Saturday 18 June 2011

ARTICLE: The "Exxon Valdez" Oil Spill (1989)

The vessel underway, with tug assistance.

Vessel: "Exxon Valdez"
Year: 1989
Place: Alaska, USA
Incident: Pollution (Crude Oil)
Loss: Approx. 500,000 barrels of crude oil spilled, affecting 1,300 miles of coastline.
Cause: Grounding on reef due to insufficient maintenance of software and crew fatigue / negligence. 

On 24 March 1989 the tanker "Exxon Valdez" was underway in the pristine natural habitat of Prince WIlliam Sound, Alaska, carrying 55 million gallons of crude oil, when she struck the a reef. She became grounded on the reef and her hull was breached, allowing oil to escape into the surrounding sea. In the days following as much as possibly 58 % of the crude oil onboard spilled into the ocean and to this day it is considered to be one of the biggest man-made environmental disasters of all time.

The Master was found to have been asleep at the time (below deck), and the third mate (who was taking his place on the bridge) failed to see or avoid the danger. The ship's RAYCAS raydar system, which could have prevented the accident, was not working. Many of the failings identified in subsequent reports / investigations were not considered to be unique to Exxon, or this vessel, and were thought to be industry-wide concerns. 

A US court in Baker v Exxon awarded the victims of the incident approximitely USD 5.3 Billion in compensation, but this has since been the subject of numerous appeals and the amount was reduced to about one tenth of that amount. The main reason for the reduction was an argument over the level of 'punitive damages' under US law. The initial judgement was made essentially on the principle that a judge could award what they felt appropriate as a level of punishment (USD 5 Billion was about one year's profit for the oil company), but the latest appeal judgment was made basically on the idea that the 'punitive' damages should be within a ratio of the real damages payable. 

The incident has led to some of the most wide-ranging reforms in the tanker world, in terms of recommended safety procedures, working hours for crews, oil pollution laws and regulations etc.

A photograph of the aftermath of the spill.


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