Remembering the Lessons of the Exxon Valdez

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Anchorage Daily News / MCT / Landov

Exxon Valdez oil spill workers use pressure washers to wash oil from the beach at Smith Island on Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Twenty years since the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on the night of Mar. 24, 1989 — spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil, which would coat 1,300 miles of coastline — Alaska's Prince William Sound is still feeling the effects. Despite the extensive, years-long clean-up effort, oil can still be found in spots on the Alaskan coast, especially under the surface. (See pictures of the Exxon Valdez disaster.)

Thousands of sea otters, seals and eagles and a quarter of a million seabirds died as a result of the spill, one of the worst ecological disasters in history, and the populations of those species have yet to fully recover. The lucrative herring and salmon fisheries are still damaged — by one estimate, the spill cost local fishermen nearly $300 million. "On the surface, Prince William Sound looks like it has regained its majesty," says Keith Colburn, an Alaskan fisherman and one of the stars of the reality TV series The Deadliest Catch. "But below the surface it's completely different." (Listen to Colburn talk about the Exxon Valdez anniversary on this week's Greencast.)

Alaskans like Colburn are worried that on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Valdez accident, the spill and its toll are in danger of being forgotten — even as new offshore oil and gas exploration is being considered in Alaska. In 2007, former President George W. Bush ended a long-standing executive ban on offshore oil drilling in Bristol Bay in the southeastern waters of the Bering Sea, potentially opening up what's been called America's "fish basket" to the fossil fuels industry. Although the Obama Administration has slowed the process, it hasn't stopped it — and Alaska's Republican Gov. Sarah Palin would be happy to "drill, baby, drill," especially as the declining price of oil diminishes state revenues. (Read "Drilling for Oil Way, Way Offshore.")

The oil industry claims that safety standards have improved, and that the chances of another accident are small. But to environmentalists, the Valdez is still a looming reminder that oil will always threaten the vulnerable marine environment — and that a single mistake can have ramifications that last for decades. "If it's lost, it's lost forever," says Margaret Williams, the Alaska director for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which is calling for Bristol Bay and other parts of the Arctic to be made "no-go zones" for oil and gas development. "There are lessons to be learned from the Exxon Valdez, but they're not being learned well." (See pictures of the fragile earth.")

One of those lessons is that the Arctic ecosystems are unusually vulnerable to oil spills, according to long-term research funded by some of the $1 billion settlement from Exxon. Scientists found that, thanks in part to the cold environment, oil lingered in the area for years, some of it still biologically active and toxic. Because many Arctic species have long lifespans and slow reproductive cycles, wildlife recovery has been slow. Pacific herring — a keystone of both the commercial fishing industry and the marine food web in Prince William Sound — were spawning at the time of the spill, and were hit particularly hard. "The herring stocks still haven't recovered," says Colburn.

Another catastrophic spill or accident notwithstanding, even the work of setting up offshore oil drilling could impact the marine environment. The oil industry uses seismic blasts as part of initial exploration, and environmentalists fear that sound waves could harm nearby fish. But if there were an accident on the scale of the Valdez in Bristol Bay, where more than 40% of all wild seafood consumed in America is caught, the result would be not just an environmental disaster, but also an economic one. The Bristol fisheries bring in over $2 billion to the Alaskan economy annually — losing the bay even for a short time because of a spill would be "devastating," says Colburn. "We don't know the impacts on juveniles. We don't know the impacts on soft-shelled crab. To me, [oil exploration] is just such a near-sighted policy."

The new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has indicated that he will review oil and gas leases for Arctic waters, and for now, the sudden drop in the price of oil has blunted some of the impetus to drill. Although Salazar is in no rush to go fishing for petroleum, as soon as the world economy recovers, so will demand for oil and the pressure to drill offshore in Alaska. And that pressure will surely only grow as climate change causes the Arctic ice to recede. But that is precisely the lesson that must be remembered from the Exxon Valdez: that some parts of the world are too precious to be risked for a few million barrels of oil. "This place was a Shangri-la of the Arctic, a very special place," says Williams. "And today it's lost."

Read "The Stain Will Remain On Alaska".

See pictures of South Korea's oil spill.