Anniversary: 30 years since Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef


Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.

At 12:04 am on March 24, 1989, a tanker loaded with crude oil was entering Prince William Sound when it struck Bligh Reef and emptied 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the water.

The oil, which had been loaded at the Valdez terminus of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, spread far and wide around the Gulf of Alaska coastline. Until 2010’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Exxon Valdez spill was the largest in U.S. history.

The habitat of the Prince William Sound coastline was damaged and is still recovering. Some 1,300 miles of coastline was impacted, with about 200 miles considered heavily or moderately oiled.

Captain Joseph Hazelwood was blamed for the accident, as he was asleep in his bunk, with the tanker under the control of the third mate. Hazelwood had consumed an uncertain amount of alcohol hours earlier.

As the third mate was manuevering between icebergs, he miscalculated and took the tanker too far to the east. The radar on the ship was also not functioning at the time of the grounding.

Hazelwood was later acquitted of being under the influence, but he was convicted of a misdemeanor for unlawful discharge of oil, fined $50,000, and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service, which he performed in Anchorage at Beans Cafe and by picking up roadside litter. He has endured withering criticism and ridicule in the years since the accident.

The entire cleanup operation took three years, but much of the oil was never removed and the region is still considered to be in recovery. The ship itself was returned to service under various names and finally became scrap metal in 2012.

[Read: A complete narrative of the accident.]

Remaining oil has worked its way below the surface of sand and rocks on the beaches around Prince William Sound, particularly in places that are sheltered from the weathering process. Its impact is still being studied. And while many species have recovered to their pre-spill population, some, such as herring, have not, as shown in this 25-year recovery chart published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration five years ago:

As the 30-year anniversary of the accident is Sunday, Alaskans can expect news providers and environmental organizations to post commentary and remembrances about the worst manmade disaster in Alaska history.

Do you have memories of the Exxon Valdez oil spill? Where were you? Did it impact your life? How? Did you take part in the clean up? Add your comments below.


  1. Thanks for covering this remembrance of a tragic (and preventable) incident.
    When you said:
    “The entire cleanup operation took three years, but much of the oil was never removed and the region is still considered to be in recovery.”
    I can only think of today’s debate on the Pebble Mine and how Alaskans should stop and reflect on the damage to our fisheries and ecosystem after this spill.
    The initial plan for the pipeline was to continue it through Canada and down into America.
    This was blocked by Richard Nixon who was influenced by Merchant Marine Industry lobbyists and large Corporate backers.
    This equation is the same set of “variables” now trying to spread disinformation on the safe ability of a foreign conglomerate to mine in an area near one of the last remaining pristine salmon fisheries in the world.
    No store of toxic sledge and heavy metals is safe in that healthy environment.
    Alaskans should look at how the fishery in PWS was affected by the Exxon Valdez spill and think of ALL the hatcheries needed today to augment that once plentiful supply of salmon.
    Bristol Bay is hatchery free and “natural”….that is what is trying to be preserved.
    Economic variables aside, there is an “Inherent Value” in protecting one of the last complete and intact Ecosystems on Earth.
    As Suzanne wrote on PWS: “…the area is still considered to be in recovery”…we do not want to ever have to say this about Bristol Bay.

  2. Thanks for your contribution, Steve and for your trill and scream about Pebble Mine. We all understand how environmental lobbyists play the game and get shills like you to spread panic throughout. Old worn-out message that is resonating less and less, thank God. Dying fish. Climate ruination. Spoiled scenery. Heard it millions of times from guys like you. All of the rich environmental lobbyists pulling up to their next summit in private jets. Al Gore in his 37- room mansion in Tennessee. How did you get to work today, Steve? Did you fill your car with high test? Did you ride a jet to your favorite island, or did you take a sailboat? See Steve, it’s very difficult to take people like you seriously when you are so personally compromised with hypocrisy, sophistry and phoniness. But we are still glad you come to MRAK and try your sermons out on us. Good for a few laughs. See you at Pebble during ground breaking.

    • By your reply it is obvious that you did not even read the story Suzanne wrote…
      Is she also one of the “shills” you speak of since she wrote: “The habitat of the Prince William Sound coastline was damaged and is still recovering. Some 1,300 miles of coastline was impacted, with about 200 miles considered heavily or moderately oiled.”
      This is not a “worn out message” but a fact of the environment disaster that happened in PWS.
      I ride my bike to and from town whenever possible, but I am not a hypocrite and understand that fossil fuels are still part of our economy and environment.
      We must slowly transition to a more “green economy” while preserving the landscape and ecosystems that support these fisheries in AK.
      You are wrong on so many levels and comments like: “Old worn-out message that is resonating less and less, thank God” only show me how disconnected from reality you really are….
      “In the first significant check on the Trump administration’s “energy-first” agenda, a US judge has temporarily halted hundreds of drilling projects for failing to take climate change into account.
      Drilling had been stalled on more than 300,000 acres of public land in Wyoming after it was ruled the Trump administration violated environmental laws by failing to consider greenhouse gas emissions. The federal judge has ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages US public lands and issues leases to the energy industry, to redo its analysis.”
      I would not get your “silver shovel” off of the shelf just yet as the Pebble Mine is a far cry away from “ground breaking” as of now.

  3. Steve, you are brainwashed, probably by activist parents and Left wing teachers. Your rhetoric speaks for itself. Man has made so many industrial and technological advancements in the past half century, to make your life easier and more enjoyable. Yet, you can only focus one or two accidents as proof that all resource development is bad.
    No objectivity. I wouldn’t want you teaching my kids. Your message is extreme and narrow. Goodbye. We’ll still be waiting for you at Pebble, or anywhere we have a right to be.

  4. “Wrong on so many levels. ” These are the words of an extemist’s viewpoints. Mike and Paul, you are dealing with a person who challenges an opposing viewpoint based on something akin to religious zealotry. You aren’t going to have a real civil discussion with Steve because he has already exposed himself. Suzanne’s point in her article is to recognize that there will he accidents and that we learn from them. That accident was 30 years ago, and nothing since. A marvel, that a raw material was pumped out of the ground at 7000 feet at the top of the world, transported across the toughest wilderness on the planet, refined and distributed across the earth and used by humanity for many, many good things. But Steve and the radical environmentalists that he relates to only sees the negatives. A very dark place to live. A religion with little good to say about mankind. Then, they turn their religious message into politics. I do not buy into their gloom and doom philosophy either. See how Steve developed Suzanne’s story into a political statement about Pebble?
    I’m for Pebble. And I don’t live in a dark world like Steve Stein, no matter how he spins his religious agenda. Like they say, he drank the kool-aid a long time ago.

    • Marla,
      Do you not remember the Mt. Polley mining disaster in B.C. during 2014?
      These tailings dams do fall and history has shown us that recovery (like in the Exxon Valdez disaster) is still not finished after 30 years.
      I thought this was the point of the story?
      What we see in B.C. after the Mt. Polley disaster should open up Alaskans eyes to what can happen to the Bristol Bay watershed if we allow global companies to build a tailings dam “Higher than the Washington Monument”.
      Sorry you do not respect my opinion or logic on this topic, but research will show you that B.C. is also currently in the “recovering” stage after Mt. Polley and residents do not know their future or how long the “recovery” will last.
      “Fish sampling revealed elevated levels of selenium, that exceed guidelines for human consumption as well as elevated levels of arsenic and copper”….
      Do we really want to say this about salmon in Bristol bay if Pebble Mine design was to fail?

  5. More lectures from self-righteous, self-appointed, environmental fanatics. And you are correct, Marla. The brainwashing begins early. Even older guys like Steve Stine have bought into the fantasy notion that the world must run on wind, solar, and peddle power. Quite possibly, the greatest invention ever made by mankind is the internal combustion chamber. Think about that.

  6. If Suzanne’s intent was to open a nice, heated debate between environmentalists and pro resource development here at MRAK, she did it. Smart lady!

  7. So it is almost 30 years since I was summoned from vacation and flown up to Alaska to head the team that wrote the interim Spill Plan that kept Valdez open. I would like to thank my team as well as Michelle Brown and Governor Steve Cowper for their professionalism during those difficult times.

  8. Thank you for your service, sir. That was a one-time event that could have and should have been dealt with as a potentially foreseeable tragedy. The state didnt have a solid contingency plan in place for a disaster such as that. Democrat governors Sheffield and Cowper were in power from 1982 to 1990, with staunch environmentalist Bill Ross in charge of the DEC beginning in 1985. I’m not saying the tanker grounding was inevitable, but stronger contingencies by both the state and fed’s should have been enacted. As for Pebble, because so many are using the Exxon Valdez by analogy, the contingency plans for the mine appear to be well thought-out and draft EIS and EA’s show a sound plan in favor
    of development. This, however, will never satisfy environmental extremists who run around sounding the alarm of doom and gloom. These tactics are so routinely employed, that mine developers use an exorbitant amount of investment money just countering the public relations money spent used to fight Pebble’s development. Alaskans have elected a pro-development governor, and further, they spoke largely in favor of Pebble in the 2018 elections.

    • Gypsy,

      “Sen. Frank Murkowski responded to the moment with a powerful, wide-ranging bill that became the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, an environmental landmark. To write it, he adopted suggestions from activists whom Alaska’s establishment politicians had previously ignored and branded extremists.”
      This bill made double hull tankers required under Alaskan Law (something that was heavily pushed for by “environmentalists” BEFORE the disaster happened…
      “Environmentalists are again labeled extremists. Industry scare tactics work again, as in the defeat last fall of the Stand for Salmon initiative. Dunleavy put a lifelong development and mining advocate in charge of the environment.”

      So, here we are 30 years later in Alaska…still facing a “recovery” in PWS while several species have disappeared from that ecosystem and once again the pro development side will not listen to folks who are trained and educated in Environmental Science?

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