On Good Friday, March 24, 1989, 25 years after the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground at Bligh Reef. The vessel spilled 10.8 million gallons of unrefined Alaskan crude oil into Prince William Sound, causing the largest oil spill in North American history at the time.
No crude oil actually made it into the Port of Valdez, as Bligh Reef is about 25 miles south of the Port. However, winds and tides moved the floating crude oil further south into the Sound and onto beaches. Oil covered over 1200 miles of rocky beaches — the task of cleaning it up was a big one.
The EPA, ADEC, and the US Coast Guard gave Exxon a September 15 cleanup deadline. Since Valdez was the most accessible city close to the spill, Exxon mobilized its response headquarters in the community and began a massive cleanup effort. During the summer of 1989 over 10,000 workers were employed by Exxon and its management company, VECO-Norcon. Each worker had to be supplied with equipment, transportation, food, lodging, logistical support, and supervision.
Valdez, a city of 3,500 people, grew to three times its normal size almost overnight. Bed & Breakfasts sprang up all over the city. Food and clothing stores rolled into town and prices soared. Temporary buildings were erected for Exxon's office space, and rent everywhere went sky-high. Money flowed through town in unprecedented amounts. On average it cost Exxon $1,000 each day to support one worker on a beach cleanup crew. That figure multiplied by 10,000 makes for an astounding sum of money.
Jobs were plentiful. Exxon employed many people in the Prince William Sound area to transport supplies to the villages in the Sound, and to support the cleanup crews throughout the oiled areas. Press crews covered every facet of the spill. Environmental groups worked to save the oiled seals, otters, and birds. Alyeska Pipeline Service company, the nonprofit company that manages the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, added a new division to its ranks: SERVS (Service Escort Response Vessels), designed to help prevent another spill and to supply immediate response if one should occur.
The actual cleanup process was time consuming and ineffective in many ways. Workers would wipe down a beach, the tide would change, and oil-laden water would cover the rocks with a new coating of oil. Cleanup crews sprayed rock faces with steam hoses and manually wiped smaller rocks clean. By midsummer, new techniques and technologies were employed. Microorganisms that "ate" crude oil were sprayed onto some of the beaches, and new materials were used in wiping operations. The work was slow, but every little bit helped.
In 1990, Exxon returned to Prince William Sound with a much smaller work force for continued cleaning. Long-term damages are still being assessed on fish, marine and land wildlife, and recreation.
Today, years after the Oil Spill cleanup, efforts on some heavily oiled beaches have been reinstated, and with the help of Mother Nature, the Sound will recover more each year. Prince William Sound today flourishes with marine life, waterfowl, bottom fish, and salmon runs. Visit Valdez and see gorgeous Prince William Sound for yourself!