Exxon Valdez Disaster 101

Should oil companies be allowed to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Not given what we've learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

To provide a brief recap: Four minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crashed into Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, creating what remains the world's worst environmental disaster. Eleven million gallons of crude oil, an amount so vast it could have filled 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools, leaked into one of the most bountiful marine ecosystems on the planet, killing 1000 to 2800 sea otters, as many as 250,000 seabirds, over 300 harbor seals, and at least 22 orca whales. Within a week, currents and winds pushed the slick 90 miles from the site of the mishap, out of Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska. It eventually oozed nearly 600 miles away from the wreck, contaminating 1,500 miles of shoreline, about the length of California's coast. The oil didn't stop spreading until it covered 10,000 square miles, an area the size of Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and 25 Washington, D.C.s combined.

As serious as these impacts were, it was hoped that they would be immediate and short-term. But according to a scientific research team that has synthesized 14 years of Exxon Valdez oil spill studies, petroleum from the damaged tanker has "persisted beyond a decade in surprising amounts and in toxic forms...with dangerous ripple effects throughout the ecosystem." Reporting their findings in Science magazine in December, 2003, the team repudiated the old paradigm that "oil that grounds on shorelines would be rapidly dispersed and degraded." Instead, their research shows that spilled oil can remain trapped in a rugged environment like Alaska's for years, with consequences that reverberate throughout the environment and should not be ignored.

For example, where the oil was confined under mussel beds, it has been able to get into the food chains of many animals. At the heavily oiled northern Knight Island, mussel-eating sea otters have remained at half their estimated pre-spill numbers with no recovery apparent even by 2000. Meanwhile, sea otters on Montague Island, which escaped despoilation, doubled just in the period from 1995 to 1998. This despite the fact that Exxon spent at least $2 billion trying to clean up the spill.

Originally, it was thought that most seabirds would die quickly in the aftermath of an oil spill, primarily from hypothermia, smothering, drowning or from eating toxins when they preened their feathers. But after 15 years, birds in the Exxon Valdez' wake continue to suffer chronic toxic exposure from ingesting contaminated prey or from foraging around sedimentary pools where oil persisits. Fish like pink salmon also experience stunted growth and other physical deformities many years after the accident.

What does this mean for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Like Prince William Sound prior to March 24, 1989, the Refuge is a haven for wildlife. It provides critical calving habitat for the famed Porcupine River Caribou Herd. It is the most important land-denning area for polar bears in the U.S. Musk oxen live there year round. Wolves, wolverines, and brown bears crisscross its terrain. Each year, over 135 species of birds from four continents flock to the biological "heart" of the Refuge, its coastal plain, to nest and feed.

The five percent of Alaska's North Slope that the Refuge comprises is the only portion closed by law to oil exploration or drilling. The oil industry, propelled by the Bush Administration, is lobbying fiercely to change the rules, even though the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there is probably only enough oil under the Arctic Refuge to supply America's needs for six months. Meanwhile, simply requiring tire manufacturers to sell replacement tires with the same rolling resistance as original equipment tires would save 70% more oil than could be economically recovered from the Refuge.

In the final analysis, the undeniable truth is this: If oil drilling is allowed in the Refuge, oil spills will occur. According to the Alaska Dept. of Conservation, an average of 427 oil spills -- more than one a day -- already transpire each year on Alaska's North Slope. There is no reason to believe the Refuge will be spared, especially given the oil industry's record since March 24, 1989: Despite the Exxon Valdez accident, the vast majority of oil shipped from Alaska continues to be carried in outdated, single-hull tankers, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which transports oil from the North Slope to the port of Valdez, leaks and is in dire need of repair.

The 15th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill reminds us that the unspoiled environment that is the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge should remain that way.

The writer is a member of the board of directors of the Alaska Wilderness League.

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