Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Posted on November 11, 2008

Managers of oil firms like Exxon should personally oversee that strict oil spill prevention and control policies, as recommended by government and non-profit environmental organizations, are implemented at all stages. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) greatly affected the animals and humans living there, the economy of Alaska (and the United States), and the environment in the surrounding areas, and the company Exxon was responsible for all this. It was March 1989 when the oil Tanker Exxon Valdez underwent an accident in Prince William Sound (PWS) in Alaska. (US Environmental Protection Agency, n.p.) This accident resulted in a massive oil spill, where more than 11 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the sea and no such oil spill had previously occurred in the history of the United States. (US Environmental Protection Agency, n.p.) A large number of features made the cleanup of this oil spill difficult. The scale and intensity of this oil spill and the remoteness of the site were noteworthy features that hindered the efforts of cleanup teams. This was a real test of existing contingency plans for such situations.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this oil spill threatened the commercial fishing business in the area. (US Environmental Protection Agency, n.p.) Moreover, several types of fishes, mammals, birds, and other animals were in danger too because of this oil spill. Alyeska, an organization that represented Exxon, started to cleanup the oil spill. (US Environmental Protection Agency, n.p.) To avoid damage to the ecosystems, some steps were taken to save sensitive surroundings from the effects of the oil spill. Vulnerable environments were recognized and prioritized. However, the effects on the surroundings, especially on animals, were devastating. The means required for a successful cleanup were missing, and necessary resources could not be brought to the accident site in time. Oil ingestion, exposure to oil, and scarcity of edible resources led to a large number of deaths in both mammals and birds.
As a reaction to the EVOS accident, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This Act necessitated that the Coast Guards should ensure oil vessels and oil firms are following the regulations and rules in this regard. Nowadays, tank hulls are used, which improve the safety of oil vessels in case there is an accident that can cause oil spill. Moreover, due to advancements in technology, communications during navigation have also improved, which makes navigation in seas more secure.

Major Effects of the Oil Spill
Archaeological Resources

Over 3,000 archaeological and historically significant sites were damaged by the oil spill. The clean-up process, pillaging and harm caused by the oil spill all contributed to the destruction twenty four other well known public archaeological sites. The damage assessment survey conducted after the accident was only restricted to public land. Other archeological sites which were on private property also received significant damage. However, the final report was not planned to indentify all of them.

Apart from oil contamination caused by the spill, other Reported damages included surface artifacts looting, masking of subtle clues used to identify and classify sites, abuse of ancient burial locations, and destruction of evidence in layered sediments.

Designated Wilderness Areas

Wilderness or Wilderness Study Areas was the designation of the spill affected waters and tidelands given by Congress or the Alaska State Legislature. In 1989-1990, a huge cleaning process began in the area. A variety of hardware and a huge workforce were employed from different parts of the country. This process caused a drastic and extraordinary increase in population, noise and activities in that quite and undeveloped countryside. By the end of the process, the human concentration and activities in the area went back to its former level. Yet, however, lingering oil is still being witnessed at some sites. Quantitative investigations of lingering oil are still lacking, however, over time, the amount of oil that was left behind after the clean up process is reducing, and the affected areas are in the recovering process.

The affected areas were: designated wilderness in the Katmai National Park, wilderness study areas in the Chugach National Forest and Kenai Fjords National Park, and Kachemak Bay Wilderness State Park.

Intertidal Communities

More than 1,400 miles in Prince William Sound, the Kenai and Alaska peninsulas and in Kodiak Archipelago were badly affected by the oil spill. Around 220 miles of this coastline were heavily affected. Exxon carried around 11 million gallons of crude oil. Researchers believe that about 40-45 percent of the total shipment was washed ashore in the intertidal area. Both the plants and animals living in that environment were significantly affected by the spill that occurred in 1989 and also by the cleaning process that followed in 1990 and 1991. The initial impact covered the entire tidal levels and the complete set of habitats all over the affected site. Residue toxicity testing, documenting abundance and distribution of intertidal organisms and sampling ecological parameters of community structure were all part of the evaluation conducted to examine the spill effects.

Blue mussels, periwinkles, oligochaete worms, speckled limpet, common rockweed and several barnacle species were all among the main type of algae and invertebrates that were directly harmed by the spill. At the same time, the normal level of sediment organisms and calm densities decreased. On the treated beaches, a number of moribund calms were found dead. However, the later effects are mainly due to the combination of hot washing water and the oil toxicity. The density and biomass of fish in the affected sites was also decreased as shown by studies conducted in the area against reference figures recorded before 1990.

Commercial Fishing

Commercial fishing operations suffered huge losses as a result of the spills impact on the fish concentration in the affected waters and also due to the emergency fishing ban that followed the incident. Fishing for salmon, herring, crab, shrimp, rockfish and sablefish was banned in 1989 all over Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, the outer Kenai coast, Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula. The ban on Shrimp and salmon commercial fisheries was extended through 1990 in some parts of Prince William Sound.

Passive Use

Passive use is the admiration of the artistic and natural values of undisturbed sites and the value is a resultant from plainly realizing the resource existence. Damages to passive use are coupled to civic view of damaged resources. The oil spill disaster affected an area considered by the majority of Americans as an undisturbed territory.  The disaster cause great damage to beaches, wild and sea life. Around $2.8 billion are the estimated losses suffered by passive use as a result of the oil spill. This figure was estimated by the state of Alaska and it reflects how much the people are ready to pay in order to protect that territory and prevent another similar accident from occurring in the future.

Recreation and Tourism

As a result of the oil spill, tourism and recreational access to the affected areas was restricted. Tourism activities in Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula were reduced to minimum. Finishing and hunting activates were banned. Access to beaches was also frozen. Tourism shifted from the affected areas to those areas that were safer and as a result, some of the sites lost their old glory.


The local fifteen main Alaskan native inhabitants who lived in the oil spill affected locality (with a total population of about 2,200 people) relied entirely on natural resources for their daily life. The disaster affected all the available food and water resources which in turn affected the living conditions of the local communities and raised concerns regarding possible health damage that may arise as a result of eating oiled fish, drinking or even bathing in contaminated water. The clean up process that followed the incident also affected the local life style and comfort.

Results from Various Researches

The crude oil effects on fishes and other living organisms were lead by the Auke Bay Laboratory and its staff. This laboratory, which was established in 1973, was involved in studying similar ever since its establishment. Immediately after the incident, the lab was also involved in studying the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS).

The effects of the oil spill on wild and sea life were examined by the ABL. The lab also monitored the oil level in the territory. Today, after more than 14 years, oil is still impacting the life of the affected areas. Salmon and herring fisheries never returned and the fabric of the bionetwork is still “out of sync”.

The deaths of aquatic mammals and birds resulting from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill are far greater than the deaths in any other such incident. A few species were already becoming extinct before the incident; so the oil spill accelerated the extinction for such species. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC) examined around 26 classes of animals (including birds), and only 2 out these 26 classes had recovered till 1999 (ten years after the oil spill). According to Dr. Michael Fry, an authority on seabirds, “The Exxon Valdez spill killed nearly ten times as many birds as any other U.S. or European oil spill”. The oil spill led to the death of approximately 500,000 birds. Remains on the beaches were found for more than 30,000 birds that belonged to the 90 classes of birds affected by this oil spill. Even then, as noted by Piatt, Lensick, Bulter, Kendziorek, and Nysewander (1990), the real number of marine birds that died was far greater than this 30,000 figure. And the impacts on marine birds did not fade away sooner. Even in the article by Miller in 1999, it is evident that impacts on birds were continuous and also reduced the reproduction in these birds. Fishes also died because of this oil spill. However, the most noteworthy effect on fishes was the long-lasting negative impact on their spawning and rearing environment.

Exxon’s Statement

According to the official website of ExxonMobil, “The environment in Prince William Sound is healthy, robust and thriving. That’s evident to anyone who’s been there, and it is also the conclusion of many scientists who have done extensive studies of the Prince William Sound ecosystem.” However, independent studies show that this claim is wrong, as discussed in this paper. According to Page et. al (1996), researchers who were sponsored by Exxon have frequently rejected the proof of continuous impacts of the EVOS to the wildlife.

Exxon’s denial of the negative impact of the EVOS is highly unethical and unprofessional. It is also against the concept of corporate social responsibility, which is a major trend in contemporary organizations worldwide. Companies like Exxon should pay attention to corporate social responsibility practices. If such an incident happens, it becomes the company’s ethical, social and professional responsibility to make a formal apology to the whole nation. The responsible personnel should be fired and compensation should be given to all people affected by the incident. Moreover, the company should also pay additional funds to researchers who are studying in this field, so that such incidents can be better prevented and controlled in future too.

Recommendations and Conclusion

Oil firms like Exxon should realize that the effects of a single oil spill can be devastating for people, animals, marine life, and the environment for a long, long time. Considering this, the managers of oil firms should be aware of the recommendations and suggestions like that government bodies and non-profit environmental organizations give in this regard. This is the ethical and professional responsibility of all oil firms, especially those that transfer oil in bulk volumes. A proper system should be made to educate all concerned employees about the consequences of oil spills on humans, animals, and environment. Similarly, all employees should know how they can play their part in preventing oil spills. This should be given top priority and formal training should be given to employees regarding this matter. Finally, the top management should personally administer the implementation of oil spill prevention strategies and actions.

One more thing is that although firms have contingency plans, they rarely practically test such plans. It is necessary to test contingency plans to see if they are still effective or not. In addition, as technological and environmental changes occur, such plans should be revised accordingly to reflect the latest techniques that can be used to control oil spills. The recommendations of government and non-profit environmental organizations should be utilized here too. Oil spill prevention and control procedures must be formally defined by oil firms as these steps will more likely stop oil spills from happening.

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