Skip to main content

After 25 years, Exxon Valdez oil spill hasn't ended

By Marybeth Holleman
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Twenty five years ago on March 24, more than 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaska's Prince William Sound after Capt. Joseph Hazelwood ran the Exxon Valdez into Bligh Reef. Twenty five years ago on March 24, more than 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaska's Prince William Sound after Capt. Joseph Hazelwood ran the Exxon Valdez into Bligh Reef.
HIDE CAPTION
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Exxon Valdez oil spill
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 25 years ago, Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound
  • Marybeth Holleman: Animals, coastal ecosystem damaged; oil still pollutes beaches
  • She says no matter how we make drilling, tankers, pipelines safe, risk will never be zero
  • Holleman: We need to reduce dependence on oil; stopping drilling in the Arctic is a first step

Editor's note: Marybeth Holleman is the author of "The Heart of the Sound," a part-memoir, part exploration of the Prince William Sound and the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill. She is co-author of "Among Wolves," and co-editor of Crosscurrents North. The CNN documentary "Oil and Water: The Exxon Valdez Wreck" airs Tuesday, March 25, at 10 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- Twenty-five years ago on March 24, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez slammed into Bligh Reef and spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude oil into the cold, clear waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound -- one of the "last best places" on Earth. The oil charged through Prince William Sound and out into the Gulf of Alaska, damaging more than 1,300 miles of some of the most remote, wild shoreline in this country.

This happened 25 years ago, so we might note the anniversary as we do any other historical event. That, however, would imply that the oil spill is over. It's not, and likely never will be.

The sound's coastal ecosystem is permanently damaged. Thousands of gallons of Exxon Valdez oil still pollute the beaches; this oil is still toxic and still hurting the ecosystem near the shore.

Marybeth Holleman
Marybeth Holleman

The government considers, as of 2010, only 13 of the 32 monitored wildlife populations, habitats and resource services that were injured in the spill as fully "recovered" or "very likely recovered." Some are still listed today as "not recovering." This includes a pod of orcas, which lost 15 of its 22 members after the spill, and has not produced a calf since. Given only one older female is left, scientists appear certain that this unique pod of orcas will go extinct -- it's just a matter of time. The government conclusion is that "there appears to be no hope for recovery."

The "not recovering" list also includes Pacific herring, one of the sound's keystone species. Once the source of a vibrant commercial fishery, herring declined so precipitously that a fishery closed, and has not reopened.

Eight inches long, herring once swam in schools of a million or more, a sudden flash of their silver undersides confusing predators. In April, their spawning turned the bays and lagoons milky white. More than 40 species -- bald eagles, brown bears, seals, humpback whales, tufted puffins, murres -- depend on these small fish.

Exxon Valdez captain explains accident
Exxon Valdez oil spill harmed wildlife

Those of us who knew the sound before the spill, the "bright and spacious wonderland" described a century ago by John Muir's expedition, and who spend time in the magnificent coastal wilderness that remains, chafe at the idea of passing this 25th anniversary off as merely a historical event, of simply noting the date and then returning to business as usual.

Persistent oil poisoning, and a cascade of ecological effects, continue. There's not much we can do now for Prince William Sound, short of protecting it from more harm. But we can keep from repeating our mistakes elsewhere. This is, after all, why we pay attention to history.

Unfortunately, we still haven't learned the biggest lesson of all from the Exxon Valdez oil spill: The only real solution is to stop using so much oil.

Whether it's Prince William Sound or the Gulf of Mexico, seldom is more than 10% of the spilled oil recovered. This will be especially true in Arctic waters. And regardless of how safe we make oil drilling, tankers, or pipelines, we'll never reduce spill risk to zero.

But the larger reason to reduce our dependence on oil is this: Even if we as a society don't care about oil spills destroying natural environments, we've got to care -- eventually we will all care -- about how burning this oil is destroying our environment through climate change.

Once the source of a vibrant commercial fishery, herring declined so precipitously that a fishery closed, and has not reopened.
Marybeth Holleman

As the south coast of Alaska struggles to recover from one spill a quarter of a century later, Alaska's polar bears are drowning from lack of Arctic sea ice.

It's a sad irony that the push for Arctic oil drilling has reached an all-time high. Right now, as the polar bears' ice shrinks, we are trying at a fever pitch to pull the very substance out of their ocean home that, when burned, will destroy their ocean home. No wonder one of OPEC's founders, Juan Pablo PĂ©rez Alfonso, once called oil "el excremento del diablo," or the devil's excrement.

The best use of this anniversary is to do better, both by ourselves and the rest of the animal world with whom we share our planet. Halting oil drilling in the Arctic would be a clear first step toward doing better. It's time for President Obama to take steps away from the "all of the above" energy policy and move us forward on a path to a clean energy future.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marybeth Holleman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT