Twenty-three years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef outside the port of Valdez, Alaska, and leaked more than 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, polluting 1,300 miles of shoreline, the ship will be dismantled for scrap metal in an Indian ship-breaking yard.

Exxon Valdez (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Only about one-fifth of the ship’s cargo seeped into the waters of the sound, but it was enough to kill a quarter-million seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 247 bald eagles, 22 orcas, 300 harbour seals, and innumerable salmon and herring eggs. The spill reigned as the worst oil spill in national history until the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010.

Workers struggle to clean oil off the beach of Big Smith Island. (Photo: Jim Brickett)

The scale of the extractive projects mounted by the oil and gas industries today are simply too large to be safely contained when problems arise. In light of the immense profits made by these companies you’d think the government would recognize that the environment is finite and that penalties should be assessed to send a message that irresponsible behavior of such magnitude will not be tolerated. But decades after the Exxon Valdez spill, a federal court substantially reduced the penalty initially assessed against the company for the tragedy they caused in Alaska.

Oil still coats the beaches of Prince William Sound, disguised beneath layers of sand. Though the Exxon Valdez has run aground for good, the effects of the 1989 disaster will long outlast its namesake.

The legacies of the Exxon Valdez and Gulf oil spills remind us of the continued risk of future catastrophies. Shell Oil will soon start drilling in Alaska’s cold Beaufort Sea, only 15 miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Just weeks ago Shell lost control of a drilling ship—the ironically named Noble Discoverer—while it was anchored in the harbor. A stark reminder that, despite the oil industry’s statements that safety is their top concern, accidents happen.

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