History 101

March 24, 1989Exxon Valdez runs aground in Alaska


On this day in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hits a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, resulting in an enormous oil spill. Though there were no human victims of the crash, hundreds of miles of pristine coastline became coated with oil and thousands of sea birds, mammals and fish perished in the disaster.

The Valdez was delivered to Exxon in 1986 and named after the Alaskan port terminal where oil was sent out to the main 48 states. It was capable of carrying 200,000 tons of crude oil and was usually manned by a 20-person crew. On the night of March 23, the ship left port in Valdez at about 9 p.m. Captain Joseph Hazelwood was in charge, but handed over the piloting of the ship to Third Mate Greg Cousins shortly into the journey. Just after midnight, there was a miscommunication on a change of course as the Valdezmaneuvered its way through a narrow shipping lane between Bligh Reef and Busby Island in Prince William Sound.

The Valdez ran aground on the reef, puncturing the ship’s hull and sending oil spilling into the sound. Unfortunately, the response to the spill was not ideal. There was a limited attempt to use dispersants by helicopter, but there was only a small supply of them available near the site. Also, some reports suggested that dispersants, chemicals applied to the oil to push it below the surface (where it causes the most damage), were ineffective. Booms and skimmers, equipment that prevents the spread of oil in water and manually removes oil from the water, were not available for use until a full day after the spill. Unfortunately, even after the booms and skimmers were finally brought into service, they often broke down and were thus also not completely effective.

Overall, the Valdez spilled close to 30 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound over several days. Beaches in the Knight Island chain were covered in oil. The primary victims of the oil were sea birds. Some estimate that as many as 250,000 of the birds were killed, as well as several thousand sea otters and hundreds of seals and bald eagles. Salmon and herring egg losses were also extensive. In total, about 800 miles of coastline were damaged by the oil.

The Valdez accident led to a long series of lawsuits and legislative changes. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which included a clause banning the Valdez from Alaska. A jury in Anchorage, Alaska, awarded millions of dollars in damages against Exxon to the affected Alaskan communities as well as a $5 billion punitive-damage award. On appeal, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the judge had to reduce the award. When the judge reduced it only slightly, Exxon appealed again and even many years after the incident, the ultimate resolution was still in doubt. Captain Hazelwood was accused of being intoxicated at the time of the accident, but such allegations were never fully proven. He was, however, convicted of negligence, fined and ordered to perform community service.

After undergoing $30 million in repairs, the Valdez was renamed Sea River Mediterranean and returned to service, but is no longer used in Alaska.