On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground along the Bligh Reef, spilling an estimated 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude oil from the Prudhoe Bay oil field into the Prince William Sound–enough to fill 125 Olymplic sized swimming pools. The spill, the largest up until 2010’s Deepwater Horizon spill, is one of the most devastating man-made environmental disasters. In part due to the Prince William Sound’s natural geography, and in part due to Exxon’s inadequate response to the spill, response teams had difficulty containing the oil and accessing the necessary booms and skimmers. As a result, oil contaminated 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean, destroying salmon, herring, sea otter, seal, and seabird habitat and causing the death of untold numbers of salmon and herring and as many as 2,800 sea otters, 300 seals, 250,000 seabirds, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas. Despite assistance from more than 11,000 Alaskans, estimates indicate that only 10% of the oil was recovered and more than 26,000 gallons of oil remain in the Sound’s sand and sediment. Even twenty years after the spill, researchers from the University of North Carolina estimated that the spill’s effects on Arctic shoreline habitat would be felt for as many as thirty years.
Numerous law suits followed the spill. In Baker v. Exxon, a jury awarded $287 million for actual damages and $5 billion for punitive damages, although the U.S. Supreme Court later limited actual damages to $250 million and punitive damages to $2.5 billion. Exxon also settled with seafood producers, the Seattle Seven, for $63.75 million in damages.
Also in response to the spill, Alaska issued an executive order requiring tugboats to escort oil tankers from Valdez through the Sound and issued regulations requiring contingency plans in the event of a spill. On the federal level, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The Act expanded the government’s ability and provided money and resources necessary to prevent and respond to oil spills and created the national Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, and established requirements for government and industry contingency planning, known as the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP). The Act also increased penalties for regulatory noncompliance and preserved State authority to establish law governing oil spill prevention and response and set a schedule for the gradual phasing-in of double-hulled oil tankers, designed to reduce the flow of oil from breached tankers.
One aspect of the spill that has not received much attention is the impacts on public health. For the thousands of clean-up workers, the effects of exposure are largely unknown. None of the state or federal responses have dealt with the need for baseline data on public health after an oil spill, which makes it impossible to assess causation. These failures in emergency response include inadequate and outdated monitoring equipment to measure levels of exposure, regional disparities in monitoring capabilities, regulatory discrepancies, inefficient data management, and inadequate public communication and outreach. Evidence of these failures can be seen in more recent disasters, including the Deepwater Horizon spill and the chemical spill in West Virginia. They have resulted in repeated instances of missing or incomplete data and reflect the need for new regulations and policies at both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).