Lesson from Valdez
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, rupturing the hull and spilling oil into the pristine waters of Alaska. In all, nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil devastated this remote and biologically productive body of water. Hundreds of thousands of birds, mammals, and other marine organisms were killed or injured.
In response to the spill, Congress enacted the Oil Pollution Act in 1990. Now, tankers passing through the Sound are monitored by the US Coast Guard via satellite and escorted by two vessels. All tankers must have double hulls by the year 2015. And, contingency plans must include a scenario for spills of 12.6 million gallons, training drills, and rapid notification of incidents.
Twenty years later, NOAA scientists continue to monitor the areas affected by the Valdez spill and use this knowledge to refine their approach to future spills. While oil clean up has not changed significantly, the technology used to assess and respond has.
Real-time data on weather and ocean currents increase the speed and accuracy in forecasting the trajectory of oil. The Integrated Ocean Observing System collects this data 24 hours a day using a system of buoys and satellites.
Environmental Sensitivity Index maps identify vulnerable habitats and include more baseline information to better assess affected areas. GPS and wireless technologies allow critical information to reach the Unified Command Center so that more accurate models and forecasts can aid in clean-up decisions. Ongoing training of government and industry responders in these technologies helps minimize negative impacts to the ecosystem and our economy.While the Exxon Valdez oil spill was a disaster beyond measure, the federal government and the oil industry are better prepared now to prevent and respond to spills of this magnitude.