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valdez_route

When the Exxon Valdez identified floating ice ahead, it followed procedure. It sought and received clearance to leave the outbound(west) lane and enter the inbound(east) lane but at no time did it report or seek clearance to cross even the inbound lane entirely and deviate further east. Which is exactly what the tanker did.

Three hours after departing the oil terminal, the Exxon Valdez cut right through the inbound lane and headed straight for Bligh Island Reef, where it ran aground, tearing a large ugly gash in the hull below the waterline and rupturing 8 of it’s 11 tanks.

The tanker came to rest facing roughly southwest, it’s hull stuck on a sharp pinnacle of Bligh Reef. Within the first three hours, 5.8 million gallons gushed out of the tanker. The nightmare had begun.

When disaster struck, Hazelwood had been below deck, leaving the Third Mate, Gregory Cousins, at the helm. There are reports that the presence of a comely female lookout on the bridge distracted Cousins, who had been trying to get into her pants from the very start.

Capt. Hazelwood felt a sudden shudder and rushed to the bridge as the ship came to rest, pierced through, like a grotesque shiek kabob on a shiek. Third Mate, Cousins, had meanwhile throttled the tanker down to idling.

In an effort to dislodge the vessel from the rock, the captain ordered the engine back on and “full ahead”, simultaneously issuing a series of rudder commands, not knowing the extent of the damage fully and apparently not aware how close he was, to tearing the tanker apart from the stress generated by the full throttle. If the tanker had broken apart and sunk, the crew wouldn’t last even two minutes in the icy waters of the sound.

Nonetheless, Hazelwood kept the engine running until 1:41 a.m., when he finally abandoned efforts to get the vessel off the reef.

By the time the oil had stopped flowing, nearly 11 million gallons had leaked out, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline and stretching over 470 miles from the crash site. A combination of Bligh Reef’s remote location (accessible only by boat or helicopter) and a lack of preparedness, in the way of oil skimming equipment and effective chemical dispersants, made a speedy response difficult.

At its peak, the clean-up effort involved more than 11,000 people and 1,000 boats. Workers skimmed oil from the ocean’s surface and had to hose down goo-covered beaches.

Valdez's_route

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Now, that’s what I call a gash

By the time the oil had stopped flowing, nearly 11 million gallons had leaked out, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline and stretching over 470 miles from the crash site. A combination of Bligh Reef’s remote location (accessible only by boat or helicopter) and a lack of preparedness, in the way of oil skimming equipment and effective chemical dispersants, made a speedy response difficult.

At its peak, the clean-up effort involved more than 11,000 people and 1,000 boats. Workers skimmed oil from the ocean’s surface and had to hose down goo-covered beaches.

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The fast-spreading oil proved deadly for wildlife in the region. Countless fish, along with more than 250,000 seabirds and thousands of otters and seals, perished as a result. Experts estimate that nearly 25,000 gallons of crude eluded cleanup crews and some wildlife habitats are still years away from full recovery. (Image courtesy:Wikimedia)

spillmap

The extent of the spill (Image courtesy:Wikimedia) 

The city of Valdez took on the look of a boom town, swelling to eight times its normal size, by the summer of 1989, as hundreds of clean-up crew and volunteers poured in. At least the hotel and Bed & Breakfast owners weren’t complaining.

The skipper of  the Exxon Valdez, Capt. Joe Hazelwood, was eventually acquitted of felony charges by an Alaska jury despite evidence of alcohol in his bloodstream at the time of the accident. In a civil case, Exxon was hit with a $5 billion civil judgment for its role in the accident, later reduced to just $500 million by the U.S. Supreme Court. For the Alaskan communities devastated by the spill, the reduced verdict was insulting.

In August 1993, feeling cheated after waiting four years of calling for action on addressing the environmental impact, a group of fishermen sailed off to begin a blockade of the Valdez Narrows, which all tankers must pass through.

The Valdez Oil Terminal has 18 oil storage tanks capable of holding 7.2 million barrels of crude at any given time. That would be the equivalent of around 5 supertanker-loads, or in other words two-three days of normal terminal operations. The blockade lasted three days and kept seven tankers waiting, while the Alyeska Pipeline continued to pump the oil into the terminal, bringing the enormous portside storage tanks perilously close to overflow levels.

The US Federal Government was left with no alternative but to step in quick. The blockade was called off after Clinton’s Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbit, promised to release $5 million of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill restoration funds for studies of the effects of the spill on the ecosystem around Prince William Sound, which began in the following year.

Much of the Prince William Sound environment has regained it’s pristine beauty since that fateful night, though the communities are still recovering from the catastrophe, even after the passage of a quarter century.