The Grounding and Oil Spill of the Exxon Valdez


Here we go again. Following the "Nestucca Spill" and a torrent week in Hawaii, I was tasked to Cordova, Alaska by the Prince William Sound Seiners Association and worked extensively for them, the City of Cordova and the Cordova District Fisherman's United.

Before merging with Mobil, Exxon operates the largest fleet of supertankers in the world.

I admired this village and it's residents immensely, having it remind me of my home town of Tofino.

Captain John Hazelwood was a convenient scapegoat for his negligence, sheltering Exxon from public pressure during the spill. Although Hazelwood had a blood alcohol level in excess of legal standards, it was merely a contributing factor to a thwarted policy by the oil companies to work around traffic management and corporate pressures toward profiteering.

Hazelwood informed Valdez Traffic Control, he would be transiting wider than the normal shipping, essentially using the northbound land, for a southbound voyage. Ice chunks, known as "calves" or "growlers" were drifting into the southbound lane and Hazelwood announced his intention to "wend" his way through the ice.

In doing so, he steered the ship more than 45 degrees into the southbound land, then ordering a course correction once they past the Bligh Island marker bouy. The relieving first officer misunderstood the ships position on radar. A crewman aboard the Valdez noticed the bouy on the wrong side of the vessel and dashed to inform the bridge. The would not be enough time to stop the ship (something which normally requires several miles). The Valdez hit the reef while operating at sea speed.

To add insult to injury, Hazelwood neglected to inform Exxon or Valdez Traffic for an extended period. Hazelwood made several attemptd to free the vessel from the rocks, which likely caused other cargo tanks to rupture, thus needlessly increasing the magnitude of the spill.

Hazelwood was also a harbour pilot, which eliminated an extra skillful pair of eyes on the bridge. The grounding was largely attributed to the first officer

Shortly after the grounding, Exxon tasked the smaller "Exxon San Francisco" to offload the cripple Valdez's residual cargo.

As my friend Jack Davis put it, "A futile attempt"

Skimmer barges were few and far between during the spill. This was the only operation we could spot, nearly seven days after the grounding. Sadly enough, they were unable to get close enough to the shoreline, where oil was in greater concentrations. Likewise, some areas had been sprayed with dispersant, which not only increases toxicity within the water columm, but also makes recovery impossible.

Responding to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Investigating the death of a middle aged California Grey Whale. An autopsy revealed both inhaled and ingested crude oil, although the whale post mortem revealed evidence of the whales health being poor, before the distressed whale came into contact with contaminated ocean water.

Many species of were affected by the spill. Clear numbers of avian mortality are difficult to guage, mainly because they sink, become carrion or are washed ashore in remote and inaccessible areas. Most experts would agree, collected birds (dead or alive) are in 5-10% range of the biomass mortality. Rare species of birds are particularily vulnerable during oils spills, particularily Cassin's Aucklets and Marbled Murrelets. Birds in the grebe family are harshy affected, as are cormorants, gulls murres.

Surface inspections were conducted shortly after the spill. Hundreds of miles of coastline were eventually contaminated with continuous coverage of Alaskan crude. This beach was on Peak Island. Neighbouring Storrey Island was also greatly affect early in the spill.

It was not possible, to comprehend, no less develop an effective strategy for cleanup, once the oil came ashore. While much of the shoreline in Prince William Sound is dynamic and self-scrubbing, much of the oil remains. It will continue to do so, for decades to come.

However, in war.... you pick your battles. Once such assault was at Sawmill Bay, were we rallied forces to save one of the largest salmon hatchery complexes on the planet. You can read the story here : Anchorage Daily News

Some of the faces and names of the Exxon Valdez Spill

Back in Cordova, my days were filled with meetings, strategy/training sessions, media events and volunteer co-ordination. During a public meeting at the local school auditorium, one of my fellow fishermen pulled me into the hall for a special meeting .

Alaska State Governor Steve Cowper

I was advised, we would be attending a briefing with the governor. What happened next, was something from a scene of the movie "The Hunt for Red October". I asked "Who is giving the briefing?" He responded, "You are". Governor Cowper was an amiable and deeply concerned person. He understood and appreciated my recent service in the "Nestucca Oil Spill". I advised him on the difficulties of cleanup operations and expectations stemming from the prolonged effects of oil in the marine environment. Like ourselves, he was highly critical of Exxon's efforts to this point and was greatly skeptical of their assurances to cleanup and compensate Alaskans.

Dan Lawn

Dan and I were in the same boat. Although I never met Dan, I spoke with him a few times on the phone. He was Valdez-based state environmental inspector who warned about spill and cleanup programs before the Exxon Valdez wrecked. His outspokenness made him a hero to some, and a royal pain to oil companies and his supervisors, who tried to demote and transfer him. Dan left state employment a few years ago. Still lives in Valdez; monitors pipeline and oil operations for an environmental group.

Dr. Riki Ott

Riki is extensively learned in the effects of toxic substances in the marine environment. As a published author and public speaker, she continues to lecture Alaskans both young and old.

A phenonmena known as "chocolate mousse" was apparent after several days of "emulsification", when water and oil would mix under intertidal, surge and wave action. In some areas, particularily Herring Bay, high winds would cause the foam to become airborne, contaminating the upland as well for several hundred meters into the woods.

Hot water.... bad idea. This would cause toxic substances to be injected into the water column, causing damage to pelagic and benthic species which were otherwise marginally unaffected by the initial spill. Use of dispersants, detergents and other chemicals often place adjunct species at risk.

Chain-gang oil recovery. Works alright on smooth beaches, which are few and far between along the rocky shoreline of Prince William Sound.

While this sea otter might be recoving well, it is unclear how many sea otters died during the spill.

A Coast Guard helicopter surveys the operation once unladen. The crippled vessel was towed to San Diego, where it was repaired and renamed "Exxon Mediterranean". 1600 tons of steel was replaced at a cost of $30,000,000.

The ship underwent several name changes "Sea River Mediterranean", "S/R Mediterranean" and eventually "Mediterranean", flying a Marshall Islands flag of convenience. A law was passed in the US Congress, which permanently banned the ship from entering Prince William Sound and it's namesake port of Valdez. In late September, 2002, the ship's owners transited vessel to an undisclosed foreign port of call in Eastern Asia (likely India), presumably to be scrapped.

* Update *

In June of 2008, nearly two decades after the spill, the Supreme Court of the United States reduced the claimants settlement by half, during a time when the company was recording record profits.

For an in-depth summary, click here : New York Times