25 years after the Exxon Valdez crisis, we've learned...?

An oil skimming operation works in a heavy oil slick near Latouche Island in the southwest end of Prince William Sound 01 April 1989 in Valdez, Alaska, one week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.

It’s been 25 years since the Exxon Valdez hit a reef and spilled millions of gallons of oil, polluting hundreds of miles of Alaska’s shoreline.

If you were alive during the spill, you can probably still recall the video footage: black shorelines, dead sea otters, oil soaked birds.

“It was vivid,” said Zygmunt Plater, an environmental law professor at Boston College who worked on the Alaska Oil Spill Commission after Valdez. “It pointed to the problems of the oil mega-system." Along every step of the process, he said, “there was repeated cost cutting to increase risk. Our commission concluded that this mega-system was dominated by complacency, collusion and neglect.”

Those are words heard after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, nearly 20 years later.

Valdez also showed us just how vulnerable the environment can be, in a way that previous oil spills, including the Santa Barbara spill in 1969, had not.

“It underscored the enormous risk that we place natural resources at when we produce and distribute oil,” said Bob Deans, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The risk was something we hadn’t quite come to terms with, he said. “There was this perception that it was safe to do this,” Deans said, “and that if the oil got in the water, surely industry had a way to clean it up. Surely there was a way to save the oceans and marine life from the consequence of a spill like this, and we found out that none of that was true.” 

After the Exxon Valdez and again, after the BP oil spill, regulations were tightened.

But spills are not things of the past.

Over the weekend, about 170,000 gallons of oil gushed out into Galveston Bay when an oil barge and cargo ship collided.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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