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Exxon Valdez 2
The purpose of this paper is to examine the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. Specifically, this paper will first consider the facts of the oil spill. What happened? What caused the oil spill? Who was responsible? Could it have been prevented? What were the effects of the oil spill on the environment? Second, this paper will examine changes implemented to prevent a future oil spill. Particular attention will be paid to laws enacted since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Third, these changes will be evaluated. In other words, are these changes sufficient to prevent another disaster? This paper will conclude that the oil industry is not safe, and that there could be an accident at any time.

In many ways this story begins in 1968 with the discovery of oil on Alaska s North Shore. Alaska s North Slope is one of the coldest and most inaccessible places in the world. Many people wondered how they could drill the oil from the North Slope. Also, once the oil was drilled how, would they transport the oil to the rest of the United States? In 1973, the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline was approved. It is an 800-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez in Prince William Sound. Environmentalists were concerned about how everything related to the drilling and transporting of the oil would affect the wildlife and environment of Alaska. They were particularly concerned with the potential for an oil spill as tankers carried oil through the incredibly abundant but treacherous Prince William Sound (Davidson, p.xiv). Although the risk of an oil spill was recognized, the potential economic benefits were huge. The State of Alaska could make money by leasing land to the oil companies and taxing the oil companies. In fact, by the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, oil development produced 85% of Alaska state revenues; each Alaskan resident received an annual check for $800 from state oil revenues; and state income taxes had been abolished (Davidson, p.xiv). Furthermore, the country needed Alaska s oil. Two million barrels of oil a day would be pumped through the pipeline to Valdez, where it would be loaded onto tankers and shipped to the rest of the United States. Since 1977, when the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was finished, almost 9,000 tankers loaded oil at the Valdez pipeline terminal and headed south just as the Exxon Valdez was scheduled to do.


In order to evaluate the preventive measures implemented since the oil spill, and to assess whether a similar occurrence is possible today, it is necessary to first understand the details of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. At 9:26 p.m. on March 23, 1989 the Exxon Valdez pulled away from the Valdez pipeline terminal after being loaded with 53 million gallons of oil. This was the Exxon Valdez s twenty-eighth visit to the terminal since 1986. The Exxon Valdez s trip this time would be to travel south away from Alaska, along the western coasts of Canada and the United States and deliver the oil to Long Beach, California. The oil tanker, which cost around $125 million to build, was under the command of Captain Joseph Hazelwood, one of the best commanders Exxon had.

A pilot is needed to navigate through Port Valdez because it so difficult to steer through. On March 23, the pilot, Ed Murphy, boarded the Exxon Valdez and began to navigate it through the Valdez Narrows. The Valdez Narrow connects Port Valdez with Prince William Sound. This is the most dangerous place on the tanker route. Hazelwood left the bridge, leaving the Third Mate, Cousins, in charge (Lebedoff, p.14). The pilot was able to take the tanker through Valdez Narrow with no problem. With the worst danger thought to be behind, the ship picked up speed. At about 11:35 the pilot left the tanker and control was returned to Captain Hazelwood (Carr, p.13). Captain Hazelwood contacted the Coast Guard and informed them that he would be changing course slightly to avoid icebergs. Ten minutes later, Hazelwood told the helmsman to again change course and to put the vessel on autopilot. Neither move was reported to the Coast Guard (Lebedoff, p.15). Hazelwood instructed Cousins, to steer the tanker back onto course after the tanker reached Busby Island. Robert Kagan then replaced the helmsman, only recently promoted to able seaman. The captain then left the bridge again, going below to his cabin. Then, Cousins too left the bridge and went to the chart room. Although they reached the turning point, no one gave the order to turn and the ship continued on course. When the lookout noticed that they were approaching Bligh Reef, Cousins gave the order to turn the tanker to the right. This turn would begin to take the tanker back onto course. They remained, however, on a collision course. Cousins now frantically ordered another turn. The tanker was not turning sharply enough. Third Mate Cousins then phoned Captain Hazelwood who was still in his cabin and told him he thought something was seriously wrong. Immediately after he spoke those words the crew aboard the Exxon Valdez felt the first impact with Bligh Reef. It was 12:04 a.m., Friday, March 24, 1989. Hazelwood ran to the bridge.

The tremendous force of the tanker hitting the reef ripped open the steel cargo holds. The Exxon Valdez was gushing oil at 200,000 gallons a minute (Lebedoff, p.17). The oil poured out so fast that a wave three feet high of oil was created. The sudden release of so much of the ship s cargo sent the ship off balance. If the captain were not careful, the ship could either rip in half or tip over. Captain Hazelwood did not radio the Coast Guard about what had happened for more than twenty minutes. When he did finally radio, he told them We ve fetched up hard aground . . . Evidently we re leaking some oil and we re going to be here for a while. (Carr, p.17). He was trying to work the tanker free from the reef. At about 2:00 a.m., a crewman radioed the Coast Guard that the Captain had given up maneuvering the tanker and the engines were stopped.

Clean up efforts began. However, there were many factors that made this spill very complicated to clean up. The size of the spill and the remote location, accessible only by helicopter and boat, made efforts to clean up the spill very difficult. The existing plans to deal with oil spills had to be changed to deal with this spill. In all, more than 11 million gallons of crude oil had been spilled (Carr, p.18). The oil spill was the largest in United States history and tested the abilities of everyone involved to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. The fact that no one was prepared to deal with a spill of this magnitude contributed to its impact. The oil-spill response plan called for spill-fighting equipment to be on hand within five hours of the spill. But it was more than 10 hours before Alyeska Pipeline Service Company was able to get people onsite and involved in a cleanup (Carr, p.26). Even when they arrived, they were unprepared. By Friday morning, the oil had spread out for miles. During the first days after the spill, great weather settled over the sound. This weather hampered clean up efforts because the chemical dispersants that could have been used to break up the oil required rough seas. In the days following, the weather took a turn for the worse, but now the weather was too rough. Planes were unable to fly and spread the chemicals (Carr, p.28). So, the oil just kept on spreading with remarkable speed.


Prince William Sound was one of the most beautiful and environmental sensitive regions in the world; a huge range of animals and plant life lived there, commercial fishing was the main source of income for the surrounding areas. On March 24 all of that changed when the Exxon Valdez crashed into Bligh Reef. The resulting oil spill has been characterized as the most devastating and costly oil spill ever (Davidson, p.36). That spring, the oil moved along the coastline of Alaska, contaminating portions of the shoreline of Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, lower Cook Inlet, the Kodiak Archipelago, and the Alaska Peninsula. Oiled areas include a National Forest, four National Wildlife Refuges, three National Parks, five State Parks, four State Critical Habitat Areas, and a State Game Sanctuary. It eventually spread to more than 1200 miles of coastline. The size of the spill covered the distance from Cape Cod to the outer banks of North Carolina (Lebedoff, p.20). Oil eventually reached shorelines nearly 600 miles southwest from Bligh Reef where the spill first occurred (Carr, p.34).

The oil spill had devastating effects on the wildlife in Prince William Sound. Every day the tides would wash up dead birds and sea otters. One island had 500 dead birds on a 4-mile stretch of shore. The oil had turned the birds into a stiff, black mass. This caused some of the birds to drown. Once the heavy oil got on their feathers they could not float. Other birds died of the cold because feathers contaminated with oil lose their shape and, thus, their ability to insulate. More birds were poisoned when they ate plants that had oil on them. More than 30,000 seabirds were found killed by the oil (Parrish & Boersma, p.112). That number is just the birds that were found. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 350,000 birds might have died (Davidson, p.38).

Even worse than the dead birds on the beaches were the murres and loons covered with oil but not yet dead. Many of them were completely black. They tried to fly but were unable to because they were too heavy with oil. Rescue workers captured as many as they could and brought them to bird-care centers. The count of dead murres was 36,360. In addition, otters suffered greatly from the oil. In the first few days of the spill, over 500 otters were killed (Carr, p.37). Many more otters probably sank at sea. Oil ruined the otters ability to stay warm. Matted with oil, their fur was no longer able to insulate them from the cold weather. Other otters died from poisoning from the oil. More than 116,000 dead otters were retrieved (Davidson, p.39).

This does not consider the nonquantifiable losses, such as the heightened sense of vulnerability of the people living near the oil spill, or the lost wilderness value (Davidson, p.40). People suffered from depression and stress related effects (Davidson, p.40). Destitution, bankruptcy, drunkenness, and divorce have all been attributed to the oil spill (Lebedoff, p.300).

In upholding the judgment against Exxon, Judge Holland said that the Valdez oil spill was the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history and disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of people (Lebedoff, p. 306). Prince William Sound was at one time one of the most beautiful places in Alaska. Now Dan Pettit, a local fisherman, describes it as a dead sea out there (Postman, p. 5). Although Exxon spent close to $3 billion on the clean up, it is too soon to estimate the long term effects of the spill. Biologists estimate that some species may take between 20 and 70 years to recover from the spill (Davidson, p.55). There are fewer harbor seals, harlequin ducks, seals and sea otters. There are fewer common murres, loons, trout, clams, and rockfish.


In order to determine how best to prevent future oil spills, it is necessary to examine the causes of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What factors contributed to the accident? The causes of the accident are obviously the subject of debate and are complex. At least three specific causes have been identified: 1) the captain had a well-known drinking problem; 2) crew fatigue and policy violations; and 3) Coast Guard negligence in vessel.

It has been argued that Captain Hazelwood s drinking was a contributing factor causing the accident. In Cleaning Up: The Story Behind the Biggest Legal Bonanza of our Time, Lebedoff continually refers to the case as the largest drunk driving case ever. Captain Hazelwood had a history of problems with alcohol; he had repeated convictions for drunk driving of his automobile; he had been in treatment for alcohol abuse. Yet, he was allowed to remain at sea and was captain of the Valdez. Exxon had evidence of Hazelwood s continuing abuse, but failed to monitor him adequately. Furthermore, Hazelwood was drinking on the day the Valdez set sail. Although there is some dispute, he had at least three drinks and they tested him at a blood alcohol level of .06 eleven hours after the crash. This was in clear violation of the law which forbad drinking within four hours of assuming...
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