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Rust in Peace, Exxon Valdez

The _Exxon Valdez_ disaster was likely my first encounter with the notion of environmental catastrophe, and, possibly, the general notion of environmentalism. That was 1989, when the oil tanker, three football fields long and full of 210,000 gallons of...

by Michael Byrne
Aug 14 2012, 5:31pm

The Exxon Valdez disaster was likely my first encounter with the notion of environmental catastrophe, and, possibly, the general notion of environmentalism. That was 1989, when the oil tanker, three football fields long and full of 210,000 gallons of crude oil, veered from a shipping lane into a cold-water reef. The resulting rip in the ship’s hull released 10.8 million gallons of oil into pristine Prince William Sound, roughly the equivalent of 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The spill
killed 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 900 bald eagles, and 250,000 seabirds, and coated 1,300 miles of coastline. There were four human deaths resulting from the cleanup efforts; a small-town mayor in the affected area committed suicide. The area’s fishing and recreation economies were left in shreds. Twenty years after the spill, oil could still be found hidden under stony beaches; it’s estimated that 21,000 gallons of crude oil from the spill still remain.
Image: Natalie Fobes/Science Faction/Corbis

It was all highly visible at the time, and heartbreaking — the birds, especially, coated in oil and rendered helpless, flopping around in what had become an industrial wasteland. It was something that resonated easily with a little kid that probably hadn’t done much considering of things like how oil gets around the globe and corporate negligence — it took Exxon 10 hours to get containment booms in the water, and a week for the company’s executives to speak publicly about the accident — and just that we can do something like this at such a large scale so easily.

On the plus side, a whole lot of environmentalists were probably born in the weeks after that accident. And the next year, the U.S. passed the Oil Pollution Act, which outlawed single-walled hull tankers like the Exxon Valdez, set up a one billion dollar fund to deal with future oil spills, increased penalties for companies responsible for spills, and forced oil shippers to create plans for dealing with spills.

After the OPA, the ship was effectively outlawed in the United States and was put into service in Europe as the Exxon Mediterranean. In 2002, European countries finally outlawed single-walled tankers and the ship was sent into service in Asia. In 2007, the tanker was turned into an ore carrier and rechristened the, ahem, Dong Fang Ocean, sailing under a Panamanian flag. In 2010, she crashed once again, this time into a cargo ship in the Yellow Sea. The Dong Fang Ocean was renamed one more time to the Oriental Nicety. A year later, she was sold to an Indian scrapper, where the ship sat for two months waiting for approval from the Indian supreme court to be dismantled. Finally, it was determined the ship was not toxic and crews could go ahead with the demolition. According to Nature, it will take four months and 500 workers to dismantle the erstwhile Exxon Valdez.

Which, I suppose, is just fine. We longer need the ship creeping around Earth’s oceans to remind the world of what can happen; now, we have Deepwater Horizon for that.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

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