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The Exxon Valdez departed from the Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal at 9:12 pm, March 23, 1989. William Murphy, an expert ship's pilot hired to maneuver the 986-foot vessel through the Valdez Narrows, was in control of the wheelhouse. At his side was the captain of the vessel, Joe Hazelwood. Helmsman Harry Claar was steering. After passing through Valdez Narrows, pilot Murphy left the vessel and Captain Hazelwood took over the wheelhouse. The Exxon Valdez encountered icebergs in the shipping lanes and Captain Hazelwood ordered Claar to take the Exxon Valdez out of the shipping lanes to go around the ice. He then handed over control of the wheelhouse to Third Mate Gregory Cousins with precise instructions to turn back into the shipping lanes when the tanker reached a certain point. At that time, Claar was replaced by Helmsman Robert Kagan. For reasons that remain unclear, Cousins and Kagan failed to make the turn back into the shipping lanes and the ship ran aground on Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m. March 24, 1989. Captain Hazelwood was in his quarters at the time.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and determined five probable causes of the grounding:
The captain was seen in a local bar and admitted to having some alcoholic drinks. A blood test showed alcohol in his blood even several hours after the accident. The captain has always insisted that he was not impaired by alcohol. The state charged him with operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol. A jury in Alaska, however, found him NOT GUILTY of that charge. The jury did find him guilty of negligent discharge of oil, a misdemeanor. Hazelwood was fined $50,000 and sentenced to one thousand hours of community service in Alaska. Hazelwood completed the community service ahead of schedule in 2001. He picked up trash along the Seward Highway and worked at Bean’s Café, a facility for the homeless in Anchorage.
The Exxon Valdez was carrying 53,094,510 gallons or 1,264,155 barrels of oil. Approximately 11 million gallons -- the equivalent of 257,000 barrels or 38,800 metric tonnes -- were spilled. The amount of spilled oil is roughly equivalent to 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools. More than four summers and $2.1 billion (Exxon’s account) were spent before the effort was called off. Not all beaches were cleaned; some beaches remain oiled today. At its peak the cleanup effort included approximately 10,000 workers, 1,000 boats and roughly 100 aircraft known as Exxon’s "army, navy and air force." However, many believe that wave action from winter storms did more to clean the beaches than all of the human effort involved.
From Bligh Reef, the spill stretched 470 miles southwest to the village of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula. Approximately 1,300 miles of shoreline were oiled. 200 miles were heavily or moderately oiled (obvious impact); 1,100 miles were lightly or very lightly oiled (light sheen or occasional tarballs). The spill region contains more than 9,000 miles of shoreline. Exxon Shipping Company was renamed Sea River Shipping Company. The Exxon Valdez was repaired and renamed the Sea River Mediterranean and is used to haul oil across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship is prohibited by law from returning to Prince William Sound.
Various methods were used to remove oil from the beaches. Workers sprayed beaches with water from high-pressure hoses. The water, with floating oil, would trickle down to the shore, where the oil was trapped within several layers of boom and then removed. Hot-water beach treatment was popular until it was determined that small organisms were being cooked; cold water was then used. Mechanical methods were also employed. Backhoes and other heavy equipment tilled the beaches to expose oil underneath so that it could be washed out. In a bioremediation effort, beaches were fertilized to promote growth of bacteria that eat hydrocarbons. This was successful on several beaches where the oil was not too thick. Some solvents and chemical agents were also used, although none extensively.
The Exxon Valdez spill, though still one of the largest ever in the U.S., has dropped from the top 50 internationally. However, it is widely considered the number one spill worldwide in terms of damage to the environment. The timing of the spill, the remote and spectacular location, the thousands of miles of rugged and wild shoreline, and the abundance of wildlife in the region combined to make it an environmental disaster well beyond the scope of other spills. Much has been accomplished over the years to prevent another Exxon Valdez-type accident. See the Spill Prevention and Response section of this website.