The Exxon Valdez is recalled as Alaska faces fresh environmental challenges
The 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill — 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound — coincides with the federal government again looking at leases for oil and gas exploration.
TWENTY years after the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, the enduring lesson is about eternal vigilance. The consequences of letting up are real and expensive.
The anniversary is especially sensitive for Alaskan commercial fishing and environmental interests, as it coincides with the federal government looking at offshore drilling leases for Bristol Bay, and oil and gas potential at other remote locations. President George W. Bush lifted a ban on drilling in 2007.
Different measurements record the lasting damage of the 1989 spill. Two decades after the tanker struck Bligh Reef, the American Bird Conservancy reports several species of marine birds never recovered from the gloppy tsunami that flooded the sound.
The Seattle Times won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for its immediate and aggressive coverage of the oil spill and a series on oil-tanker safety. One early dispatch revealed a theme that would echo through nine months of reporting and subsequent years:
"A decade of cutbacks in oil-spill workers, equipment and budgets has left the Alyeska Pipeline Co. with only a pale shadow of what was once a model cleanup program on Alaska's Prince William Sound, former company officials say."
In testimony scheduled for delivery before Congress on the anniversary, Dr. Jeffrey Short, Pacific Science Director for Oceana, an international marine conservation organization, offers a blunt reminder that only 8 percent of the crude oil was recovered, despite the eventual efforts of 11,000 cleanup workers and a cost of $2 billion.
As some fishery-rich areas of Alaska are once again looked at as a petroleum resource, the challenge is to consider the risks and the remedies available for what could happen. Among the primary lessons learned are the consequences of hubris, Short will tell a joint subcommittee session of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Closer to home, the lessons learned play out in a permanent role for the Neah Bay rescue tug to protect Washington's outer coastline and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
For all the devastation wrought by the Exxon Valdez running aground 20 years ago, the wrenching lessons have a salutary effect.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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