The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Oil spill's legacy lingers

25 years later


Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

An audience of local residents and Alaska Sealife Center staffers listen as Lisa Matlock, the outreach coordinator for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizen's Advisory Council gives a presentation on the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and improvements to date.

Correction: The Exxon Valdez was carrying 53,000 million gallons of oil. The correction is made below.

Many who lived through the March 24 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill will probably never be the same, and the marine ecology of the region was forever changed. Some populations of seabirds and marine mammals have not fully recovered. There is still oil from the spill on Alaska coastal beaches, as dark and stinky today as it was the day after the spill.

Lisa Matlock, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizen's Advisory Council outreach coordinator reviewed the oil spill's lasting impacts, and some of the positive changes that have resulted since then at a recent presentation at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Matlock shared a statement Cordova fisherman Riki Ott made several hours before the oil spill occurred, during a teleconference to a committee in Valdez. Ott, Stan Stevens and several other concerned Cordova residents had noted the steady dismantling of tanker safety precautions at the Port of Valdez and through Hinchinbrook Entrance, and had started publically raising concerns. Ott predicted that it was not a matter of "if" there would be an oil tanker accident in Prince William Sound, but "when."

That evening, the Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot tanker carrying 53,000 million gallons of oil hit Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. At the time, it created the biggest oil spill in U.S. waters and affected over 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline. It is now considered the second largest spill in the U.S., after BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.

Matlock also played the an audio recording of Captain Joseph Hazelwood's first call to the Coast Guard, stating that the tanker was up hard on the rocks of Bligh Reef. His quavering voice was still an emotional thing to hear, even for those who weren't around at the time. They held their breath as they listened intensely.

A few of those present experienced the history lesson that followed: The inadequacy of the initial response during the first calm three days, the sudden storm that blew the oil slick out along the coast toward Kodiak and Seward, the often futile, experimental oiled beach clean up attempts, and the piles of dead and dying oiled birds brought into Seward to be tallied or cleaned with dishwashing soap.

"This would be ground zero if it were ever to happen again. We hope that it doesn't," Matlock said.

Twenty-five years later, many improvements have come about, including passage of the Federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990; independent, industry-funded oversight of the oil industry through the Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet RCACs; regional emergency contingency planning; and improvements in oil spill response and prevention capabilities, especially at the Valdez Oil Terminal.

Tanker transportation safety improved at the Port of Valdez and Prince William Sound such as mandated two-tug escorts requirements for all loaded oil tankers, double-hulls for new oil tankers, the installation of an ice-detecting radar system on Bligh Island, and a light at Bligh Reef. Improvements were also made to the air quality in Valdez due to vapor controls installed at two loading berths, and a new ballast water treatment facility that would reduce the vapors released into the environment and remove oily residue from ballast water before it is released back into the sea.

Geographic response strategies, trainings and drills are now implemented by the coastal regions' communities, focusing specifically on which areas should be protected most, what equipment would be needed and what the best types of response should be. There are also now 350 fishing vessels and other vessels in Alaska contracted through SERVS for emergency oil spill response work, the only program of its kind in the world. Every spring they train in their areas with boom and skimmers so that in the future hatcheries and sensitive beaches where fish spawn are more likely to be protected.

In 1989 there were only 13 oil-skimming systems in Alyeska's response inventory, whereas today 108 units are available in the Sound. While there was only five miles of oil spill boom then, now there are 49 miles of boom are ready to go, and the storage capacity of 220,000 gallons has increased to 38 million gallons. Coastal towns throughout Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, and also places like Seward and Kodiak, now have prepositioned spill-response equipment at the ready, located in steel boxes positioned along the waterfront.

LOG File Photo

The grounded tanker Exxon Valdez lies helpless at Bligh Reef as the smaller Exxon Baton Rouge pumps the remaining crude oil from her hold. By March 29, the Baton Rouge had removed less than a quarter of the million barrels of oil remaining aboard the Valdez as the threat remained that the Valdez would break up

Despite these improvements, RCAC feels it has plenty yet to do. Eighty percent of ballast water discharged from oil tankers in the Sound comes from tankers, for instance. But they are exempted from the new ballast water regulations that require treatment. RCAC members hope to monitor invasive species such as European Green Crab and tunicates, and prevent them from entering Alaska waters through the ballast water and establishing themselves.

Another effort is supporting the new federal and international ship air pollution and fuel quality regulations that would greatly reduce sulphur dioxide emissions and overall coastal air pollution. The citizens' group also sponsors a variety of independent scientific research efforts, to assure that not all research undertaken is industry-funded.

Recently, RCAC scientists reviewed and responded to a proposed new policy that would preauthorize certain chemical dispersants for use on future oil spills. They feel that dispersants should be used only as a last resort and don't believe there is adequate science to show that the proposed dispersants would work in Alaska's colder waters or that they wouldn't harm species that live here.


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