Learning from the Exxon Valdez oil spill | Guest column

Learning from the EXXON VALDEZ

by Kimbal Sundberg

Friday Harbor

Imagine waking up in the San Juans and smelling the nauseating odor of hydrocarbons wafting in from the Salish Sea. Every spring, I think back to the early morning of March 24, 1989, when I learned that the supertanker Exxon Valdez had run aground in Prince William Sound.

As a habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, I had spent years researching the biological resources of Prince William Sound. These data were carefully mapped in atlases and reports to identify environmental impacts and, hopefully, to conserve sensitive areas. My wife and I spent vacations exploring the pristine beaches of Prince William Sound

As I flew over Exxon Valdez on March 25, I was struck by the smog layer and strong smell of hydrocarbons 1,500 feet over the oil slick. That toxic smell accompanied me for the next three years as I conducted natural resource damage assessments along some 1,300 miles of oiled Alaska beaches. As my helicopter circled the unfolding disaster, I saw a few fishing boats with booms trying to corral the 11-plus million gallons of spreading black crude. Where was the vaunted spill response capability so voluminously described in oil spill contingency plans and industry/government assurances? It seemed a pathetic farce. I saw Steller’s sea lions swimming the edge of the slick, killer whales surfacing in oily sheens and cormorants diving to oily deaths off rocky cliffs. Later, while skiffing around Bligh Island, I picked up moribund marbled murrelets and saw lethargic harlequin ducks gathered on rocky shores. My job and that of other biologists became documenting millions of casualties.

Thirty years later, the once fabled Prince William Sound herring have not recovered; a resident pod of killer whales will soon be extinct; oil still lingers in some of the heaviest hit beaches; and billions have been spent in spill response, damage assessment, litigation, settlements, restoration, scientific studies, health impacts, and economic and social disruption.

Today in the San Juans, we are facing a six-fold increase in tanker shipments carrying Alberta crude oil (dilbit) from Vancouver and additional tank vessel transits to manufacture and export xylene from Anacortes. Container and cruise ship traffic is also on the increase. More vessel traffic means greater oil spill risk. There is no effective technology to completely contain and clean up a major oil spill, particularly one involving dilbit, which tends to submerge and sink. The Exxon Valdez oil spill prompted significant advances in tanker safety and oil spill response requirements. The New Carissa cargo ship oil spill led to the initial funding for the Neah Bay rescue tug. There is no emergency rescue tug in place to respond to a disabled vessel in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands.

Improving spill prevention prompted by an oil spill. Let’s not let that happen again here. At the local level, we can support elected officials and NGOs such as Friends of the San Juans and IOSA which seek stronger spill prevention measures and locally based spill response capacity. We must continue to do all we can to prevent waking up in the San Juans to the smell of hydrocarbons wafting in from the Salish Sea.