Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Marks 30th Anniversary

Thirty years after the big oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound the memory of the environmental disaster is still fresh in the minds of those who were there and those seeking to deal more effectively with such spills.

At a recent Exxon Valdez conference in Anchorage, Alaska, hosted by Alaska Sea Grant, participants talked about the need for detailed preparation for future spills, pointing out the importance of knowing where all equipment is located and how to get it to the scene.

That was a major issue back on March 24, 1987, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, and began hemorrhaging crude oil into Prince William Sound, noted Steve Cowper, who as Alaska’s sixth governor had to deal with the spill.

In retrospect, Cowper said in an interview this week, “everybody probably could have thought of something they could have done, but you don’t get that luxury in real life.”

Cowper, a former maritime lawyer, remarked that on the day of the spill the weather was good, calm, and continued to be so for several days, and that had anyone had a skimmer they could have gotten a lot of that crude oil, but nobody did.

“The sun was out and there wasn’t a lot of wind, and the oil just pooled alongside of the tanker, but by the time we got the skimmers from the pipeline people, the weather had moved in and scattered the oil all over the place, and the oil headed for the hatcheries,” he said.

According to Cowper, fishermen, seeing nobody else responding, took it upon themselves to save the hatcheries.

“The people whose job it was to respond had the equipment,” said Cowper, “but they had it hidden in warehouses and it took them about 10 days to find it, by which time it was too late.”

Cowper did get the US Navy of the Pacific in Hawaii to fly in some boom and skimmers on C130s, and that helped. Russia agreed to send its huge skimmer, the Vaydaghubsky, but it was in Vietnam and by the time it arrived, “all the oil in the water was gummed up with logs and seaweed and fish nets and driftwood and they couldn’t get through it,” Cowper explained.

One of the ironies was that the tanker hit Bligh Reef. “There were icebergs in the shipping lane,” said Cowper, “so Captain Joe Hazelwood had asked Coast Guard permission for the vessel to parallel the shipping lanes in a certain direction, a direction that took the ship directly into Bligh Reef.”

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