Posted by: greeningwashington | March 23, 2009

20 Years, and Counting

Map of the Exxon Valdez oil spill






























Dust off the champagne glasses and pour the bubbly because today we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil-spill.


The spill, which polluted pristine Alaskan coastline with 11 millions gallons of crude oil, occurred more than twenty years ago — long enough ago to file it away in our recent collective memory as one of those unfortunate evils associated with industries like oil and coal.


The government halted clean up in 1994, and scientists believed that the rest of the crude oil would naturally disintegrate at a high rate. They were wrong. And twenty-years later the ghost of the Exxon Valdez has returned from the oily sands of Prince William Sound bringing with it 21,000 gallons of crude oil.


This amount may not seem significant to the layperson, but scientists argue that the oil continues to harm wildlife and the livelihood of residents. The area most affected is Price William Sound, which is considered a closed ecological system by ecologists. This means that due to the geography of the area, the oil is not exposed to large waves that would otherwise wash the oil out to sea and disperse into the ocean where it would biodegrade.


To date, many wildlife species have not fully recovered according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). For instance, sea otters and sea birds continue to die when they dig into oil-infested sand looking for food. Fish eggs and other small invertebrates such as mussels and clams are not yet back to their original population levels. In addition, the local fishing industry has suffered tremendously.


A solution would be to expend more time and resources cleaning up the area — help speed up the job of the microbes — to ensure wildlife and economic growth. This, however, seems unlikely unless undertaken by conservation groups, who already have enough battles to win.


For what it’s worth, the oil spill prompted Congress to pass the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which, among other measures, requires that oil tankers like the Exxon Valdez be equipped with double hulls by 2020. Only 11 years to go. Congress also passed other maritime labor laws.


In related news, only three more months until the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Baker v. Exxon, which ruling essentially vacated the $2.5 billion dollars in damages calling it excessive for maritime common law. In the end, this amount was decreased to $507 million. This resulted in a net loss of $4.5 billion dollars in punitive damages. I can understand limiting punitive damages in cases arising from consumer negligence, but this case involved the destruction of lives and the raping of the Alaskan environment.


Once again, the judicial system has benefited large corporations while Prince William Sound remains polluted.


Raise your glasses and let’s drink.


Until next time.



  1. How is our government going to aid the Prince William Sound area? It sounds like something that should be all over the news! 21,000 gallons in a low current area.. no bueno!

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