A Bald Eagle is washed of oil during the Exxon Valdez spill. (IBRRC photo)
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The nation's worst oil spill occurred in Alaska's Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. At least 11 million gallons of crude oil spewed out of the Exxon Valdez tanker after it struck Bligh Reef in the early morning hours.
While only 20% of its cargo leaked into the surrounding waters, the huge spill caused wide environmental damage, damaged Alaska fisheries and killed thousands of seabirds. The resulting slick stretched for 1,300 miles along Alaskan coastline.
Studies of oil spills continue to show what incredible damage is caused by these spills. It has been documented that petroleum-based hydrocarbons can severely impact aquatic life at concentrations as low as one part per billion.
Valdez oil spill hits Kenai Peninsula.
During the spill, seabirds were immediately affected by the oil. The resulting spill penetrated their plumage, reducing the insulating ability of their feathers. Oiled birds are prone to hypothermia and much less buoyant in the water. The oiled feathers also impairs birds' flight, thus making it difficult or impossible to feed and escape from predators.
As they attempt to preen or clean their feathers, birds will ingest oil that coats their plumage, causing kidney damage, altered liver function, and digestive tract distress. The limited feeding ability coupled with the ingestion of the oil quickly causes dehydration and metabolic imbalances. Most birds affected by an oil spill will die without human intervention.
The Prince William Sound has always been abundant with water-loving birds – including ducks, murres, cormorants and grebes. It's estimated by wildlife biologists that 90,000 to 270,000 birds died and disappeared in the sound following the spill. Biologists also counted over 1,000 dead sea otters.
Exxon Valdez oil spill response. (NOAA photos)
IBRRC had a response team on-site during the spill response for more than six months.
New stabilization protocols developed
The Exxon Valdez disaster was the first major spill where field stabilization and transport were utilized extensively. In order to cover the vast coastline that had been oiled, four regional centers were set up at Valdez, Seward, Homer and Kodiak Island. Birds were often kept overnight on boats in the most remote areas.
Stabilization consists of warming or cooling birds to help maintain a normal body temperature, providing oral fluids to combat dehydration and providing them with much needed rest in a dark quiet place. After initial stabilization birds can be transported to the main rehabilitation center.
After the stabilization, even the five-hour boat ride over rough waters to the nearest center increased the chances of survival. If not for this basic field stabilization and transport many more birds would have lost their lives to the Exxon disaster.
Alyeska, the oil response association that represents seven oil companies who operate in Valdez, including Exxon, assumed responsibility for the cleanup. Alyeska later opened an emergency communications center in Valdez after the spill and set up a second operations center in Anchorage, Alaska.
Detailed report on IBRRC's Exxon Valdez spill response PDF 100 KB
Results of Eagle Capture, Health Assessment Following Valdez Oil Spill PDF 5.1 MB
The Valdez ship changes names
After being repaired, the oil tanker was renamed the "Sea River Mediterranean," later shortened to "S/R Mediterranean," then to simply "Mediterranean" and sailed under the Marshall Island flag. Although Exxon tried to return the ship to its Alaskan fleet, it was prohibited by law from entering Prince William Sound.
One of the longest cases in maritime history finally wound its way through the U.S. Court system. In June 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court finally voted 5-3, to reduce $2.5 billion punitive damages award to no more than $507.5 million. The case is Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 07-219. News: Exxon settlement could be distributed in October 2008
Earlier a lower court awarded $5 Billion in damages to area fishermen who lost revenue after the spill. Another court cut that award in half to $2.5 Billion. Case timeline
Also see: Oil company tells top court captain was to blame
Exxon Valdez by the numbers
11 MILLION: Gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez in 1989
470 MILES: Distance the spilled oil drifted from Bligh Reef to the village of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula
1,300 MILES: Miles of oiled shoreline, 200 of them heavily or moderately oiled
$2.1 BILLION: Amount Exxon estimates it spent cleaning up after the tanker spill over the following four summers
$1.045 BILLION: Amount Exxon paid in 1990s in criminal fines and civil settlements
$2.5 BILLION: Punitive damages the federal appeals court awarded in 2006
$2.271 BILLION: Accrued interest on the $2.5 billion punitive damages award
$781 MILLION: Lawyers' cut of the $4.8 billion, assuming that figure stands
$3.1 BILLION: Plaintiffs estimated share of the $4.8 billion
$465 MILLION: Cook Inlet drift fleet's estimated share of the $4.8 billion
$800,000: Estimated average payout to a Cook Inlet drift permit holder*
$92: Estimated share for the Peninsula Aleutians roe herring fishermen
30,000: Number of plaintiffs
8,000: Estimated number of plaintiffs who have died since the spill
$40.6 BILLION: Exxon's estimated profit last year
$7.6 BILLION: Estimated cash dividends Exxon paid to its shareholders last year
* The amount each plaintiff would get depends on their catch history in the years before the spill.
Source: Alaska Daily News (Plaintiffs attorneys, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council, Exxon Mobil Corp.)
EPA: Exxon Valdez Emergency Management
Images of the oil spill
Alaska Daily News: Updates on Exxon Valdez oil spill
Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Sea Otter Rescue