- Exxon Valdez
- Accident date
- Accident area
- Prince William Sound, Alaska
- Spill area
- Cause of spill
- Quantity transported
- 180,000 tonnes
- Nature of pollutant
- Crude oil
- Quantity spilled
- 38,500 tonnes
- Ship / structure type
- Oil tanker (Simple coque)
- Built date
- 300.85 m
- 50.65 m
On 24 March 1989, the American oil tanker the Exxon Valdez, which had just loaded 180,000 tonnes of crude oil at Valdez oil terminal, moved away from the shipping lane to avoid meeting with drifting ice blocks. The captain ordered the helm holder to switch to automatic pilot. Less than 30 minutes later, the ship ran aground at speed of 12 knots on Bligh Reef, situated some 10 m deep in Prince William Strait, an important fishing area.
The grounding damaged 11 of the 18 tanks and caused 38,500 tonnes of crude oil to be spilled. More than 7,000 km2 of oil slicks polluted 800 km of coasts (2,000 km including all the small islands and inlets).
The city of Valdez had already been traumatised 25 years earlier by a devastating earthquake. The whole city was entirely rebuilt and became, in 1976, a major crude oil port.
This spill of 38,500 tonnes of crude oil made the Exxon Valdez the vessel responsible for the largest oil spill that the US had ever experienced.
This spill was a huge shock for the United States and the Exxon company, who had never imagined such a disaster possible.
During 1989, 11,000 people were employed by Exxon to clean up the damage as quickly and efficiently as possible. Tens of thousands of volunteers and unprecedented means were made available (1,400 ships, 85 helicopters and 1,100 people) to save sea birds and mammals and to clean the shore one beach after another.
In 1990, 1,100 people continued clean-up operations. This workforce was costly; Exxon paid each worker 1,000 dollars per week.
Bioremediation, the acceleration or promotion of natural breakdown processes by micro-organisms, was used. The reduction in the amount of oil covering the surfaces treated was three times more quickly. This technique is therefore recommended for clean-up.
By 1st June 1989, 3 months after the oil tanker grounded, the expenses incurred by Exxon had reached 135 million Dollars. They had increased to 300 million Dollars by 1st July 1989 and by early 2006 had reached almost 2.5 billion Dollars.
These expenses were not in vain, as 3 years on, 500 of the 800 km of oiled coastline had been cleaned. Despite this progress, residual pollution regularly continued to affect certain species and the consequences of the 1989 incident on wildlife were undoubtedly considerably higher than indicated by the initial report, which made reference to 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 otters and 300 seals directly affected by the oil from the Exxon Valdez.
In 1991, an agreement between the Federal Government of Alaska and Exxon established a total bill of 1.15 billion Dollars divided as follows: a criminal plea agreement of 150 million Dollars, criminal restitution of 100 million Dollars for the repair of damage caused by the spill and a civil settlement to the value of 900 million Dollars paid by Exxon’s civil liability. In 2004, after numerous legal strategies, Exxon was condemned to pay 4.5 billion Dollars of punitive damages. The company appealed on this sentence.
Consequences of the disaster
This disaster resulted in the "double hull" amendment of 6 March 1992 being promulgated and voted in for all vessels built after 6 July 1996 (MARPOL convention, rule 13F).
Legal proceedings were initiated against Exxon by the American Civil Service, several associations and individuals. Exxon in turn took action against its insurers.
In the court cases, many accusations were made against the Exxon Valdez captain, such as alcohol consumption before embarking the ship, insufficient supervision of the crew, automatic pilot engaged too soon and dangerous attempts to leave the place where the ship ran aground.
Ten years after the disaster, the mortality rate of certain species or eggs still remained abnormally high, although no link with the shipwrecking of the Exxon Valdez could be clearly confirmed by experts.
The process of affected populations regaining their natural balance may have been delayed by the persistence of pockets of fresh oil buried in the sediments.
What became of the vessel...
After several changes of identity and owner, the Exxon Valdez is now named the Oriental Nicety. It belongs to an Indian ship scrapping firm, located in the coastal town of Alang.
In early May 2012, the former Exxon Valdez was refused entry to India, where it was to be dismantled. The maritime authorities and pollution control authorities, which had given their prior consent, reviewed their positions after having received an order from the Supreme Court in New Delhi. Following a petition filed by environmental activists, the Supreme Court demanded additional guarantees concerning the pollution risks. The court stated that the Government must comply with the Basel Convention, of which it is a signatory. This convention governs transboundary movements of hazardous waste.
Exxon Valdez: the most expensive oil spill. Poster available in PDF format.
Sea & Shore Technical Newsletter, 2017, n°46
Sea & Shore Technical Newsletter, 2014, n°40
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration. Provides information about the impact of the oil spill, the status of recovery of injured resources, and services and information about ongoing restoration and research activities.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill . From the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Regional Office.
NOAA database (IncidentNews)
Pictures, The disaster and the response operations.