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10 Photos That Tell the Story of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and its Impacts

Exxon Valdez ship with response vessels in Prince William Sound.

The single-hull tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. (U.S. Coast Guard)

While oil spills happen almost every day, we are fortunate that relatively few make such large or lasting impressions as the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez spills. Before 2010, when the United States was fixated on a gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, most Americans could probably only name one spill: when the tanker Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

Here we’ve gathered 10 photos that help tell the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its impacts, not only on the environment but also on science, policy, spill response, school kids, and even board games. It has become a touchstone event in many ways, one to be learned from even decades after the fact.

1. Time for safety

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the tanker Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

Long before the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, a series of events were building that would enable this catastrophic marine accident to unfold as it did. These actions varied from the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s to the decision by the corporation running that pipeline to disband its oil spill response team and Exxon’s efforts to hold up both the tanker Exxon Valdez and its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, as exemplars of safety.

Captain Hazelwood received two Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988, the years leading up to March 1989, which was coincidentally the month the Exxon Valdez was featured on an Exxon Shipping Company calendar bearing the warning to “take time to be careful – now.”

Read more about the timeline of events leading up to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

2. A law for the birds

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Photos of oil-soaked birds and other wildlife in Prince William Sound reinforced just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at preventing or addressing the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

While lawmakers took nearly a year and a half—and a few more oil spills—to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, this landmark legislation was without a doubt inspired by that major oil spill. (After all, the law specifically “bars from Prince William Sound any tank vessels that have spilled over 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989.” In other words, the Exxon Valdez.) In the years since it passed, this law has made huge strides in improving oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration.

3.  The end of single-hull tankers

People observe a large tanker with a huge gash in its hull in dry dock.

Evidence of the success of double-hull tankers: The Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009 and despite this damage, did not spill any oil. (Texas General Land Office)

This image of a damaged ship is not showing the T/V Exxon Valdez, and that is precisely the point. The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker with a single hull, which meant that when it hit ground, there was only one layer of metal for the rocks to tear through and release its tanks of oil.

But this 2009 photo shows the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla after it sustained a major gash in its double-sided hull — and didn’t spill a drop of oil. Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all new tankers and tank-barges were required to be built with double hulls to reduce the chance of another Exxon Valdez situation. January 1, 2015 was the final deadline for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters.

 4. Oiled otters and angry kids

Policymakers weren’t the only ones to take note and take action in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, California, was quite upset that the oil spill was having such devastating effects on one of her favorite animals: sea otters. So, on April 13, 1989, she wrote and illustrated a letter to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to let him know she felt that the oil spill was “killing nature.”

Indeed, sea otters in Prince William Sound weren’t declared recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill until 2013. Other species still haven’t recovered and in some sheltered beaches below the surface, you can still find pockets of oil.

5. Oil and killer whales do mix (unfortunately)

Killer whales swimming alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

One of the species that has yet to recover after the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the killer whale, or orca. Before this oil spill, scientists and oil spill experts thought that these marine mammals were able to detect and avoid oil spills. That is, until two killer whale pods were spotted swimming near or through oil from this spill. One of them, a group nicknamed the “AT1 Transients” which feed primarily on marine mammals, suffered an abrupt 40% drop in population during the 18 months following the oil spill.

The second group of affected killer whales, the fish-eating “AB Pod Residents,” lost 33% of their population, and while they have started to rebound, the transients are listed as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and may have as few as seven individuals remaining, down from a stable population of at least 22 in the 1980s.

Building on the lessons of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, NOAA has developed an emergency plan for keeping the endangered Southern Resident killer whale populations of Washington and British Columbia away from potential oil spills.

6. Tuna troubles

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil during development (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

How does crude oil affect fish populations? In the decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, teams of scientists have been studying the long-term effects of oil on fish such as herring, pink salmon, and tuna. In the first couple years after this spill, they found that oil was in fact toxic to developing fish, curving their spines, reducing the size of their eyes and jaws, and building up fluid around their hearts.

As part of this rich research tradition begun after the Exxon Valdez spill, NOAA scientists helped uncover the precise mechanisms for how this happens after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The photo here shows both a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top) and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom).

The oil-exposed larva exhibits a suite of abnormalities, showing how toxic chemicals in oil such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can affect the embryonic heart. By altering the embryonic heartbeat, exposure to oil can transform the shape of the heart, with implications for how well the fish can swim and survive as an adult.

7. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

Not all impacts from an oil spill are as easy to see as deformed fish hearts. As NOAA scientists Alan Mearns and Gary Shigenaka have learned since 1989, picking out those impacts from the noisy background levels of variability in the natural environment become even harder when the global climate and ocean are undergoing unprecedented change as well.

Mearns, for example, has been monitoring the boom and bust cycles of marine life on a large boulder—nicknamed “Mearns Rock”—that was oiled but not cleaned after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What he and Shigenaka have observed on that rock and elsewhere in Prince William Sound has revealed large natural swings in the numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles, changes which are unrelated to the oil spill as they were occurring even in areas untouched by the spill.

Read more about how these scientists are exploring these challenges and a report on NOAA’s involvement in the wake of this spill.

8. A game culture

A view of part of the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” with a map of Prince William Sound.

The game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” challenges players to clean all 200 miles of shoreline oiled by the Exxon Valdez — and do so with limits on time and money. (Credit: Alaska Resources Library and Information Services, ARLIS)

Just as the Exxon Valdez oil spill touched approximately 200 miles of remote and rugged Alaskan shoreline, this spill also touched the hearts and minds of people far from the spill. References to it permeated mainstream American culture in surprising ways, inspiring a cookbook, a movie, a play, music, books, poetry, and even a board game.

That’s right, a bartender from Valdez, Alaska, produced the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” as a result of his experience employed in spill cleanup. Players vied to be the first to wash all 200 miles of oiled shoreline without running out of time or money.

9. Carrying a piece of the ship

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with "On the rocks," is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay.

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with “On the rocks,” is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay. (NOAA)

One NOAA scientist in particular, Gary Shigenaka, who kicked off his career working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was personally touched by this spill as well. After receiving a small chunk of metal from the ship’s salvage, Shigenaka began amassing a collection of Exxon Valdez–related memorabilia, ranging from a highball glass commemorating the ship’s launch in 1986 (ironic considering the questions surrounding its captain being intoxicated the night of the accident) to the front page of the local paper the day of the spill.

See more photos of his collection.

10. The infamous ship’s fate

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

After causing the largest-to-date oil spill in U.S. waters, what ever happened to the ill-fated Exxon Valdez ship? It limped back for repairs to San Diego Bay where it was built, but by the time it was sea-ready again, the ship had been banned from Prince William Sound by the Oil Pollution Act and would instead be reassigned to the Mediterranean and Middle East and renamed accordingly, the Exxon Mediterranean.

But a series of new names and bad luck continued to follow this ship, until it was finally sold for scrap in 2011. Under its final name, Oriental Nicety, it was intentionally grounded at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, in 2012 and dismantled in its final resting place 23 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground half a world away.


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Thanks, Oil Pollution Act: 25 Years of Enabling Environmental Restoration After Oil Spills

Oil coating rock and sand beach with palm trees.

While it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of oil spills, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 tells us who is responsible for cleaning up this oiled beach and what they have to do to restore the environment harmed by the spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Imagine yourself preparing for your next trip to the beach. The sun is shining and you drive with excitement to your favorite spot on the coast. But when you arrive, instead of being welcomed by clean sand and blue ocean waves, you see a thick black sludge washing over both beach and birds.

What happened? A ship just offshore has spilled oil that has made its way to your favorite beach. The spill is large enough to close the beach, halt fishing, and warrant advisories about eating local fish. Wildlife and their habitats are also fouled with oil.

You might wonder: Who caused this and who is going to clean this up? How badly is this harming the local wildlife and how will the environment be restored? Who is going to pay for it? How long will the beach and fisheries be closed? And how can a disaster like this be prevented?

Before 1990, there was no single law to deal with all these questions. A series of existing federal, state, and local laws contained general provisions about oil spill cleanup, liability, and compensation, but they were largely considered to be inadequate.

A New Decade, A New Law, A New Program

Close up of Athos I oil tanker.

The ship Athos I hit a submerged anchor in the Delaware River in 2004 and spilled more than 263,000 gallons of heavy crude oil. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Fortunately, on August 18, 1990, a little more than a year after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Oil Pollution Act was passed and signed into law. This historic and timely legislation gave NOAA and other agencies the authority to address impacts to natural resources caused by oil spills in navigable U.S. waters and shorelines.

The law is designed to prevent oil spills, ensure cleanup if they occur, and restore the natural resources impacted as a result of spills. Those responsible for the spill must restore the environment and compensate the public for its lost uses (like beach and recreational fishery closures), from the time of the incident until those natural resources fully recover.

NOAA has been working to protect and restore impacted natural resources at hazardous waste sites and oil spills since the early 1980s. In 1992, shortly after the Oil Pollution Act came into effect, NOAA created the Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP). The program was established as the central location for expertise in NOAA to assess, restore, and protect coastal environments damaged by oil spills, hazardous waste releases, and ship groundings. DARRP brings together scientific and legal experts from three parts of NOAA: the Office of Response and Restoration, Office of Habitat Conservation, and General Counsel for Natural Resources.

In DARRP’s 23 year history, our experts have assessed the environmental impacts of dozens of oil spills and recovered nearly $2 billion from those responsible for oil spills. These funds are being used to restore a variety of habitats—from tidal wetlands and coral reefs to sandy beaches and rocky coastlines—as well as the sea turtles, fish, birds, and other wildlife harmed by spills. This even extends to funding recreational improvement projects, such as boat launches and fishing piers, to make up for oil spills’ impacts on outdoor recreation.

Since then, DARRP staff have worked cooperatively with other agencies to assess and restore impacted natural resources resulting from oil spills on the coasts and Great Lakes. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Oil Pollution Act, we’re looking back on a few oil spills around the country and DARRP’s work to assess and restore the natural resources harmed by those spills.

A Pipeline Rupture in Washington State

On June 10, 1999, a rupture in a pipeline running through Bellingham, Washington, discharged approximately 236,000 gallons of gasoline into a tributary of Whatcom Creek. Fumes from the gasoline ignited a fire, which moved down Whatcom Creek and through a city park and residential neighborhoods, tragically taking the lives of three children.

DARRP worked with partner agencies to assess the impacted natural resources. The incident destroyed critical habitat for salmon, killed hundreds of thousands of fish and aquatic wildlife including crayfish and amphibians, and burned 42 acres of habitat and parkland. Fisheries were closed in Whatcom Creek and its tributaries for three months.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, a settlement with the Olympic Pipeline Company in 2004 provided more than $3.5 million for restoration. The funds were used to restore freshwater marsh and vegetation, creek channels and pools, and salmon habitat. In addition, the city park was expanded by 13.4 acres, and recreational enhancements, like trailheads and bathroom facilities, are expected to be completed this year.

A Thanksgiving Disaster on the Delaware River

On November 26, 2004, the M/T Athos I hit several submerged objects in the Delaware River while preparing to dock at a refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey, releasing nearly 265,000 gallons of crude oil.

Oil from the tanker spread 115 miles downriver, impacting 280 miles of shoreline in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. DARRP worked with partner agencies to identify impacts to shoreline and river-bottom habitats, birds, and recreational activities like fishing, boating, and hunting.

A settlement in 2010 provided $27.5 million for 10 restoration projects for the coastal environment and community. Projects include the restoration of shorelines, streams, marsh, meadows, and grasslands; recreational trail improvements; dam removals; boat ramp restoration; and oyster reef creation.

A Pipeline Failure on the Kalamazoo River

On July 25, 2010, a failure in an Enbridge pipeline released approximately 843,000 gallons of diluted bitumen, a diluted form of oil from oil sands (tar sands), into Michigan’s Talmadge Creek, spreading nearly 38 miles down the Kalamazoo River. This release of oil was one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history.

The oil impacted more than 1,560 acres of stream and river habitat, as well as floodplain and upland areas. The release impacted birds, mammals, reptiles, and other wildlife, and the river was immediately closed to the public, impacting recreational and other uses of the river.

On June 8, 2015, a settlement was reached with Enbridge, the responsible party, for nearly $4 million. The settlement will fund multiple restoration projects along the Kalamazoo River. NOAA and partner agencies released a Draft Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan/Environmental Assessment [PDF] for public comment in May 2015.

These cases represent just a small sample of the coastal environments and species impacted by oil spills that DARRP works to assess, restore, and protect. We’re thankful for the Oil Pollution Act and the ability to look back on the last 23 years of successful environmental restoration in its wake.

For a closer look at the other oil spills, hazardous waste sites, and ship grounding sites that DARRP has worked to restore, check out https://darrp.noaa.gov.


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It Took More Than the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill to Pass the Historic Oil Pollution Act of 1990

Aerial view of Exxon Valdez tanker with boom and oil on water.

While the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Alaskan waters, a trifecta of other sizable oil spills followed on its heels. These spills helped pave the way for passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which would vastly improve oil spill prevention, response, and restoration. (NOAA)

If you, like many, believe oil shouldn’t just be spilled without consequence into the ocean, then you, like us, should be grateful for a very important U.S. law known as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Congress passed this legislation and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law 25 years ago on August 18, 1990, which was the summer after the tanker Exxon Valdez hit ground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. On March 24, 1989, this tanker unleashed almost 11 million gallons of oil into relatively pristine Alaskan waters.

The powerful images from this huge oil spill—streams of dark oil spreading over the water, birds and sea otters coated in oil, workers in shiny plastic suits trying to clean the rocky coastline—both shocked and galvanized the nation. They ultimately motivated the 101st Congress to investigate the causes of recent oil spills, develop guidelines to prevent and clean up pollution, and pass this valuable legislation.

Yet that monumental spill didn’t fully drive home just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at addressing oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration. Nearly a year and a half passed between the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the enactment of the Oil Pollution Act. What happened in the mean time?

The summer of 1989 experienced a trifecta of oil spills that drained any resources left from the ongoing spill response in Alaska. In rapid succession and over the course of less than 24 hours, three other oil tankers poured their cargo into U.S. coastal waters. Between June 23 and 24, the T/V World Prodigy spilled 290,000 gallons of oil in Newport, Rhode Island; the T/V Presidente Rivera emptied 307,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware River; and the T/V Rachel B hit Tank Barge 2514, releasing 239,000 gallons of oil into Texas’s Houston Ship Channel.

But these were far from the only oil spills plaguing U.S. waters during that time. Between the summers of 1989 and 1990, a series of ship collisions, groundings, and pipeline leaks spilled an additional 8 million gallons along the United States coastline. And that doesn’t even include another million gallons of thick fuel oil released from a shore-side facility in the U.S. Virgin Islands after it was damaged by Hurricane Hugo.

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Can you imagine—or perhaps remember—sitting at home watching the news and hearing again and again about yet another oil spill? And wondering what the government was going to do about it? Fortunately, in August of 1990, Congress voted unanimously to pass the Oil Pollution Act, which promised—and has largely delivered—significantly improved measures to prevent, prepare for, and respond to oil spills in U.S. waters.

Now, 25 years later, the shipping industry has undergone a makeover in oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response. A couple examples include the phasing out of tankers with easily punctured single hulls and new regulations for driving tankers that require the use of knowledgeable pilots, maneuverable tug escorts, and an appropriate number of people on the ship’s bridge during transit.

Oil spill response research also received a boost thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, which reopened a national research facility dedicated to this topic and shuttered just before the Exxon Valdez spill.

But perhaps one of the most important elements of this law required those responsible for oil spills to foot the bill for both cleaning up the oil and for economic and natural resource damages resulting from it.

This provision also requires oil companies to pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a fund theoretically created by Congress in 1986 but not given the necessary authorization until the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This fund helps the U.S. Coast Guard—and indirectly, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration—pay for the upfront costs of responding to marine and coastal accidents that threaten to release hazardous materials such as oil and also of assessing the potential environmental and cultural impacts (and implementing restoration to make up for them).

This week we’re saying thank you to the Oil Pollution Act by highlighting some of its successes in restoring the environment after oil spills. You can join us on social media using the hashtag #Thanks2OilPollutionAct.