On this date in 1989, just after midnight, the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, resulting in the worst oil spill from a tanker in U.S. history.
The tanker had left the shipping lanes to avoid icebergs from Columbia Glacier, and failed to return to the lanes. Shortly after midnight, it struck Bligh Reef, less than 30 miles from port.
At least 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil poured into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, fouling beaches and marine life as far away as the Alaska Peninsula. The disaster devastated the environment and local communities, and sent local economies into a tailspin.
While the immediate cause of the spill lies with the tanker’s captain and crew, complacency on the part of the oil industry, regulatory agencies, and the public played a part in the disaster. Regulatory agencies failed to establish proper oversight measures and industry failed to ensure a prompt and effective cleanup. While some citizen activists were calling for safety improvements in Prince William Sound long before the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, their voices were largely ignored.
On March 24, 1989, the few prevention measures in place were inadequate to forestall the spill and the cleanup resources immediately available were inadequate to deal with it.
Much has improved since then, including the establishment of regional citizens' advisory councils in Alaska's Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.