most vulnerable species.”[read more]

Here are some of the most startling statistics about the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill on marine wildlife, fisheries and the region’s economy:

  • The amount of oil spilled could fill 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
  • As many as 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 900 bald eagles and 250,000 seabirds died in the days following the disaster.
  • 1,300 miles of coastline were hit by the oil spill.
  • 1,000 harlequin ducks were killed by the oil spill, in addition to many chronic injuries that occurred as a result of the long term effects of the spill.
  • The cleanup required about 10,000 workers, 1,000 boats and roughly 100 airplanes and helicopters.
  • Four deaths were directly associated with cleanup efforts.
  • The spill caused over $300 million of economic harm to more than 32 thousand people whose livelihoods depended on commercial fishing.
  • Tourism spending decreased by eight percent in south central Alaska and by 35 percent in southwest Alaska in the year after the spill.
  • There was a loss of 9,400 visitors and $5.5 million in state spending.
  • Many fish populations were harmed during the spill. For example, sand lance populations went down in 1989 and 1990, herring returns were significantly fewer in 1992 and 1994 and adult fish had high rates of viral infections.
  • Pink salmon embryos continued to be harmed and killed by oil that remained on stones and gravel of stream banks through at least 1993. As a result, the southwestern part of Prince William Sound lost 1.9 million or 28 percent of its potential stock of wild pink salmon. By 1992, this part of the sound still had 6 percent less of the wild pink salmon stock than was estimated to have existed if the spill had not occurred.
  • Two years following the Exxon Valdez spill, the economic losses to recreational fishing were estimated to be $31 million.
  • Twelve years after the spill, oil could still be found on half of the 91 randomly selected beaches surveyed.
  • Three species of cormorant, the common loon, the harbor seal, the harlequin duck, the pacific herring and the pigeon guillemot still have not fully recovered.

Help stop future oil spills and protect wildlife. Sign the petition to Stop the Drill today!


About irmedeaca

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