Although it comes way down the list of the world’s worst oil disasters in terms of the volume of oil spilled into the ocean, the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989 has gained particular notoriety for two reasons. First, it occurred in US waters (it remains the largest such spill in America’s history) and was thus subject to unusually intense media scrutiny, and second, those waters were in Alaska, one of the planet’s great pristine wildernesses, its ecosystem at that time still relatively unaffected by human intervention.
Alaska in the late 20th century found itself in the front line of a worldwide conflict between conservation and exploitation as big business sought to tap the huge oil deposits of the remote US state. An environmental disaster was probably on the cards sooner or later and it occurred as the 211,000-tonne supertanker Exxon Valdez was making its way from the terminal at Valdez down Prince William Sound to the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. The ship was bound for California with a full cargo of crude oil. A slight change of course to avoid small icebergs in the narrow channel proved catastrophic when the mighty vessel struck a reef and ran aground in the darkness. The hull was punctured and oil began to spill into the sea. Eventually an estimated 42 million litres (11 million US gallons) of oil were lost, polluting an area of 1,300 sq km (500 sq mi) and devastating 2,100 km (1,300 mi) of Alaska’s coastline.
Although a massive ocean-up operation was mounted, involving over 10,000 workers, a combination of shallow water and the poor flush in the Sound magnified the impact of the spill on the environment’s rich wildlife and fish stocks. It is an impact still being felt more than 20 years later.
When: March 24 1989
Where: Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA
Toll: There were no human casualties but the environmental damage was enormous. Over a quarter of a million seabirds and 3,000 sea otters are thought to have died as a result of the oil pollution.
You should know: Years of litigation followed, and it was not until 2004 that the Exxon oil corporation was finally ordered by the US courts to pay $4.5 billion in damages for the oil spill. The tanker itself was repaired, renamed and put back into service, although it is banned from ever returning to Alaska.