The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in the Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989. It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters ever to occur in history. As significant as the Valdez spill was, it ranks well down on the list of the world's largest oil spills in terms of volume released. However, Prince William Sound's remote location (accessible only by helicopter and boat) made government and industry response efforts difficult and severely taxed existing plans for response. The region was a habitat for salmon, sea otters, seals and seabirds. The vessel spilled 10.8 million U.S. gallons (about 40 million litres) of Prudhoe Bay crude oil into the sea, and the oil eventually covered 1,300 square miles (3,400 km2) of ocean.
Exxon Valdez left the Valdez oil terminal in Alaska at 9:12 pm on March 23, 1989 bound for Long Beach, California. A harbor pilot guided the ship through the Valdez Narrows before leaving the ship and returning control to Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood, the ship's master. The ship maneuvered out of the shipping lane to avoid icebergs. Following the maneuver and sometime after 11 pm, Hazelwood departed the wheel house. He left Third Mate Gregory Cousins in charge of the wheel house and Able Seaman Robert Kagan at the helm, both of whom were not given their mandatory 6 hours off duty before their 12-hour duty began. The ship was on autopilot, using the navigation system installed by the company that constructed the ship. The outbound shipping lane was covered with icebergs so the ship's captain, Hazelwood, got permission from the Coast Guard to go out through the inbound lane. The ship struck Bligh Reef at around 12:04 am March 24, 1989.
According to official reports, the ship was carrying 54.1 million U.S. gallons (about 200 million litres) of oil, of which 10.9 million U.S.gallons were spilled into the Prince William Sound. This figure has become the consensus estimate of the spill's volume, as it has been accepted by the State of Alaska's Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. Some groups, such as Defenders of Wildlife, dispute the official estimates, maintaining that the volume of the spill has been underreported.
The first cleanup response was through the use of a dispersant, a surfactant and solvent mixture. A private company applied dispersant on March 24 with a helicopter and dispersant bucket. Because there was not enough wave action to mix the dispersant with the oil in the water, the use of the dispersant was discontinued.The test was relatively successful, reducing 113,400 litres of oil to 1,134 litres of removable residue, but because of unfavorable weather no additional burning was attempted. Mechanical cleanup was started shortly afterwards using booms and skimmers, but the skimmers were not readily available during the first 24 hours following the spill, and thick oil and kelp tended to clog the equipment.
Exxon was widely criticized for its slow response to cleaning up the disaster and John Devens, the mayor of Valdez, has said his community felt betrayed by Exxon's inadequate response to the crisis. More than 11,000 Alaska residents, along with some Exxon employees, worked throughout the region to try to restore the environment.
Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water. However, this also displaced and destroyed the microbial populations on the shoreline; many of these organisms (e.g. plankton) are the basis of the coastal marine food chain, and others (e.g. certain bacteria and fungi) are capable of facilitating the biodegradation of oil. At the time, both scientific advice and public pressure was to clean everything, but since then, a much greater understanding of natural and facilitated remediation processes has developed, due somewhat in part to the opportunity presented for study by the Exxon Valdez spill. Despite the extensive cleanup attempts, a study conducted by NOAA determined that as of early 2007 more than 26 thousand U.S. gallons (22,000 imp gal; 98,000 L) of oil remain in the sandy soil of the contaminated shoreline, declining at a rate of less than 4% per year.
In 1992, Exxon released a video titled Scientists and the Alaska Oil Spill. It was provided to schools with the label "A Video for Students". Critics say this video misrepresents the clean-up process.
Both the long- and short-term effects of the oil spill have been studied comprehensively. Thousands of animals died immediately; the best estimates include 100,000 to as many as 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, as well as the destruction of billions of salmon and herring eggs. The effects of the spill continue to be felt today. Overall reductions in population have been seen in various ocean animals, including stunted growth in pink salmon populations. Sea otters and ducks also showed higher death rates in following years, partially because they ingested prey from contaminated soil and from ingestion of oil residues on hair due to grooming.
Almost 20 years after the spill, a team of scientists at the University of North Carolina found that the effects are lasting far longer than expected. The team estimates some shoreline Arctic habitats may take up to 30 years to recover. Exxon Mobil denies any concerns over this, stating that they anticipated a remaining fraction that they assert will not cause any long-term ecological impacts, according to the conclusions of 350 peer-reviewed studies. However, a study from scientists from the NOAA concluded that this contamination can produce chronic low-level exposure, discourage subsistence where the contamination is heavy, and decrease the "wilderness character" of the area.
In the case of Baker v. Exxon, an Anchorage jury awarded $287 million for actual damages and $5 billion for punitive damages. The punitive damages amount was equal to a single year's profit by Exxon at that time.
Exxon appealed the ruling, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the original judge, Russel Holland, to reduce the punitive damages. On December 6, 2002, the judge announced that he had reduced the damages to $4 billion, which he concluded was justified by the facts of the case and was not grossly excessive. Exxon appealed again and the case returned to court to be considered in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling in a similar case, which caused Judge Holland to increase the punitive damages to $4.5 billion, plus interest.
After more appeals, and oral arguments heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on January 27, 2006, the damages award was cut to $2.5 billion on December 22, 2006. The court cited recent Supreme Court rulings relative to limits on punitive damages.
Exxon appealed again. On May 23, 2007, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied ExxonMobil's request for a third hearing and let stand its ruling that Exxon owes $2.5 billion in punitive damages. Exxon then appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. On February 27, 2008, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for 90 minutes. Justice Samuel Alito, who at the time, owned between $100,000 and $250,000 in Exxon stock, recused himself from the case. In a decision issued June 25, 2008, Justice David Souter issued the judgment of the court, vacating the $2.5 billion award and remanding the case back to a lower court, finding that the damages were excessive with respect to maritime common law. Exxon's actions were deemed "worse than negligent but less than malicious." The judgment limits punitive damages to the compensatory damages, which for this case were calculated as $507.5 million. Some lawmakers, such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, have decried the ruling as "another in a line of cases where this Supreme Court has misconstrued congressional intent to benefit large corporations."
Exxon's official position is that punitive damages greater than $25 million are not justified because the spill resulted from an accident, and because Exxon spent an estimated $2 billion cleaning up the spill and a further $1 billion to settle related civil and criminal charges. Attorneys for the plaintiffs contended that Exxon bore responsibility for the accident because the company "put a drunk in charge of a tanker in Prince William Sound."
Exxon recovered a significant portion of clean-up and legal expenses through insurance claims associated with the grounding of the Exxon Valdez. Also, in 1991, Exxon made a quiet, separate financial settlement of damages with a group of seafood producers known as the Seattle Seven for the disaster's effect on the Alaskan seafood industry. The agreement granted $63.75 million to the Seattle Seven, but stipulated that the seafood companies would have to repay almost all of any punitive damages awarded in other civil proceedings. The $5 billion in punitive damages was awarded later, and the Seattle Seven's share could have been as high as $750 million if the damages award had held. Other plaintiffs have objected to this secret arrangement, and when it came to light, Judge Holland ruled that Exxon should have told the jury at the start that an agreement had already been made, so the jury would know exactly how much Exxon would have to pay.
These are the causes of the incident:
The Board made a number of recommendations, such as changes to the work patterns of Exxon crew in order to address the causes of the accident.
The economy of the city of Cordova, Alaska was adversely affected after the spill damaged stocks of salmon and herring in the area. One former mayor committed suicide, in addition to several other residents, after the spill.
In response to the spill, the United States Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA). The legislation included a clause that prohibits any vessel that, after March 22, 1989, has caused an oil spill of more than one million U.S. gallons (3,800 m¬≥) in any marine area, from operating in Prince William Sound.
In April 1998, the company argued in a legal action against the Federal government that the ship should be allowed back into Alaskan waters. Exxon claimed OPA was effectively a bill of attainder, a regulation that was unfairly directed at Exxon alone. In 2002, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Exxon. As of 2002, OPA had prevented 18 ships from entering Prince William Sound.
OPA also set a schedule for the gradual phase in of a double hull design, providing an additional layer between the oil tanks and the ocean. While a double hull would likely not have prevented the Valdez disaster, a Coast Guard study estimated that it would have cut the amount of oil spilled by 60 percent.
The Exxon Valdez supertanker was towed to San Diego, arriving on July 10. Repairs began on July 30. Approximately 1,600 short tons (1,500 t) of steel were removed and replaced. In June 1990 the tanker, renamed S/R Mediterranean, left harbor after $30 million of repairs. It was still sailing as of January 2010, registered in Panama. The vessel is currently owned by a Hong Kong company, who operates it under the name Dong Fang Ocean.
In 2009, Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph Hazelwood somewhat belatedly offered a "heartfelt apology" to the people of Alaska, suggesting he had been wrongly blamed for the disaster: "The true story is out there for anybody who wants to look at the facts, but that's not the sexy story and that's not the easy story," he said. Yet Hazelwood said he felt Alaskans always gave him a fair shake.
The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, representing approximately 40,000 workers nationwide, announced opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) until Congress enacted a comprehensive national energy policy. In the aftermath of the spill, Alaska governor Steve Cowper issued an executive order requiring two tugboats to escort every loaded tanker from Valdez out through Prince William Sound to Hinchinbrook Entrance. As the plan evolved in the 1990s, one of the two routine tugboats was replaced with a 210-foot (64 m) Escort Response Vehicle (ERV). The majority of tankers at Valdez are still single-hulled, but Congress has enacted legislation requiring all tankers to be double-hulled by 2015.
According to several studies funded by the state of Alaska, the spill had both short- and long-term economic effects. These included the loss of recreational sports, fisheries, reduced tourism, and an estimate of what economists call "existence value," which is the value to the public of a pristine Prince William Sound.
The story was dramatized in the 1992 HBO film Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster.