What Did We Learn From the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

Photo by LJ Evans

It’s March 24th, again. This time it’s 25 years since the Exxon Valdez ran up on the rocks of Bligh Reef and spread death and destruction throughout Prince William Sound.

The world loves an anniversary, especially big ones such as a quarter of a century. But it doesn’t really mean much. Yes, it happened twenty-five years ago. Yes, those of us who were there remember that Spring and Summer that would never end.

Photo by Michael A. Lewis

Memories are dredged up by the photographs of dying animals, desperate attempts to rescue the few that survived, some only temporarily. It was a horrible experience for those of us who were there.

Did we learn anything from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Depends on what one means by “we.”

Judging by the number of single occupant cars that zoom by my bedroom window of a week day morning commute, I’d say no, “we” didn’t learn much of anything at all.

“We” are still dependent on traveling on our butts in a vehicle fueled by oil drawn from once pristine wild lands, at the expense of all life that once lived there.

Photo by Michael A. Lewis

“We” still make obscene profits from wresting fossil “fuels” from the earth and burning it to produce motion and electricity, while “we” pocket the profits and externalize the environmental costs.

“We” still leave lights on, leave the water running, import exotic food from agribiz farms thousands of miles away, ship materials and products all over the world for the least expense and greatest profit.

What have “we” learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill? Not a damned thing.


Artifacts from the Exxon Valdez oil spill

Ray Troll EVOS T-shirt

Many years ago, 23 of them to be exact, Exxon Shipping gave an oil spill in Prince William Sound that dumped 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into and onto Prince William Sound and its inhabitants.

It just happened that I was living in Valdez, Alaska at the time, teaching photography and video at Prince William Sound Community College. From the moment I woke at 6 AM to hear the announcer on KCHU say, “The Exxon Valdez is on the rocks and leaking oil,” my life changed forever.

William Spear pin

That was a long time ago. Much has changed. Much is the same. There could be another, even more devastating oil spill in Prince William Sound at any time, and there’s nothing anyone can do to forestall it, as long as crude oil is shipped in fragile vessels through these delicate waters.

My ADEC ID badge

I worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, from March 24 to September 25, 1989, documenting the effects of the oil spill on the animals, people and environment of Prince William Sound. I continued this work until the fall of 1991, completing a video documentary of the spill that was distributed world-wide by the United Nations.

You can read more accounts of the spill in my books, Écritage and The Environmeddlers.

What I Learned from the Exxon Valdez

It’s been twenty-three years since I woke up and heard the radio announcer say, “The Exxon Valdez is on the rocks of Bligh Reef and leaking oil.”

Those of us who lived in Valdez and worked through the next three years of industrial strength oil-spill clean-up would have been shocked in disbelief to know that twenty-three years later nothing will have changed.

As I write, Shell is unceremoniously towing two rusting drilling platforms into Arctic waters far more forbidding than the gentle inlets and bays of Prince William Sound 1,000 miles south, where Valdez is the northernmost ice-free port in North America. The fragile rigs face winters of crushing ice constantly on the move, creating craggy pressure ridges as the ice is thrust back and forth by winds and currents. Just like the Deepwater Horizon, they will be drilling holes in deep pools of crude oil and bringing it to the surface, through ever-shifting ice, in waters replete with marine mammals and fish.

An oil spill in the Arctic is nothing like an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, even the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There is no industrial infrastructure in the Far North, no roads, no deep water ports, no airports, no oil spill equipment, no thousands of volunteers for clean-up crews. There is, however, plenty of ice, snow, temperatures to 60 below zero. Do you know what happens to machinery at 60 below? It stops, unless you keep it running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And if it stops, it’s unlikely it will start again until Summer, such as it is. Metal becomes brittle and breaks. Plastic and rubber solidify and crumble. Diesel oil congeals. Propone turns to liquid. Pour out a cup of coffee in the open air and it vaporizes with a WHOOSH! before it hits the ice. It’s a strange, dark, icy world, where nothing is as it is in the Lower 48.

And yet, the oil execs say, “Trust us.” Just as Exxon did so many times in 1989.

The one lesson we learned in Prince William Sound is that once the oil is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in. This was in Alaska’s banana belt, with temperate rain forests gracing the shores, warm summer weather, an international airport in Anchorage just 250 miles away, smaller airports nearby in Valdez, Cordova and Kodiak. A highway from Anchorage to Valdez. Oil spill equipment stockpiled at the Alyeska Marine Terminal Facility.

None of this exists in the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas.

Drilling for oil in the Arctic is just one more environmental disaster waiting to happen.

When do we say, “Enough?’

Won’t we ever say, “No more?”

Trust us! We promise we’ll be careful this time.

Gulf Disaster Raises Alarms about Alberta to Texas Pipeline

Where have we heard these promises before. Can you say “Exxon Valdex oil spill?”

When the oil maggots wanted oh so badly to build a pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez and ship oil across the stormiest ocean in the world, this is what we heard:

‘We have a very safe system.’

“You’re lucky and you don’t even know it. You have Exxon.”

“The Trans-Alaska Pipeline will be a state-of-the-art system, the very best technology.” Sadly, they were right.

You can always tell when a CEO is going to lie. He opens his mouth.