History Repeats Itself: A Look at a Few Other Notable Oil Spills

History Repeats Itself: A Look at a Few Other Notable Oil Spills

Julie Leibach
Published: 05/14/2010

The oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico begs comparison with other oil-related disasters. Here's a look at a few notable spills, including the largest in international history (and it's not the Exxon Valdez).

Exxon Valdez, March 24, 1989

Oil was transferred from the Exxon Valdez (left) to the Exxon Baton Rouge (right), in a successful effort to keep the oil remaining on the Exxon Valdez from spilling into Prince William Sound. About one-fifth of the oil carried by the Exxon Valdez was spilled; the remaining 42 million gallons of oil was safely transferred to the Baton Rouge. Credit: NOAA

Cause: En route from Valdez, Alaska to Los Angeles, California, the Exxon Valdez tanker was traveling outside of normal shipping lanes in an attempt to avoid ice when it ran aground on Blight Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound. It subsequently dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil—an amount that could fill, roughly, 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools—into the marine environment, eventually impacting about 1,300 miles of Alaskan shoreline. It was one of the biggest spills in U.S. history to date, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which was set up to oversee restoration.
Effects: The spill occurred in one of the largest and most productive estuaries in North America, according to the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. It killed untold numbers of seabirds—probably in the hundreds of thousands—as well as thousands of sea otters, hundreds of harbor seals and bald eagles, and nearly two dozen killer whales. It also destroyed billions of salmon and herring eggs.
Cleanup: More than four summers of clean-up efforts were spent on the spill before they were called off. Yet, “to this day, you can still find oil,” says Eric Myers, policy director for Audubon Alaska. The beaches around the Sound aren’t sandy like, say, Florida’s—instead, they’re cobbly, so in certain areas unexposed to wave action, the oil slick got in, and stuck around.
Aftermath: There’s still debate as to what impact the residual oil has had. One of the problems with identifying species recovery and opportunities for restoration is the lack of original baseline data before the spill, says Myers. In some places, the oil is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the accident, according to the trustee council, which has identified a suite of organisms and human services in various stages of recuperation. Pacific herring and pigeon guillemots aren’t recovering at all, while 10 are currently “in recovery.” Four organisms’ status is unknown. On the bright side, nine species are identified as fully recovered, including the bald eagle, pink and sockeye salmon, and river otters.


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