The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon Valdez Oil Disaster 15 years later
(David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill—which fouled the waters of Prince William Sound, coated more than a thousand miles of pristine coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of birds, fish, and animals—has become a symbol of human-caused environmental disasters. Many years after the accident, and despite billions of dollars spent on cleanup efforts, crude oil can still be found under the rocks and sand on the beaches of southwest Alaska, and the effects of the spill are still apparent in the lasting damage done to many native species.

Date and Location

The Exxon Valdez oil spill took place just after midnight on March 24, 1989 in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, a pristine area that is home to many species of fish, birds and marine mammals. Prince William Sound is part of the Gulf of Alaska. It is located on the south coast of Alaska, just east of the Kenai Peninsula.

Extent and Severity

The oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled an estimated 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound after striking Bligh Reef at approximately 12:04 a.m. on March 24, 1989. The oil spill eventually covered 11,000 square miles of ocean, extended 470 miles southwest, and coated 1,300 miles of coastline.

Hundreds of thousands of birds, fish and animals died right away, including somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 seabirds, thousands of sea otters, hundreds of harbor seals and bald eagles, a couple of dozen killer whales, and a dozen or more river otters.

Cleanup efforts washed away much of the visible damage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill within the first year, but the environmental effects of the spill are still being felt.

In the years since the accident, scientists have noted higher death rates among sea otters and some other species affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill and stunted growth or other damage among others.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill also destroyed billions of salmon and herring eggs. Twenty years later, those fisheries were still unrecovered.

Significance of the Spill

The Exxon Valdez oil spill is considered one of the worst human-caused marine environmental disasters ever to occur. Although there have been larger oil spills in various parts of the world, few have caused the kind of widespread and lasting environmental damage that characterizes the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

This is partly due to the nature of Prince William Sound as a critical habitat for many different wildlife species, and partly due to the difficulty of deploying equipment and carrying out response plans in such a remote location.

Anatomy of the Spill

The Exxon Valdez left the Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal in Valdez, Alaska at 9:12 p.m., March 23, 1989. A pilot named William Murphy guided the huge ship through the Valdez Narrows, with Captain Joe Hazelwood looking on and Helmsman Harry Claar at the wheel. After the Exxon Valdez cleared the Valdez Narrows, Murphy left the ship.

When the Exxon Valdez encountered icebergs in the shipping lanes, Hazelwood ordered Claar to take the ship out of the shipping lanes to avoid them.

He then placed Third Mate Gregory Cousins in charge of the wheelhouse and ordered him to guide the tanker back into the shipping lanes when the ship reached a certain point.

At the same time, Helmsman Robert Kagan replaced Claar at the wheel. For some reason, still unknown, Cousins and Kagan failed to turn back into the shipping lanes at the specified point and the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m., March 24, 1989.

Captain Hazelwood was in his quarters when the accident occurred. Some reports say that he was under the influence of alcohol at the time.


The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the Exxon Valdez oil spill and determined five probable causes of the accident:

  1. The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue and excessive workload;
  2. The master failed to provide a proper navigation watch, possibly due to impairment from alcohol;
  3. Exxon Shipping Company failed to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez;
  4. The U.S. Coast Guard failed to provide an effective vessel traffic system; and
  5. Effective pilot and escort services were lacking.

Additional Details

  • Most of the oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez was in the water within six hours after the ship hit Bligh Reef, and for the first two days, it remained concentrated in a large but potentially manageable area near Bligh Island. On March 26, two days after the spill, a storm with winds of more than 70 mph swept through Prince William Sound and pushed the oil out to sea. By March 30, the oil stretched 90 miles beyond the spill site. Another complicating factor was that the spring tidal fluctuations at that time of year were nearly 18 feet, which carried the oil farther onto land than normal wave action would have done.
  • Some of the cleanup efforts following the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused further damage instead of correcting it. To get at oil that had collected in rocky coves, rescue workers sprayed hot water from high-pressure hoses to displace it. Unfortunately, that method also destroyed tiny organisms that were either essential components in the food chain or could have accelerated the biodegradation of the oil.
  • In early 2007, more than 26,000 gallons of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill remained trapped in the sand along the Alaska shoreline, according to a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Scientists involved in the study determined that this residual oil was declining at a rate of less than 4 percent annually.
  • The Exxon Valdez oil spill led to many lawsuits. In 1994, an Alaska jury ordered ExxonMobil to pay $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages. In 2006, an appeals court reduced punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill to $2.5 billion, half the original amount. Two years later, in June 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court cut the punitive damages even more, to $507.5 million. The new figure represented about 12 hours of revenue for the giant oil company at the time of the ruling.

Edited by Frederic Beaudry