Thirty years ago this Sunday, at just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound off the south coast of Alaska. No-one was hurt, but the ship’s hull was ruptured, and of the 1.26m barrels of crude on board about 258,000 spilled into the water. The National Transportation Safety Board inquiry found that the causes of the accident included the failure of the ship’s master to provide a proper navigation watch “because of impairment from alcohol”, as well as inadequate personnel training and deficient management oversight.
In terms of volume released, the spill does not make the list of the world’s largest, but it was one of the worst in US waters. The harm caused by a spill is also not a direct function of the quantity of oil: a release in the cool waters of Prince William Sound, where oil breaks down more slowly, could be more damaging than a larger volume in the Gulf of Mexico, where temperatures are warmer and there are more plentiful microbes that thrive on natural oil seeps. The location of the spill also added to its emotional impact: the pictures of the oil fouling the pristine waters of Alaska shocked the world.
Even decades after the spill, there was still evidence of the oil visible on some of the beaches in the region. Exxon agreed to pay $900m for restoration to settle damages claims from the state and federal governments, and the work of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversees the use of that money, goes on. The Pacific herring population in Prince William Sound has collapsed since the early 1990s, although it is not clear whether the spill was responsible, and other wildlife such as sea ottershave recovered.
For the oil industry, the disaster was transformative. Single-hulled tankers began to be phased out, to be replaced by safer double hulls, first in the US and then worldwide. The process was accelerated after the sinking of the tanker Erika off the coast of Brittany in 1999, an accident that was considered one of France’s worst environmental disasters.
For Exxon in particular, the Valdez spill prompted a fundamental rethink of its safety culture and practices. The company developed what is called its Operations Integrity Management System, a framework that “puts safety at the center of everything we do”. By the time that Rex Tillerson ran ExxonMobil, in 2006-16, the company could rightly boast of having a safety record that was admired across the industry, and its OIMS was widely emulated….But any employer’s highest duty is to make sure workers can do their jobs safely and go home at the end of the day, and on that measure Exxon has performed better than its peers. Any workplace death is one too many, of course, but over the past decade Exxon has suffered significantly fewer than other leading oil companies.
Excerpts from Ed Crooks, The Exxon Valdez spill 30 years on, Financial Times, Mar. 22, 2019