In 1989, Prince William Sound’s largest port Valdez became a worldwide symbol for the danger of oil spills for the environment. As an important part of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, numerous tankers bearing million gallons of oil would come there regularly.
The sound containing many smaller islands, and reefs proved to be hazardous when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef shortly after leaving Valdez, creating a large oil spill with devastating consequences for the ecosystem. Exxon Valdez hull was ruptured and nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled on March 24, 1989.
It was the largest single oil spill in United States coastal waters until the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010. The oil started rapidly spreading over a wide area, killing the wildlife and crippling the environment.
Prince William Sound's remote location in Alaska could be reached only by a helicopter, plane or a boat. Therefore cleanup measures designed in response to the crisis were difficult to enforce. In the following period an eight-mile (12.8km) slick was reported.
Oil spill spreads
High winds affected attempts to suck the slick from the sea's surface while residents were struck by poor air quality as emergency crews burned off the top layer of oil. Booms were set on the surface of the sea to contain the oil, but were mostly useless.
The Coast Guard dropped chemicals in an attempt to break up the slick, yet their reaction was late. Environmentalists responded quickly in an effort to save the animals. Most endangered were the sea ducks, which numbered up to 10 million at the time. Many seals and ducks were discovered drenched in oil near the tanker.
Several key issues contributed to the incident, main being the failure of Exxon Company to the master as well as to provide a rested and sufficient crew for the tanker. Their Raytheon Collision Avoidance System (RAYCAS) radar functioned incorrectly due to poor maintenance, leaving oil tanker miles off course when they tried to avoid the icebergs in the usual shipping lanes.
Joe Hazelwood, the Exxon Valdez Captain, ordered helmsman to leave the lanes in an effort to go around the icebergs. When they tried to return, the third mate failed to properly maneuver the ship and grounded it on the Reef. According to some sources the crew was suffering from the fatigue caused from excessive workload. Nevertheless, the horrible ecological damage was done.