area effected
by the spill

Exxon Valdez.: 20 years after the ecological disaster the oil is still there
immediate environmental

Exxon Valdez oil spill clean-up
the clean up

long term environmental

economic impacts

lessons learned


     The danger of major oil spills in the United States was made apparent in 1969 when an oil well platform off Santa Barbara, California experienced a blowout causing hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil to wash up on the tourist beaches of southern California. Twenty years later, a much larger oil spill occurred when a giant oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez, ran aground in Prince William Sound Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into a waterway that was home to a major fishing industry.  Another twenty years has passed, and we are once again facing another major ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

     On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig located 40
miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, and after having been on fire for more than a day, sank on April 22, 2010.  In this catastrophic accident, 126 members of the crew were rescued and 11 were lost and presumed dead.  The human loss from the accident was unforgiveable, and now scientists are concerned about the toll to the coastal environment that will be in the path of the oil spill.

     Although initially the undersea wellhead appeared to be contained, on April 24th it was found that the wellhead was damaged and was leaking oil into the Gulf.  Up to 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons of crude oil a day are estimated to be rising from the sea floor 5,000 feet below, officials said. 

     At that rate, the spill has easily eclipsed the worst oil spill in U.S. history- the 11 million gallons that leaked from the Exxon Valdez in 1989.  Present estimates are that 20-40 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf.

"If it gets landward, it could be a disaster in the making," said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director for the environmental group Gulf Restoration Network.

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      While officials are scrambling to stop the leak, fears have risen regarding how great the damage will be to the coastal marshes, beaches, and islands of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida,

     Ed Overton, an LSU environmental professor, said he expects most of the oil to turn into a pasty mess called "chocolate mousse" that ultimately breaks apart into "tar balls," small chunks of oily residue that can wash ashore.  "It's going to be a God-awful mess"  he said. 

      "I don't think anybody knows with confidence what the effects will be.  We've never seen anything like this magnitude," said George Crozier, executive director at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama.

     Janet Napolitano, homeland security secretary, said "this is a spill of national significance".



     By understanding events in history, hopefully we won't repeat the mistakes of the past.  An historic oil spill from the supertanker Exxon Valdez occurred in 1989 off the coastline of Alaska.  Although the circumstances of the Valdez spill are different than the Deepwater Horizon spill, the disastrous results could be very similar, and possibly much worse. 

     Studying the events and lingering effects of the Exxon Valdez disaster will help us predict the possible negative impacts to the shorelines of the Gulf.  Hopefully this knowledge will help authorities to react quickly enough to reduce those negative effects and save thousands of species of plants and animals in the process.  

     The following is an account of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster of twenty years ago:

     The waters and shoreline of the Prince William sound are some of the most pristine in North America. In its waters we find sea otters, vast amounts of fish and an ecosystem that supports hundreds of species of animals, birds and plant life. These waters often find themselves threatened, however, by huge oil tankers carrying oil to the lower forty eight states. 

     On March 24th, 1989 disaster struck when the Exxon Valdez, carrying over ten million gallons of crude oil, ran aground. The ship's hull was ripped open by the reef's sharp rocks exposing the waters, wildlife and plants to black crude oil. As the oil spread out over these icy waters many animals would lose their lives. This catastrophe would kill thousands of animals, contaminate shorelines for hundreds of miles and cause millions of dollars in damages.

     Gregory T. Cousins, a third mate on the Exxon Valdez was piloting the oil tanker at the time of the accident in direct violation of Coast Guard regulations. The Coast Guard requires that any one operating a commercial vessel in these waters are to have specific certification. The third mate had only three years experience, but more importantly, he was not certified to navigate the Exxon Valdez out of these waters. Captain Joseph Hazelwood of the Exxon Valdez, who was reportedly drunk, had turned the ship over to the third mate while he went to his cabin. The ship's radar picked up signals of icebergs in the area which led Cousins to request a change of course which was granted by the Coast Guard. While trying to make this change in direction to an inbound channel, the Exxon Valdez and its valuable cargo became impaled on Bligh Reef. This most unfortunate accident proved to be devastating to the animals and birds that were dependent on these waters for their lives.

     The response to the Exxon Valdez involved more personnel and equipment over a longer period of time than did any other spill in U.S. history. Logistical problems in providing fuel, meals, berthing, response equipment, waste management and other resources were one of the largest challenges to response management. At the height of the response, more than 11,000 personnel, 1,400 vessels and 85 aircraft were involved in the cleanup. 

Click on the links below to watch two introductory videos
of the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Black Wave:  The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez


If you are interested in viewing a full length video,
click on the link below.


  • Click on the links of the different topics located on the left panel of each page. 

  • Answer the questions on each page using the websites provided or those of your choice. 

  • Once the questions on each page are answered, move onto the next page.

  • The activity will count as one test grade.




Created and maintained by
Pat DeCandia
June 03, 2010