The 25th Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez: Have We Learned Anything From Our Mistakes?

It’s been 25 years to the day since human error allowed the Exxon Valdez tanker to run aground in the pristine waters of Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska, dumping 11 million gallons of crude oil in what would become the greatest environmental disaster for an entire generation.

Even after the recent Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico — a much larger accident in terms of the amount of oil released — the spectre of Exxon Valdez remains fresh in the minds of many Americans old enough to remember the wall-to-wall media coverage of crude-smothered rocks, birds, and marine mammals.

In the quarter century since the Exxon Valdez foundered, changing economic and climatic conditions have led to increased Arctic shipping, including increasing volumes of petroleum products through the Arctic. Sadly, apart from a few areas around oil fields, there is little to no capacity to respond to an accident – leaving the region’s coastal indigenous communities and iconic wildlife at risk of a catastrophe.

Local Alaskans and conservationists like myself – who witnessed the Exxon Valdez impact at close range – will never forget the damage. The wake of oil spread far from Bligh Reef, devastating life in Prince William Sound, killing over a quarter of a million seabirds at the large colonies in neighbouring Cook Inlet, before moving along the coast of Kodiak and to a point on the Alaska Peninsula 460 miles to the south.

Yet more than memories remain. Oil persists beneath the boulders and cobbles of the affected region, sea otters have only just recovered after 25 years, and some species such as Pacific herring and the fisheries reliant on them are still not recovering at all, despite Exxon’s overtly optimistic prediction of a quick and full recovery of Prince William Sound.

The fact is that even under ideal conditions, relatively little oil is actually recovered from a large spill. Its long-term impacts demand that we redouble our efforts on prevention to protect natural resources and the communities that rely on them – particularly in the Arctic where the environmental challenges are greater, the response and cleanup infrastructure frequently poor, and the logistics for mounting a response in remote environments immense. Furthermore, Arctic wildlife tends to aggregate in staggering numbers, rendering large portions of entire species vulnerable to a spill, like the seabirds of Cook Inlet.

Late last year, recognising that accidents will happen, I helped to lead a workshop with representatives of government agencies and coastal communities to address the lack of oil spill response capacity in the waterways separating Alaska in the United States from Chukotka in the Russian Federation. Residents from the Bering and Anadyr Straits and other villages met with representatives from federal and state agencies and other organisations in order to better identify the best ways to understand, prepare for, and respond to, an oil spill in a co-ordinated manner.

While overall co-ordination of any large oil spill naturally rests with a formalised incident command, the first responders to a future oil spill in Arctic waters will more often than not be from the nearest local communities. Local hunters possess knowledge of natural resources passed down over centuries, including the migratory movements of birds, marine mammals, and fish, as well as how to operate safely in their coastal waters.

These are the people who stand to lose the most in the event of a spill, which could devastate regional wildlife and fish populations. Providing them the proper training, equipment, and infrastructure for their communities will help them to play a more meaningful role in planning for and safely responding to any future environmental disasters.

Communities, agencies, and other responsible groups on both sides of the political border must also establish predetermined roles and priorities. For example, will oil be allowed to wash ashore or will an attempt at dispersal be made? While oil on Arctic beaches is nobody’s wish, the long-term impacts of dispersant use on food security in the Arctic environment are unknown. Both options have long-term environmental and human health consequences – and only through local input into the planning process can these difficult decisions be addressed.

During the Exxon Valdez incident, villages dependent on fishing were financially ruined. A similar event farther north, impacting the health and abundance of marine mammal populations, could be even more devastating. Such losses of iconic wildlife and damage to this stunning environment threaten not only a unique and precious part of our planet; but also the nutritional needs of coastal communities and a critical component of their cultures.

In the end, the story of the Exxon Valdez remains a cautionary tale. While simply hoping for the best may be the cheapest way forward given the resources required to establish functional networks of community and government bodies willing and able to work together, accidents do and will continue to happen. If we are to secure the long-term health and security of the Arctic’s magnificent natural resources and vibrant indigenous cultures there can be little doubt concerning the value of both prevention and preparedness.

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