Learning the lessons of the Exxon Valdez

In the October issue of WorkBoat magazine, which is this year’s “show” issue for the almost-upon-us 2013 WorkBoat Show in New Orleans, we present a review of marine disasters over the past 25 years with an eye on the legislative and regulatory changes instigated by each of them. Leading the list is the Exxon Valdez grounding and oil spill in March 1989.

Oil is still present in Prince William Sound 25 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Photo credit: David Janka, www.auklet.com 

Frankly, I was shocked to discover that the oil is still there. Take a look at the attached photo taken this past summer on the beach of an island in the middle of the sound, and you’ll see what I mean. We tend to think that these things get cleaned up by time, but 25 years isn’t nearly enough time to make Prince William Sound whole again.

Twenty-five years has also been insufficient time for the people of Prince William Sound to heal the wounds inflicted by the spill and Exxon’s legal war against the survivors.

In the preface to her book, “Not One Drop,” Dr. Riki Ott writes, “The Exxon Valdez disaster was more than an oil spill in Prince William Sound, just as Katrina was more than a hurricane in New Orleans, 9/11 was more than buildings collapsing in New York, Chernobyl was more than a nuclear meltdown in Ukraine, Bhopal was more than a poisonous gas leak in India, and Love Canal was more than toxic contamination of a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York.”

A resident of Cordova, Alaska, and a marine biologist, Ott has written extensively about the harm caused by corporate malfeasance, particularly Exxon’s. Her latest book describes the social and cultural consequences of the Exxon Valdez spill and its lingering effects. It ain’t pretty.

The good news is that Prince William Sound now has the world’s best system for preventing tanker accidents and a citizen oversight structure with teeth. And the country as a whole now has the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), the legislation that launched a thousand double-hulled tankers and barges.

About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

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