A Somber Anniversary—25 Years after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

It is a truism that regulations, whether related to transport, safety, building codes, etc, are to a degree “written in blood” in a turn of phrase often used by safety professionals; that is, often the genesis of a particular rule is based on the lessons learned from an incident which sadly often involved a tragedy of some sort.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of such an incident, now infamous in the maritime transport of hazardous materials. On March 24th, 1989, the oil “supertanker” vessel (officially rated by the IMO as a VLCC or “Very Large Crude Carrier”) Exxon Valdez ran aground on the Bligh Reef (named after the British captain later to become famous in the HMS Bounty incident) in the waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound near the Valdez oil loading terminals. The ship, built in 1986 and so nearly new at the time of the incident, had just finished loading a complete cargo of some 1.5 million barrels of heavy crude oil. Operating under the command of the ship’s Third Officer (an investigation later determined that the ship’s Master, Captain Joseph Hazelwood, was asleep in his cabin, allegedly due to a bout of heavy drinking; this allegation was however not sustained at trial, and he was never convicted of any felony charge), she struck the clearly marked reef while attempting to proceed to sea. The vessel, a single hulled ship, suffered serious damage exposing several of her cargo holding tanks to the sea. Depending on a variety of post-accident estimates, some 240,000 to 760,000 barrels of oil then spilled into the waters of Prince William Sound, killing over a quarter million seabirds, thousand of otters, orca, eagles, and other animals, and completely devastating the local fisheries. The oil contaminated over thirteen hundred miles of coastline, and despite frantic cleanup efforts, most of the oil was never recovered and twenty-five years later some of it continues to permeate local soils and sands, leading to continuing problems for local wildlife and plants.

The investigations and recriminations which followed the incident were both voluminous and recriminatory; however, after years of litigation and counter-litigation that only thing that resulted in terms of affixing criminal blame was a misdemeanor charge of illegally discharging oil against Captain Hazelwood; he paid a $50K USD fine and was required to perform a thousand hours of community service. Exxon itself, after years of appeals which ultimately reached the US Supreme Court, finally paid an approximately $508 Million USD settlement to thousands of plaintiffs in 2009. The ship was refloated, repaired, and placed back into service, though it never again sailed in Alaskan waters, and was finally sold abroad and broken up for scrap in 2012.

However, a number of important regulatory changes did come from this episode. Oil tankers in service in both the US and the European Union were mandated to have double hulls—this “extra skin,” previously usually found only on large warships (i.e, ships designed to withstand the rigors of combat), offers significant extra protection to the cargo tanks in the event of a grounding or collision, though it is far more expensive a way to build and especially to maintain and repair such large vessels. This rule had a phase in period (i.e. transition date) which actually ends in 2015, twenty-six years after the incident which was its genesis. There were also numerous rule changes to the requirements for crew size (one causative factor was alleged to be an inadequate bridge crew due to staff reductions), length of time on duty, and training and response requirements. Things like insurance coverage, spill preparedness, and the prompt reporting of environmental issues also received attention.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill revolutionized the scope and applicability of regulations governing the transport of crude oil by sea in US waters; the Hazardous Materials Community is now seeing a similar focus on such transport by rail, one again based on tragedy, this time the bulk oil train derailment disaster at Lac Megantic, Quebec in July of 2013. Like the incident in Alaska, it is likely that future generations of hazardous materials professionals will find new regulations “written in blood” as a consequence of such episodes, and the learning that takes place from them is perhaps the only real good that such terrible incidents can ever claim.

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