24 Mar 2014 More

Remembering the Exxon Valdez - 25 Years Later

posted by Unknown @ 10:32 1 Comments

Image of the Exxon Valdez
Today is the 25th anniversary of one of the worst maritime oil spill disasters of all time, the Exxon Valdez.  People everywhere, but especially Alaskans, are remembering the day that changed the lives for many in Prince William Sound forever.

“I think I want people to remember that eternal vigilance is the price of safety," says Mark Swanson, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council. "You have to be vigilant, you have to focus on prevention, and you can’t just focus on response. If you prevent the next spill you’re miles ahead.”

It was just after midnight on Good Friday 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef.  The rocks there ripped open eight of the ship’s eleven cargo holds.  The crash led to more than 11 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound.  The quiet fishing village has never been the same.

The effects of the spill still linger

The oil slick that ensued spread far beyond the sound.  Oil moved as far as 460 miles to the north, this according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.  35,000 dead birds and 1000 sea otters were recovered.  But biologists believe that’s the tip of the iceberg.  An unknown number of carcasses are believed to have sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

Former Valdez Mayor John Devens says that even today, 25 years later, still the accident is too painful to talk about for many.  The accident n ot only killed countless wildlife, but changed the lives of everyone involved.
“We were all at fault,” Devens said. “The city (of Valdez) was at fault because we had never read the contingency plans."  Devens had appointed a committee only weeks before, feeling that both the city and the industry were not ready for an event of this sort.

In the wake of the accident

In the wake of the tragedy, the Ship Escort/Response Vessel System (SERVS) was established to help make tanker traffic safer.  The system operates 11 escort vessels that now guide tankers in and out of Prince William Sound.  Oil recovery bags are now stationed at key points in the sound.

“The way to fight complacency is that you continuously challenge yourself and you drill and test, so we do over a hundred drills a year,” says SERVS director, Andres Morales. “We live here, our families live here, our friends. We have employees that have families that go back generations in Prince William Sound. It is an absolute mandate that we will not have an incident like that again.”

But the PWS Regional Citizens Advisory Council says not enough has been done.  It believes the oil industry relies too much on chemical dispersants and that the federal government needs to do more. 

Now 25 years later, Prince William Sound RCAC Executive Director Swanson says that “there’s a justifiable pride,” in the community.  “There’s a really good system of prevention and spill response in place, but I think a humble acknowledgment is not enough.  We could be doing more; perhaps we should be doing more.”

While officials at ExxonMobil declined comment on the anniversary, the company website did post a statement.

“The 1989 Valdez accident was one of the lowest points in ExxonMobil's 125-year history,” says the website.  “However, we took immediate responsibility for the spill and have spent over $4.3 billion as a result of the accident, including compensatory payments, cleanup payments, settlements and fines.

The company voluntarily compensated more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses within a year of the spill.”
The initial $5 billion settlement for victims in the sound was later reduced to just $500 million.

25 years later, Devens warns that even with the increased safety measures, the area still remains vulnerable and susceptible to a future tragedy.  As time goes by, he warns, the lessons learned may fade from memory.

“Complacency has set in and I’m sorry to see that," Devens says. "But I think it’s natural – people forget.”

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