Exxon Valdez 20 Years Later

by Bill Chameides | March 18th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 6 comments

Scratch below the surface of Prince William Sound’s seemingly pristine wilderness and you’ll likely still find oil, 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill. (Wiki Commons)

Prince William Sound, 2009. Pictures of picturesque beaches and icy-blue waters might suggest that the effects of the 1989 oil spill are long gone. Dig a little deeper, and a very different picture emerges.

On March 24, 1989, just minutes after midnight, the 987-foot Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef in the Gulf of Alaska, sending some 11 million gallons of crude oil toward the pristine shores of Prince William Sound.

It was a huge spill, but a host of other factors — its proximity to the shore, stormy weather with high winds, and delays in starting clean-up efforts — all combined to make it one of America’s most notorious environmental disasters. For area wildlife, the timing could hardly have been worse. The spill occurred shortly before the phytoplankton blooms — the explosion of microscopic life that fuels marine life — and migration season. Thousands of migrating birds were headed toward the area en route to new seasonal destinations. In the spill’s wake, hundreds of thousands of seabirds perished, along with thousands of marine mammals.

Despite the devastation, many experts were sanguine about the long-term prognosis for the area’s fauna and flora. For example, Bruce Wing, a government biologist, assured the Anchorage Daily News a couple of weeks after the Valdez incident that the wildlife will “all come back. In a few years.”

That was 1989. Today, a good deal more than a few years later, the degree of recovery is a matter of considerable debate and litigation. Some scientists have concluded that the toxins from the oil spill have largely broken down and dispersed. Exxon has pointed to more than 350 scientific studies they funded that found no evidence of long-term effects (see here and here).

There is evidence that oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill remains in the area, causing ecosystem damage. This picture shows the transfer of buried oil through the food web — from mussels, barnacles, periwinkles, etc., then to predators. (Photo by Dave Janka, Knight Island, Prince William Sound, 2003)

But there are a host of other studies that find that toxins remain and are hindering ecosystem recovery. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

(established as part of the court settlement between the Exxon corporation and the governments of the United States and Alaska to oversee the sound’s restoration) reports that a large number of species, including sea otters and Harlequin ducks, have yet to fully recover. And then there’s the herring fishery.

Four years after the Exxon Valdez spill, the $12-million Pacific herring fishery collapsed, sending much of the local economy into a tailspin. While the cause is debated, there is evidence that the collapse was triggered years earlier by the spill itself. The fishery remains closed today.

Oil Persists and Will for Decades or More

The long-term impact of the spill might continue to be deliberated, but one thing is clear: the oil is still there. Dip a pail into the sand and you may very likely pull up a black, oozy oleo of sand and oil (watch a video of such an exercise). The Valdez Trustee Council writes: “One of the most stunning revelations of … the last ten years 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.”

Dr. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and former commercial fisherma’am, told me that the sound and other areas affected by the spill recovered unevenly: “Some beaches that were moderately or lightly oiled in 1989 have fared okay. The oil broke down and degraded and the wildlife that used the beaches recovered.”

“But,” she continued, “northern-facing beaches and bays were hard hit in 1989. These heavily oiled beaches still have relatively fresh, toxic oil, buried about 6-12 inches below the surface.”

During the first few years of cleanup, beach surveys showed the oil dissipating at a pretty good clip of about 58 percent per year. At that rate, little oil was expected to remain past 1992. However, follow-up surveys in 2001 and 2005 revealed much lower rates of dissipation — four percent per year or less. At that rate, the Exxon Valdez oil will remain on Prince William Sound’s beaches for decades, perhaps a century.

Dr. Jeffrey Short, formerly of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and colleagues wrote in their 2007 report that “such persistence can pose a contact hazard to intertidally foraging sea otters, sea ducks, and shorebirds, create a chronic source of low-level contamination, discourage subsistence in a region where use is heavy, and degrade the wilderness character of protected lands.”

Not So Simple

‘Doesn’t look done to me’ was the photographer’s comment when he took this photo on Smith Island, Prince William Sound, after the Supreme Court ruled in the Exxon Valdez case in the summer of 2008. (Photo by Dave Janka, July 1, 2008)

A silver lining from the Exxon Valdez spill, if there can be one, has been the intense scientific research that has followed it. As a result, today we have a much keener understanding of oil spills. The oil has proven to be remarkably persistent. Some has been pounded by the surf into a recalcitrant, emulsified, mousse-like substance that resists chemical degradation. Other oil has seeped into subsurface sediments isolated from the elements that would otherwise promote degradation.

The pathways by which the oil spreads its toxicity have proven to be more complex. Jeffrey Short, the government scientist who led the 2001 and 2005 studies, explained to me that a “completely different toxicity mechanism was discovered … (involving) … polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” or PAHs. These toxins can interfere with embryo development at concentrations 100 to 1,000 times lower than had been expected (see toxicology study).

Before the Exxon Valdez, oils spills were widely thought to present an acute, short-term environmental threat that would rapidly disperse and subside. Now we know it’s not that simple. The oil lingers, just beneath the surface, threatening wildlife and transforming the lives of area residents.

The Bard wrote that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred in their bones.” In the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, the oil is both interred and destined to live long, long after we are gone.

filed under: ecosystems, faculty, fossil fuels, oceans, oil, pollution, waste
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  1. Daniel Wedgewood
    Mar 31, 2009

    Dr. Chameides, Maybe if Alaska was not so concentrated on building a “bridge to nowhere,” they would have gotten this problem fixed in a more responsible way… Dan

  2. Peter Ramsay
    Mar 31, 2009

    What have we learned after 20 years? How frequently since 1989 have oil spills been the result of human error? Are we more prepared now to deal with an ecological disaster in remote locations? For a human parallel to the Exxon Valdez story cut and paste this link into your browser and check it out.

  3. Victor Smith
    Mar 31, 2009

    The lingering toxicity is why the herring fishery remains closed 20 years after the spill, and it is another reason the Supreme Court’s settlement of the case is so unconscionable. The one to one punitive damage ratio the Court settled on is a sham. The fact is that there is no separation of compensatory and punitive damages, it all went into one pot. Each plaintiff in each of the 53 different claim categories gets a theoretical percentage of the total amount of the award. The problem—as you recognize—is that the actual damages were way under calculated. The State of Alaska pointed out to the Court in their amicus brief that punitive damages were required just for compensation. If you are interested, I would be happy to let you look at one of the case’s accountings that shows how previously settled compensation paid back in 1989 by Crawford Claims (hired by Exxon) has been taken back and essentially double entered as punitive damages. In effect then, the total of compensatory and punitive damages are actually less than actual damages as determined by income averaging back in 1989. I have a 1200 word piece titled Robert’s Rules of Disorder that I wrote about this and published on Alaska Report. Would you like to see it? I tried to get it on Huff Post. This should be a big issue. Victor Smith

  4. Dinkar Ganti
    Mar 31, 2009

    Hi, With the right technology, a spill can be remediated within 4 – 6 weeks. My website will provide you with some details. I am surprised that in your search for new technologies on bioremediation you did not stumble upon us, of course, search engines are generally known to be quirky. Thanks,

    • Bill Chameides
      Mar 31, 2009

      Sounds like you should get in touch with the Exxon folks.

      • Dinkar Ganti
        Mar 31, 2009

        Thank you for your comment. This is my take on the issue: its cheaper to lobby legislation than to sponsor a solution that would clean up oil because if the oil companies begin to accept responsibility for every oil spill, the margins would reduce and the liability on the oil company would increase. For example, when the transportation became a liability, the oil companies helped form the INTERTANKO so a nameless entity gets caught up in an unintended oil spill. I don’t believe that its a technology issue and as far as Exxon Mobil is concerned, I am sure google is available on their internets..though I am not holding my breath for it, I remember approaching them a while ago. We have been doing this for 8 years and are convinced that the slow and steady approach helps us collect data to support our claim. The people who can really benefit from what we do are the fisherman and of course the marine life that has been suffering for the last twenty years and we volunteer for pro-bono cleanup for small regions annually to help out in cleanup of oil spills. Thank you for keeping this conversation live.

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