In this April 4, 1989, photo, the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez, left, unloads oil onto a smaller tanker, San Francisco, as efforts to re-float the ship continue on Prince William Sound, 25 miles from Valdez. The 987-foot tanker, carrying 53 million gallons of crude, struck Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m. on March 24, 1989, and within hours unleashed an estimated 10.8 million gallons of thick, toxic crude oil into the water.
Story last updated at 3/26/2014 - 1:36 pm
Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, oil remains just beneath the surface of the Prince William Sound coast.
The herring population has not yet recovered, and the town of Cordova still suffers the psychological effects of the disaster. The 11 million gallons of oil that began to spill 25 years ago this week have wrought vast damage.
Some fisheries, however, have recovered, and the disaster has had some positive effects: because of legislation and regulations passed after the spill, future accidents in the United States are less likely (though not impossible, as BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill shows.)
We talked to people who experienced the spill firsthand, as well as some who worked to effect change afterward, in order to give you perspective on the Exxon Valdez' lingering effects in Prince William Sound and beyond.
First, the background:
The story is one many have heard. Exxon Valdez captain Joe Hazelwood had some drinks at a bar before the ship's departure from Valdez on the evening of March 23, 1989. He ordered the helmsman, Harry Claar, to evade icebergs by diverting from the shipping lane.
He told his possibly overworked and fatigued third mate, Gregory Cousins, to head back to the shipping lanes at a certain point, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council; he then went to his quarters. Cousins and Robert Kagan, the helmsman on duty, did not turn back in time, and the ship ran aground on Bligh Reef just after midnight March 24, 1989.
The Trustee Council finds other aspects of the journey at fault as well: the Exxon Valdez Shipping Company didn't "supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez;" the U.S. Coast Guard didn't "provide an effective vessel traffic system," and the route did not have effective services to pilot and escort the ships.
In total, the ship spilled 11 million gallons of oil - the amount necessary to fill 17 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The spill "heavily or moderately oiled" 200 miles of coastline and "lightly or very lightly oiled" 900 miles. The spill stretched from Bligh Reef 460 miles west, to the village of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula.
According to the trustee council, the best estimate of the spill's death toll includes 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales and billions of salmon and herring eggs.
Pacific herring and pigeon guillemot populations still show no improvement. Commercial fishing, wilderness areas, and many species are still recovering.
Eyes on the ground
Dale Kelley, the executive director of the Alaska Troller's Association, had just moved to Juneau from a remote island in Prince William Sound when the spill happened.
When she heard the news, she initially thought newscasters were talking about oil spilled during the 1964 earthquake. ('Good Friday is not ... a good day in Alaska,' she said.) Then she heard a gallon estimate in the millions.
"I just sat down and cried," she said. "And I'm not a crier."
The place Kelley lived was one of the areas most oiled by the spill - a remote island where the sound meets the Gulf of Alaska.
Instead of going up to the sound, Kelley decided to work on oil spill legislation from Juneau.
Kate Troll, now a Juneau Assembly member, was on the executive committee of the United Fishermen of Alaska, representing Southeast Alaska seiners.
"Everybody was trying to find out what the guys were doing in terms of the fleet - did they need help, what support could we give. That was the first immediate response," she said. "The second response was trying to make sure that ASMI (Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute) got out the right message so people would realize Alaska salmon wasn't all tainted."
The institute, she said, "did a really excellent job coming in and giving the marketplace the assurances that they needed."
Prices did drop after the spill, Kelley said -at least for Southeast trollers - but she doesn't attribute that to perception about Alaskan fish being tainted.
"We were on the precipice of a time when our prices really went through the floor," she said. "It was more a result of fish farming and salmon gluts."
Troll said Riki Ott, a Cordova gillnetter with a Ph.D. in ocean toxicology, was instrumental in documenting what was going on and how it could have been prevented.
"What a lot of people don't realize is it was the conservationists and fishermen - they were all advocating for double-hull tankers (during the establishment of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and terminal in Valdez), saying we have icebergs and dangerous waterways here," Troll said. "Analysis has shown if it had a double hull there might have been some spill but not as massive as it was."
Double hulls are now required.
"It was just heart-wrenching," Troll said of the spill. "You see the pristine waters here - imagine the black ooze that they were seeing."
"There is so much on how that whole scenario was fumbled," Kelley said. "It was a very painful experience for a lot of people."
Many of those people were Cordova residents.
Hannah McCarty, now a legislative aide in Rep. Sam Kito III's office, was in 11th grade in Cordova. Her father was a seiner. In the summers, she worked with him on his boat.
Some of the most profound effects she's seen, she said, are psychological.
"I would call it a tragedy that affected the entire town and the psychology of the entire town," she said. "It had a deep and profound effect that has ramifications even today."
Many people suffered respiratory problems from working in the cleanup, she said. Others faced financial ruin. And they don't feel they were adequately compensated by Exxon; the U.S. Supreme Court slashed punitive damages in a settlement.
"A lot of them don't feel like they were adequately compensated or made whole in terms of what they were paid in punitive damages," she said. "It's still an open wound in a lot of ways."
She mentioned how ill-prepared the response was - not containing the spill with floating booms in the initial days, for example, to prevent it from spreading.
"If they'd had containment and they were prepared the way they would be now it would be a whole different story," she said.
"In one way or another everybody was affected," she said. "It was scary for everybody because it did affect people's livelihoods. When you have all your money invested in a family business like that it's really scary. ... Your whole source of family income is threatened."
In the aftermath, her father took scientists out to take water samples.
She returned to Cordova during her college summers to fish with her father. There were places they weren't allowed to fish. The price had dropped, and fishermen were battling public perception of Prince William Sound fish. Herring populations were very negatively affected and still haven't recovered.
Some fisheries have recovered: Copper River Red and King salmon, for example.
"You can still dig down and see (oil) in the beaches," McCarty said. "It's really scary."
Dave Owings is the general manager of the Southeast Alaska Petroleum Response Organization in Ketchikan. Legislation after the Exxon Valdez spill created the need for the organization, he said.
"SEAPRO was not an organization before the Exxon Valdez," he said. "SEAPRO was formed following the Exxon Valdez to help the industry meet compliance with the regulations that followed."
Now, the organization has equipment and employees spread out across Southeast Alaska, in communities as big as Juneau or as small as Pelican.
"We have grown significantly over the last 25 years and we're much better prepared now in terms of equipment and people and experience to respond to an incident, largely because of the regulations that followed the Prince William Sound spill," Owings said. "Especially here in Southeast Alaska ... when you think about how much oil comes into Southeast and how much gets used, we just don't have a lot of oil spills."
The spills SEAPRO gets called out for tend to be small, he said: vessels sinking, or, recently, cleanup of oil remaining in the Princess Kathleen, a ship that sunk at Point Lena in Juneau in 1952.
"When an organization like SEAPRO gets called out, usually a number of things have gone wrong," he said. "Certainly there's always potential for a big incident ... but the response organizations have all shown measured growth commensurate with grown in industry."
Southeast Alaska response organizations also have a mutual aid agreement with Canada.
"(All the preparation) gives us good assurance that if a large spill was to happen, we have all the things in place to do the best job possible," Owings said.
At the time of the spill, Kelley said, people thought nature might heal itself.
While the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council says the action of waves on the beach likely did more to clean the oil up than any human activity did, nature has not fully healed.
"There are parts of Prince William Sound that have yet to really completely heal. Herring is probably first and foremost on everybody's list of stocks that haven't really recovered. It shows you nature's pretty resilient, but when you overload the ecosystem the way we did, there are bound to be lingering effects," Troll said. "From a toxicology standpoint, we still have things to learn."
"There are just so many things that were affected," Kelley said. "I have friends who died before their claims were settled. It destroyed businesses. The whole thing is really sad."
"Sure - everything's changeable over time," she added. "But in our lifetime and our children's lifetime, the oil is one shovelful away from the surface up there. Just put your shovel in and you find it. It's very disheartening. ... People will rationalize why it's really not so damaging but for some of us, that was our heaven on earth - a wonderful, mystical place to live. ... I saw some of the most amazing things of my life living there."
She also faults a reliance on oil.
"We all rely on oil. I'm as responsible as Exxon for it at the end of the day," she said.
A few positives have resulted: some people from Cordova went down to the Deepwater Horizon spill off Louisiana in 2010 to help out, McCarty said.
"Those sorts of things are the positive parts of it," McCarty said. "The tools and techniques ... learned through the Exxon Valdez were able to pass the knowledge on."
She still harbors anger toward Exxon herself, she said.
"Oil companies have improved safety in some areas of the world, but in other areas, like in Nigeria, they don't clean up," she said. "The lesson is ... communities have every right to demand safety first."
The remaining oil from the Exxon Valdez spill, says the Trustee Council, will take "decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely."