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The Lingering Legacy Of The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill


Here in this country, a barge carrying nearly a million gallons of oil has collided with a ship in Galveston Bay, Texas. Cleanup crews are on the scene, but there's no word yet on the extent of the damage.

The spill comes as the country marks a grim milestone. Twenty-five years ago, Captain Joseph Hazelwood made this emergency call.

CAPTAIN JOSEPH HAZELWOOD: Yeah, it's the Valdez back, we've, should be on your radar there, we've fetched up hard aground.

MARTIN: The Exxon Valdez oil tanker had run aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound. It was just after midnight on March 24, 1989. We're leaking some oil, Hazelwood warned. The ensuing ecological and environmental disaster was a watershed for the oil and gas industry and the Alaskan fishing communities devastated by the spill. In a series of reports this week, NPR will examine the lasting impact of the Exxon-Valdez spill. Correspondents Jeff Brady and Debbie Elliott join me now for a preview. Debbie, can you take us back to what happened 25 years ago?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Yes, like you said, it was just after midnight. It was dark. This hulking tanker had veered off course. It was trying to avoid icebergs in the shipping lane. And Captain Hazelwood had left the bridge. We later learned that he had been out drinking out that day. The third mate was in charge at the helm when the Exxon-Valdez hit what's known as Bly Reef in Prince William Sound. The tanker was ruptured and so it started oozing oil into Prince William Sound. And, you know, those of us who were old enough to remember, we recall those very vivid images. You saw oiled sea otters and then you saw this seemingly futile effort of people dressed in fire suits with fire hoses trying to clean some 1,300 miles of rocky shoreline that was just coated in this thick, black crude.

MARTIN: The accident prompted all kinds of changes in regulation and how the industry drills and transports oil. Jeff, you took a closer look at that for this series. What did you find?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: I think one of the biggest changes is that oil tankers like this traveling through U.S. waters, now they have to have much stronger double hulls. And getting rid of those single hulls makes it less likely that an accident will happen, that that hull will be breached and the oil will get out of the tanker. That requirement was in a law called the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. It also made clear that the federal government is in charge of directing the response after a big spill.

MARTIN: And an important part of this story is those towns that were affected by the spill. Debbie, you traveled to Alaska to visit one of these places. Where did you go? What did you see?

ELLIOTT: I went to Cordova. It's a remote little fishing village just off of Prince William Sound. It's very much a fishing town and the fishing industry was practically wiped out when Exxon Valdez happened. The town is now coming back and it's showing some resilience. But the herring fishery is still out. We talked to Michelle O'Leary, who used to harvest herring with her late husband, and she says she really misses the excitement of that time of year. She says it was like Mardi Gras each spring when all kinds of sea life would come out to feed on the herring.

MICHELLE O'LEARY: We would often row around these floating pens full of herring at night and sometimes there would be phosphorous in the water. And if you were out there rowing, you know, each stroke of your oar would bring up this phosphorous but then a school of herring would swim by and it was like if you were looking up in the sky and all at once you saw hundreds of thousands of shooting stars going through the water.

MARTIN: What do people there say about the legacy of the Exxon Valdez spill?

ELLIOTT: You know, it's sort of a mixed bag. Some people are survivors, they say. They regroup. They diversified into other businesses or different fisheries. You know, the salmon fishery seems to be making a pretty strong comeback in recent years. But for others, it's been a bit of a downward spiral. It caused a lot of stress during that time. There was even a mayor who committed suicide, and I think part of the stress was waiting for the litigation to be resolved. You know, that didn't happen until 2008. In particular, we talked to one fisherman. His name is Ross Mullins. He went bankrupt and he's now surviving on Social Security.

ROSS MULLINS: For the majority of the fishermen in Prince William Sound, the legacy of the Exxon Valdez is bitterness, loss of faith in the federal justice system. That's what most fisherman wanted, was justice.

ELLIOTT: You know, I was struck by the feelings of the fishermen in Alaska that were very similar to the feelings expressed by fishermen on the Gulf Coast after the BP spill in 2010. There was this sense of frustration, that you're sort of left on your own, that you really can't trust what people say they may do once you've suffered this kind of a manmade disaster.

MARTIN: The United States is still heavily dependent on oil as an energy source. Just last week, a lot of high-profile energy companies offered more than $870 million for mostly deep-water drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico. Are accidents, though, just part of the risk when you think about all the drilling that's going on and the increase in demand for oil? Is this just something that the country and oil companies have to account for?

BRADY: You know, these days, just about all the oil that's easy to get to is gone or it's controlled by state-owned oil companies. And that leaves the private oil companies, like BP and Exxon Mobil and Chevron with the much riskier and more difficult-to-reach oil, the stuff that's deep underwater or locked in a shale, a mile underground or up in the Arctic Ocean. And at the same time, there's a lot more oil moving around the U.S. these days. Which means there's more potential for accidents, like the one in Galveston Bay today.

MARTIN: NPR's Jeff Brady and Debbie Elliott. Thanks so much for sharing your reporting.

BRADY: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.


MARTIN: You can hear more about the Exxon Valdez disaster this week, starting on MORNING EDITION tomorrow.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.