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1989: Cleaning up after the Exxon Valdez

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Two days have passed since the Exxon Valdez smashed into a reef off Alaska's coast, unleashing the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. Over 40 million litres of oil have gushed from the tanker, creating a slick more than 20 kilometres wide. Many birds, seals and otters are drenched in oil and their death toll is rising. Cleanup has begun, but not quickly enough for thousands of threatened animals and the angry residents of nearby towns. In this 1989 report, Ian Hanomansing reports on the efforts to repair the damage done to the fragile Alaska coastline.
• The Exxon Valdez spilled over 41 million litres (10.9 million US gallons) into Alaskan waters. The spill contaminated some 28,000 square kilometres of water and 2,080 km of coastline. Approximately 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales died as a result of the spill.

Exxon's statement that "human error" was the likely cause of the crash later proved accurate. The National Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation that found five such errors:

• The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue and excessive workload.
• The master failed to provide a proper navigation watch, possibly due to impairment from alcohol.
• Exxon Shipping Company failed to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez.
• The U.S. Coast Guard failed to provide an effective vessel traffic system.
• Effective pilot and escort services were lacking.

• Captain Joe Hazelwood -- who had a history of drinking problems, even losing his driver's license three times for drunk driving offences -- was seen drinking prior to boarding the ship. He admitted having several drinks while on board and had alcohol in his blood several hours after the incident. Hazelwood was charged with operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol, but was acquitted.

• The Exxon Valdez was repaired and renamed the SeaRiver Mediterranean before going back into service. As of 2009, it was still carrying oil between Europe and Asia. The ship never returned to Alaska; the U.S. Oil Pollution Act of 1990 prevents any ship that has ever spilled more than 1 million gallons from entering Prince William Sound.

• As a result of the spill, ExxonMobil paid approximately US $3.4 billion in fines and lawsuits. It also paid another $1 billion for cleanup efforts.

• As of 2009, 20 years after the spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster ranks as the biggest oil spill in U.S. waters, but now ranks far down the list of biggest spills in history. In 1991, during its occupation of Kuwait, the Iraqi Army destroyed wells, tankers and other facilities, spilling as much as 1.7 billion litres of oil. The worst maritime spill was the 1978 sinking of the Amoco Cadiz, which spilled 260 million litres of oil into French coastal waters.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: March 25, 1989
Guest(s): Lucien Bouchard, Steve Cowper, Frank Iarossi, Bill Vander Zalm
Host: Don Goodwin
Reporter: Ian Hanomansing
Duration: 2:28

Last updated: October 23, 2013

Page consulted on August 14, 2014

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