Minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez (PDF) super tanker ran aground in Alaska’s beautiful and biologically rich Prince William Sound. The United States had become complacent about the risks of a major oil spill, but the sight of oiled seabirds in this spectacular setting shocked the nation into action.
Approximately 11 million gallons, or 257,000 barrels, of oil spilled into Prince William Sound, and approximately 1,300 miles of shoreline were impacted. It is estimated that the Exxon Valdez oil spill killed 250,00 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales and billions of salmon and herring eggs.
As a result of the devastation, Congress passed legislation to improve tanker safety and increase spill prevention and response preparation in the still-recovering sound.
The lessons of the Exxon Valdez are relevant today as we approach the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and as we contemplate drilling in the even more challenging Arctic Ocean. Industry and government must remain vigilant about preventing and preparing for a worst-case scenario.
The cost of complacency is higher than anyone imagined, as the Exxon Valdez catastrophe continues to teach us even decades later. Today, the Prince William Sound herring fishery has not recovered, and on some beaches, heavy crude oil can still be found just below the surface sand.