March 24: Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Twenty-five years ago today, we sat helpless as we watched early reports of what was later estimated to be 11-32 million gallons of crude oil spill into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound in Alaska.
Over 100,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 Bald Eagles, and 22 orcas died as a result. Eleven resident orcas disappeared the following year and another pod of transient orcas has not successfully reproduced since. Countless salmon and herring perished as well, and their populations have still not recovered.
Prince William Sound has not recovered either, and toxic oil is still found there in the sand under the rocks. The human health cost was borne out in fisheries closures and tourism losses, but long-term health problems in cleanup workers are perhaps the most tragic legacy.
Much was learned from this disaster. New regulations under what is known as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (or OPA90) make it easier for response to occur in a disaster and have helped standardize the use of double hulled tanks. However, recent events show that accidents still happen, and it is clear we need to do more to keep them from happening in the first place.
Another spill in the Gulf
As a stark reminder of this, just two days ago -ironically on World Water Day- a barge collided with a ship near Houston- Galveston, Texas causing one of the barge’s tanks to rupture. Coast Guard officials say up to 168,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel (about a fifth of its 900,000+ gallon cargo) spilled into the waterway.
It is not on the scale of BP’s 2010 Gulf Oil Disaster or the Exxon Valdez, but it is a very significant spill and response is underway as I write this. Important shorebird habitat on both sides of the ship channel is impacted, including Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary which attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to forage in the shallow mud flats there.
Is Puget Sound next? Is it preventable?
The oil industry is eying Puget Sound and the Salish Sea as an export portal for Alberta tar sands bitumen and Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. The shipments have already started coming in by pipeline and rail, leaving by ship, with huge plans for expansion in the future. The oil coming in already exceeds our local needs and it’s safe to say that additional capacity will be all be loaded onto more ships transiting our waters. Among other things, this will increase the risk of vessel-related spills in Puget Sound.
This year the Washington Legislature had a chance to pass into law the Oil Transportation Safety Act, to reform the way we manage prevention and accountability. Although it passed the State House of Representatives, the majority leaders in the Senate refused to even take the bill up for debate.
What can we do?
The Washington Legislature needs to act in the next year to better address this threat. They should pass and hopefully strengthen the Oil Transportation Safety Act. And, Governor Inslee should direct state agencies to put a moratorium on new oil transportation infrastructure until we can better understand and address these risks. Recently the Seattle City Council passed a resolution on the matter.
Ultimately we as a society need to examine our dependence on this toxic material. We need to expand renewable sources of energy that don’t involve the significant risks to our climate, or to human life and our ecosystem that a major oil spill can bring. Until then, we need to better prepare, prevent and respond to disasters and be willing to ask the question: “Is this really the right time and place to expose ourselves and the environment to these risks?”