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The Exxon Valdez is an American oil tanker that went aground on a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on the night of March 24, 1989. The nine hundred and eighty seven-foot tanker ran aground on a reef and started to leak oil. The leakage continued for two days, totaling eleven million gallons the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The tanker’s remaining 1 million barrels of oil were removed from the hold of the damaged vessel and transferred to other tankers operated by the Exxon Company.
The cleanup of spilled oil was slow to be organized because Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company were not prepared for the disaster. The oil slick eventually coated about 1100 miles of the Alaska?s shoreline, including numerous islands in the sound. Possibly hundreds, of thousands of shore-nesting birds were killed by the slick, as were several thousand-sea mammals, especially sea otters. The biggest economic concern was for Alaska’s important salmon and herring fisheries. These were seriously affected in 1989 but subsequently recovered.
The captain of the Exxon Valdez, who had a history of substance-abuse problems, lost his job after the accident and faced criminal charges for leaving command of the ship to an officer not certified to handle it inside the sound. In 1991 the state of Alaska and the federal government came to an agreement with Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company regarding damages caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The settlement covered civil and criminal claims as well as restitution. Fines and restitution payments totaling more than $1 billion dollars were to be paid over a ten-year period.
The USGS began a series of studies of the fate of the spilled oil. These studies, carried out with help from the Minerals Management Service and NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service, resulted in the discovery that, in addition to weathered products from the 1989 spill, other oil residues from an unexpected source are widely distributed in the western part of the sound. These other residues are from oil products that were previously shipped to Alaska from California. These oil products had been spilled into the sound prior to 1989; the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, for example, caused extensive spillage of these products from onshore storage plants. This information has been of direct interest to the parties involved in litigation of the 1989 oil spill. In addition, new knowledge has been gained concerning the distribution and long-term weathering effects of spilled oil residues.
Among the known effects of the spill was a huge loss of wildlife?perhaps as many as 5,000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 22 killer whales, more than 150 bald eagles, and an estimated 250,000 waterfowl and other birds, including murres, cormorants, guillemots, oystercatchers, loons, and ducks. No one will ever know how many birds were actually lost. There were piles of feathers two feet high on some of the beaches.
The coalition of federal and Alaska agencies (the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council) has recently reported that only 2 out of the 28 species affected by the spill — bald eagles and river otters — have fully recovered. Others have made little or no progress since the accident. Several other species, including sea otters and Pacific herring, have made significant progress toward recovery, but are still not at levels seen before March 1989.
But now, according to the council?s monitoring reports, some of the species on the casualty list are looking healthier. The sound?s bald eagle population, for example, was found to be fully recovered in 1996 and is holding strong. The common murre appears to be recovering after sustaining what some scientists believe was a 40 percent reduction in numbers. Pink salmon, one of the region?s top commercial species, have been rebounding after several years of high egg mortality in the intertidal stretches of their spawning streams.
That?s the good news. The bad news is those harbor seals, herring, harlequin ducks, marbled murrelets, and pigeon guillemots do not seem to be recovering. The verdict is still out on the loon and the black oystercatcher. The herring had crashed. While the catches were good until 1992, the following year herring returned for their spawning cycle infected with lesions. Researchers are busy sorting the possible causes?not all necessarily related to oil?from a viral infection to winter starvation. Herring are the key to this ecosystem, Almost everything eats herring, including herring.
Since 1994 the oil spill trustee council has been feeding 12 million dollars a year into an endowment called the Restoration Reserve. It is designed to keep good things happening after the final installment of Exxon?s civil settlement comes due in 2001. By the following year the reserve is expected to be worth 140 million dollars. Already the potential beneficiaries are scrambling to stake out a slice of the pie.1996 Encarta Encyclopedia, Funk and Wagnals corporation
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