With the BP Gulf oil spill posing a potentially unprecedented risk to the Gulf Coast, it's useful to look back at the greatest spill in U.S. history, to see how well that cleanup went. It's been 21 years since the Exxon Valdez produced the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The dirty little secret (or, one of them) about the spill is that it was never cleaned up -- not completely.
Here are four little recognized facts about the Exxon Valdez oil spill:
More than 21,000 gallons of crude oil remain, according to a 2007 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report. Just scratch the surface of many beaches, and the thick crude oil is evident beneath. True, that's less than 1% of the original 11-million-gallon spill -- but it's enough that the pollution remains toxic to wildlife, even hundreds of miles away from the site of the disaster.
Waterbirds, like Kittlitz's Murrelet, have suffered the most, and are most likely to continue to suffer, according to the American Bird Conservancy. Kittlitz's Murrelet, the population of which has declined 99% since 1972, saw its rate of decline nearly double since the oil spill.
The 1989 spill prompted Congress to tighten restrictions on the ocean transport of oil, in part by ordering the phasing out of single-hulled tankers like the Valdez. But that rule had an extraordinarily big loophole that allows single-hulled tankers to remain in service through 2015. And worldwide, many nations will continue using these more easily punctured ships long after the U.S. bans them.
True, roughly $2 billion has been spent on the cleanup effort and Exxon has paid approximately $1 billion in damages. But Exxon hasn't delivered on $92 million claimed by federal and state governments for damages to wildlife, fishermen and others. And in 2008, the Supreme Court struck down a punitive damages case that would have paid out $2.5 billion to fishermen and others whose livelihoods and lives were irrevocably damaged by the spill. The award was reduced by about 20% on a 5-3 vote that came after the recusal of Justice Samuel Alito, a Bush appointee who owns an estimated $100,000-$250,000 in Exxon stock. Worse, many of the victims seeking compensation have died since filing claims after the spill. As a corporation, Exxon can run out the clock against individuals with shorter life spans, and continue to rake in massive profits while it does; in 2008, Exxon recorded a record $45.2 billion profit.
Every year since 1993, U.S. offshore oil drilling has spilled an average of 47,800 barrels of oil into the water. At that rate, it takes about 5.5 years* to spill as much as was spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster. Offshore oil drilling, seen that way, is just a slow-moving spill. (Hurricanes Katrina and Rita together caused spills approximately 80% the size of the Valdez spill.) That estimate, obviously, does not account for the 5,000 barrels or so spilling daily from the remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by BP.
Originally published in March 2009. Updated May 2010.
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