Lasting Effects of Exxon Valdez and the Future of the Gulf

Decades after Valdez spill, there is still oil on Alaska's shores.

ByABC News
July 18, 2010, 9:37 PM

July 18, 2010— -- If you scoop up a shovel of rocks along some areas of Alaska's southern coast today, you will find the residue of dark, crude oil still staining the ground.

More than two decades have passed since an Exxon tanker ran aground in Alaska, setting off what would become the most damaging oil spill in history. The effects of the spill are still visible in the area and many cannot help but draw comparisons between Exxon Valdez and the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

"All these industrial disasters have a combination of human error and mechanical failure, and both Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon had both elements involved in the causal chain that caused the disaster," said Rick Steiner, a retired professor from the University of Alaska and a marine conservation consultant.

On March 24, 1989, 11 million gallons of oil poured into the Pacific Ocean, staining 1,500 miles of Alaska coastline and killing hundreds of thousands of sea birds, otters, seals, fish and even killer whales.

Fast forward to April 20, 2010, when an explosion and fire on a BP drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast left 11 workers dead, a sunken rig and massive amounts of crude oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf spill has now become the largest in U.S. history, with an estimated 184 million gallons of oil spilled into the sea. It took almost three months to cap the oil flow and it is still possible that the cap could be removed in order to siphon the oil to vessels on the surface.

Many are now asking what the long-term effects will be for the Gulf and are looking to Alaska for some indication of what the future may hold.

"Time heals all wounds, but it takes a lot of time. You will be affected for the rest of your life [by] something like this," said Tom Lopez, a fisherman in Valdez, Alaska.