35 years after Exxon Valdez

How has oil transportation changed in Prince William Sound?

In this photo, three fishing vessels practice pulling bright orange oil spill boom in proper formation, with a skimmer in the middle of the boom. This configuration creates a channel for collecting and skimming oil.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill taught many lessons about preparedness, including local mariners’ knowledge about the waters in our region is vital to spill response. Today, over 300 vessels and their crews are trained and on contract to Alyeska’s Ship Escort Response Vessel System, or SERVS, to respond in the event of a spill. The fishing vessel program is a major improvement to the oil spill response system, which was not in place during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In this photo, the crews of several Homer fishing vessels practice using oil spill boom and skimmers during annual contracted vessel training. Photo by Cathy Hart.

In 1989, the few measures in place were inadequate to prevent the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the available response resources were insufficient to contain and clean it up. Congress found that complacency among the oil industry, and the regulatory agencies responsible for monitoring the operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and vessel traffic in Prince William Sound, was also a contributing factor in the disaster.

In the years following the spill, regulatory agencies, industry, and citizens worked together to make sure the painful memories and hard lessons of the Exxon Valdez were not forgotten. Changes were enacted to reduce the chances of another spill and to prepare for an effective cleanup if another should occur.

Much has improved in the intervening decades, but there are lingering concerns.

See also: Then & Now: 35 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Laws and regulations

One of the most important results of the oil spill was the enactment of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, or OPA 90, which addressed many deficiencies, including liability, compensation, and oversight. It also established permanent, industry-funded citizen oversight groups for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

Both federal and state laws now require more comprehensive prevention measures and planning for larger spills and require more spill response equipment to be immediately available.

An unlikely alliance of regulators, politicians, oil industry executives, and international spill response experts came together after the spill to reimagine oil spill preparedness and response in Prince William Sound. More: How Alaskans redefined oil spill prevention and response

Prevention: The most effective protection

Photo of weather buoy near Valdez Marine Terminal.
Modern technology means weather buoys can stream real-time weather conditions to help make better operational decisions. Photo by Rob Campbell.

No oil spill can ever be completely cleaned up. Preventing an oil spill is the most effective way to protect human health, local communities and economies, and the environment. Since 1989, improvements have drastically reduced the risk of oil spills.

Double hulls

All tankers transporting oil through Prince William Sound are now double hulled. Double hulls, basically two steel skins separated by several feet of space, can reduce or eliminate spills that result from groundings or collisions.

Alyeska’s Ship Escort Response Vessel System

The Ship Escort Response Vessel System, known as SERVS (SERVS’ website), was developed after the Exxon Valdez spill. SERVS’ mission is to prevent oil spills by helping tankers navigate safely through Prince William Sound and to begin an immediate response if there is a spill.

Improved tanker escorts

A major component of SERVS are the powerful tugs that escort tankers safely through our waters. Two tugs accompany each laden tanker out of Prince William Sound. These tugs can assist should the tanker experience a malfunction and begin immediate spill response if needed. SERVS also keeps trained response crews on duty around the clock and has spill response equipment ready.

Cleaning up a spill: Must be quick and effective

Photo of Prince William Sound escort tug.
In 2018, Alyeska began work with their new spill prevention and response contractor, Edison Chouest Offshore. These services include operation of escort tugs, oil recovery storage barges, and associated personnel. These resources are key oil spill prevention and response assets for Prince William Sound.
To fulfill their contract, Edison Chouest built new purpose-built tugs, such as the Elrington above; and spill response barges, such as the new OSRB-5. These vessels represented a significant improvement for the oil spill prevention and response system. In some cases, new general-purpose tugs replaced conventional tugs that were over 40 years old. Photo by Jeremy Robida.

While prevention measures are the best way to avoid damage from oil spills, even the best system cannot remove all risks. Alyeska’s SERVS has implemented many improvements since 1989, creating the world-class oil spill prevention and response system in place today.

Contingency plans

Contingency plans, extensive documents which contain details on preventing and cleaning up oil spills, are required by state and federal law.

Some changes in the contingency plans since 1989 include:

Spill drills

Before 1989, few oil spill drills were conducted in Prince William Sound. Today, three major exercises take place per year, along with several smaller drills. The drills provide opportunities for response personnel to work with equipment and practice procedures.

1989 vs 2024: Spill response equipment

In 1989, there were only 13 oil-skimming systems in Alyeska’s response inventory; today, 90 are available. Only 5 miles of oil spill boom were available in 1989; today, around 40 miles are on hand. Alyeska had only one 500,000-gallon barge at that time to store recovered oil and the water that comes with; today, storage capacity is now 37 million gallons.

This image is a bar chart graphic that shows the difference in equipment between 1989 and 2024. It compares 13 oil skimmers compared to 90, 5 miles of boom compared to 40, and 500,000 gallons of capacity compared to 37,000,000 today.

Concerns remain

Although there have been many improvements, there are still many areas of concern, meriting the continued attention and sustained efforts from the Council. A few of these include:

Council report on changes:

More about improvements and remaining concerns in the publication “Then & Now: 35 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

About the Exxon Valdez oil spill

Exxon Valdez tanker leaking oil in Prince William Sound, April 13, 1989. Photo by Charles N. Ehler. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Collection, ARLIS. ARLIS’ EVOS photos

On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a charted rock, Bligh Reef, in Prince William Sound. The grounding occurred after the vessel left the designated tanker lanes to avoid icebergs reported to be in the area.

The tanker spilled an estimated 11 million gallons (257,000 barrels) of Alaska North Slope crude oil, enough to fill 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Below are some of our recommended resources on the history of the spill.

What happened?

The executive summary of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s Final Report “Spill, the Wreck of the Exxon Valdez” has a synopsis of the incident and their investigation, which includes details about what went wrong. See also: Full report and appendices (Alaska Resources Library & Information Services (ARLIS) website)

Stats and FAQs:

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC):

The Alaska Resources Library & Information Services (ARLIS) has an extensive collection, including some unique resources such as trial transcripts and audio recordings:

Photo collections:

Lessons learned:

Then & Now: 35 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill – This report reviews both what changes have been made since the spill and what’s left to improve.

The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster – This book features interviews with over 60 people who experienced the spill first-hand. They include Alaska citizens; government agency personnel involved with the spill and cleanup; elected officials who dealt with the spill; and oil industry personnel involved in the spill and cleanup. Contact the Council for a free copy: info@pwsrcac.org

History of Alaska’s Oil Spill Response Planning Standard – This report documents the history and intent behind Alaska’s standard for spill response plans.

History of the oil spill prevention and contingency plan in Prince William Sound – This report details how planning has improved since 1989, describes contentious issues and how they were resolved, notes significant trends, and documents remaining issues. The report also documents changes to the regulations and how regulations have been interpreted at different times.

Exxon Valdez Project Jukebox – The Council worked with the University of Alaska Fairbanks to archive this collection of audio and video interviews of people who experienced the spill firsthand. (UAF website)

Stories from a Citizens’ Council – This publication contains personal reflections on the formation and early years of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

More questions?

We are happy to help find additional information, please contact us:

General questions and requests: info@pwsrcac.org

Media requests: Please contact the Council’s Director of Communications.

Educators: Please check out the Council’s Alaska Oil Spill Lesson Bank (free lesson plans for hands-on learning which meet applicable NGSS) or email the Council’s Outreach Coordinator.

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