Lasting Effects of Exxon Valdez and the Future of the Gulf

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

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.

The Exxon oil spill is most known for its environmental impact on a fishing community where many animal populations are still in recovery or were unable to ever recover. The herring population, once the backbone of the local fishing industry, has never recovered.

"That's a really stunning revelation that you can have unanticipated injuries like that occur in a fish population and that they would exhibit a total lack of recovery decades into the future," Steiner said.

On top of the environmental damages are economic, health, social, and psychological damages.

In Alaska's local communities, rates of suicides, divorces, bankruptcies, and domestic and substance abuse all increased after the spill.

"It's certainly going to get worse before it gets better from a social and emotional standpoint in the Gulf and those injuries have a way of manifesting years into the future," Steiner said.

The damage may last for years in the Gulf, and some are questioning if the lessons learned in Alaska went unheeded in both the prevention of oil spills and the response efforts to spills once they have occurred.

"I feel that the report was largely ignored by those in the Gulf," said Walter Parker, who chaired the commission that investigated the failures leading up to the Valdez spill. The commission published a report with results and recommendations for the future.

"If we're going to have offshore drilling, let's regulate it, really regulate it, and not just sit and pat the industry on the back and tell them what a great job they're doing," Parker said.

The oil may have stopped spilling in the Gulf, but only the future will reveal all of the long-term effects and what lessons will be learned from this disaster.

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