Title: The Alaska Oil Spill Disaster Just after midnight of March 24, 1989 in Alaska, a...

Title: The Alaska Oil Spill Disaster Just after midnight of March 24, 1989 in Alaska, a huge oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez, came to an unexpected and sudden halt, and one of the worst oil spills in history commenced. The damage done to the natural environment, to fish, to wildlife and even residents around the area of the Prince William Sound was beyond description. Exxon, one of the world largest petroleum firm had to spend over 3 billion US dollars in an effort to clear up the mess but the damage done to its corporate image was profound and lives on till today.

At the time of the accident, the 987 feet long Exxon Valdez, containing over 52 million gallons of crude oil was reported to be the newest and best-equipped ship in Exxon’s fleet. It had collision-avoidance radar, satellite navigation aids, and depth finders. There was no particular reason to expect any trouble as 8,548 tankers with less specifications had previously made the rather routine trip. The local pilot left the tanker at 11.24PM and Captain Hazelwood took command. He, however, left the bridge and went below to his cabin, against company policy stating that a captain stays on the bridge until the ship reaches open waters.

By 5.40AM of the accident day, the Valdez had lost more than 8.8 million gallons of oil. By 7.30AM, the oil slick was more than 100 feet wide and around five miles long. Eventually, over 10.1 million gallons of oil were spilled, covering more than 1,000 square miles and contaminating hundreds of miles of beaches. The slick eventually moved 100 miles out into the Gulf of Alaska. For a spill of such a magnitude, the clean-up technology was initially inadequate. In addition, the timing of the disaster could hardly have been worse environmentally. Millions of fish were headed towards Prince William Sound for spawning and millions of birds were migrating north.

Oil spills can be controlled in four ways: containment, collection, dispersion, and burn-off. The first priority should be containment. If the slick is prevented from spreading over a wide area, it is obviously easier to collect. But, in this instance, containment efforts largely failed. Containment booms that could have been used to surround the oil spill at the very earliest stages of a leak were not aboard the Exxon Valdez and the nearest booms were back in the town of Valdez. The barge which could have been used for transporting the booms was damaged and in dry dock for repairs. It therefore took fourteen hours for the first booms to arrive at the site, and by that time, the slick was beyond containment. Chemical dispersants are another possibility. These react with the oil in the same way as soap does with grease, however, these chemicals do not actually remove the oil, and they are themselves toxic. Finally, it is possible to set the oil on fire (burn-off), which has obvious drawbacks because of air pollution and ash fallout. This alternative also requires calm waters. Even though the

weather was calm at the initial stages, it had gotten bad by the time that bureaucratic bungling and disagreement over the most appropriate clean-up strategy was resolved.   

A number of organizations with the same objectives were involved in cleaning up the spill. Lack of coordination and disagreement impeeded progress. By the time permission was granted to use dispersants, and a permit was issued for burning, the calm weather conditions had changed and there was a blizzard twenty-foot waves. Planes scheduled to spray the chemicals were grounded, boats to be used for sea operations could not leave their harbours, and the spill went unchecked. Before long, virtually every island in Prince William Sound was surrounded by oil, and over 800 miles of beaches were covered. Since any attempt at mitigating the impact of the spill had failed, emphasis was then places on protecting the fisheries and cleaning up the beaches.

A report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board after sixteen months of investigation concluded that Captain Hazelwood was not able to supervise the tanker at the time of the accident because he was impaired from alcohol, and that the Third Mate who was steering the ship at the time of the accident was unable to avoid the accident because of fatigue and overwork. Exxon was blamed for failing to provide a fit master and a rested and sufficient crew, and for failing to monitor Hazelwood’s drinking problem. The US Coast Guard was criticized for inadequately tracking ships and icebergs in the area, and the State of Alaska was criticized for not having a pilot aboard past the dangerous reef.   

The spill’s immediate destruction of fish, wildlife, and unspoiled beaches shocked the world. It was estimated that up to 2,000 otters and 35,000 birds may have died. Pictures of dead birds and fish, and of oil-covered beaches, became common in the media. More worrying was what the long-term might be, especially the effects of the oil deposits that had sunk to the sea bed. It was suggested that these might release harmful hydrocarbons for several years, contaminating the food chain and ruining the catches of fish, shrimp and crabs. All of these scenes were linked with the name Exxon. In an attempt to reduce damage on corporate image, Exxon employed thousands of temporary workers in a massive clean-up operation at a very great cost. Unfortunately, these clean-up operations were not without their downside themselves. Thousands of people came to collect the $16.67 an hour Exxon paid for clean-up labour, but unsanitary conditions, crime and litter were by-products of these efforts. In all, the company spent over $2 billion in clean-up efforts. Exxon also agreed to pay the Alaskan government and the regulatory authorities of US over $1 billion in fines and restitution payments through to the year 2001. This agreement however, still gave rights to native Alaskans and other private litigants to continue to bring separate private lawsuits against Exxon.

Requirements i. Discuss the major causal factors of the accident [8 Marks] ii. Evaluate the approach adopted by Exxon Oil to resolve the environmental crisis. [7 Marks]

iii. Using the theories of deontology, explain how Exxon Oil should have reduced the socio-economic effects of the disaster on the company [10 Marks]

Homework Answers

Answer #1

1)The local pilot left the tanker and Captain Hazelwood took command.He left the bridge and went below to his cabin, against company policy stating that a captain stays on the bridge until the ship reaches open waters.He consumed alcohol so he was not under his control.Moreover,other crew were tired because of overwork and they are fatigue also.

2)Exxon company used possible ways such as containment,collection,dispersion and burn-off.All these methos were implemented to remove oil from waters.But, all the methods were not suitable at that time because of the environment and climatic conditions prevailing at that time.So the company also used labours to clean up the water by paying huge amount($16.67an hour).

3)Divine command theory,this states that good happens if god has decreed it as right.They can argue that it happened because ther is no support from god.

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