Ten years ago, March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef south of Valdez, Alaska, precipitating the largest oil spill in North American history and forever altering the image of Prince William Sound as a largely untouched ecosystem.

In the days that followed, roughly 41.6 million liters of oil leaked from the crippled vessel, eventually soiling more than 2,000 km of coastline in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska and killing thousands of creatures inhabiting the area. In the three-year clean-up effort that followed, Exxon spent $2 billion recovering oil from the afflicted areas and in 1991 agreed to pay $900 million into a restoration fund jointly managed by the federal and state governments.

Prince William Sound today shows little sign of an environmental disaster: In an area that has changed little in thousands of years, dense conifer forests rise into rugged, snow-capped mountains; glaciers that stretch for kilometers inch forward and fjords like giant fingers jut out into the sea.

Despite the outward appearance of normality, though, people who know the sound know that things are not quite as they seem. Stan Stephens, who has run boat cruises in Prince William Sound since 1961, agrees that to the inexperienced observer the region is still a picture of pristine beauty, but says that wildlife populations in Prince William Sound have decreased markedly and that the area is still in the process of recovery.

Research conducted by biologists supports this: While bald eagles and pink and sockeye salmon have recovered or are in the process of doing so, populations of harbor seals, harlequin ducks, Pacific herring, marbled murrelets, sea otters and killer whales have not.

“The oil spill caused alterations to the food chain that forced harbor seals to seek out other food sources of inferior nutritional value when traditional food sources disappeared,” says marine biologist Mike Castellini, who has done extensive work on the effects of the oil spill on harbor seals.

The collapse of the herring population in Prince William Sound following the oil spill forced seals to feed on nutrient-poor fish like cod and pollack, resulting in lower survival rates for young seals.

Another problem is the difficulty of restoring beaches. The Exxon clean-up ceased operations in 1992, but oil can still be found on some beaches in the oil-spill area. In June of 1997 villagers in Chenega Bay returned to local beaches to remove oil entrenched behind boulders and beneath sand in a clean-up effort that cost $2 million.

Though the oil spill devastated the wildlife populations and communities of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, it may also have accomplished some good. Joe Hunt of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (the organization that oversees the restoration fund provided by Exxon) believes that the oil spill “served as a wake-up call to the oil industry and government, who had grown complacent about safety.”

He also believes that the spill demonstrated the futility of trying to clean up oil once it has spilled (according to research conducted by the state of Alaska only 8 percent of the oil was ever recovered), and reminded people of the importance of prevention.

Safeguards implemented since the spill have greatly diminished the chances of another one occurring in Prince William Sound in the future and have transformed Valdez into one of the safest oil-shipping ports in the world.

Among the improvements is a state-of-the-art, $7 million radar system capable of locating the whereabouts of a ship with pinpoint accuracy, which is vastly superior to the one used at the time of the spill. Regulations now require an experienced marine pilot to guide all outbound tankers through Prince William Sound.

In addition, all tankers must be accompanied by both an ocean-going tug and an emergency response vessel, equipped with towing, fire fighting and oil-spill containment capabilities, until safely outside of the sound. Moreover, a watchdog group, the Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, was established in 1990 to help monitor the activities of the port and oil-terminal operations at Valdez.

Safeguards like these were not in operation the day the Exxon Valdez ran aground. Hunt believes that if they were, the catastrophe could have been averted.

In 1990 the Oil Pollution Act was passed, which requires all tankers operating in U.S. waters to be equipped with double hulls by the year 2015. It is believed that the Exxon Valdez spill hastened the passage of the bill that had been languishing in Congress for years.

In addition, with money from the restoration fund, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council has purchased and put under protection 260,000 hectares of land, containing 280 salmon streams and 2,300 km of coastline; it also funded cutting-edge fisheries research.

Though vast improvements have been made, the possibility of another oil spill has not been altogether eliminated. Former Greenpeace biologist Pamela Miller, who is now director of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, charges that “many of the changes instituted since the spill have been superficial, and the level of scrutiny that has been applied to the Port of Valdez has not been applied elsewhere.” She worries that “the next accident waiting to happen” is Cook Inlet.

Phil Albert of the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Valdez does not share Miller’s pessimism, but agrees that the possibility of a spill still exists.

Given that the United States remains the largest consumer of oil in the world, it seems that people are willing to live with the risks inherent in its transport. The question many Alaskans now ask is not if another oil spill will occur, but rather when.

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