Publisher's Letter It’s Time to Learn the Exxon Valdez Lesson - Natural Awakenings - NJ

Published on May 26th, 2017 | by Joe Dunne

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It’s Time to Learn the Lesson

Recently I came across a research paper I prepared for a class in 1992, which reminded me of the call to be better stewards of the earth.

The Exxon Valdez Disaster
Four Past Midnight is a work of horror and the supernatural by Stephen King. Good Friday is a day of reflection and celebrations for Christians of the world. For the inhabitants of Valdez, Alaska, on March 24, 1989 at exactly four minutes past midnight, their horror story would begin, and it would be anything but good. It would, however, change their lives as well as ours forever.

The nightmare began when 42-year-old Captain Joseph Hazelwood, turned the controls of the $123 million supertanker over to his unlicensed third mate, switched the Valdez to auto pilot and retired from the bridge. The 976 foot Exxon Valdez supertanker, carrying 53 million gallons of North Slope crude oil, then slowly strayed two miles off course. Away from the safety of deep waters it struck Bligh Reef, a notorious and well known navigational hazard.
The 600-foot gash she received vomited 11 million gallons of pure destruction into the icy waters of pristine Prince William Sound. Over the next couple of weeks, aided by high winds and swift tides, the mousse (oil jargon for clumps of oil), would deliver death and destruction to everything in its path.

Despite Exxon’s $11 million clean-up campaign (all that they were held responsible), oil still covered 1,200 miles of shoreline. Mousse washed ashore and spread a deadly blanket (up to two feet thick) on every Island in the vicinity of the disaster. Weaving its way through interconnected waterways, streams and riverbeds, it decimated salmon spawning grounds and the home of the largest otter population in the world.

The tragedy also happened at the worst possible time as migratory birds were soon to arrive along with the annual bloom of phytoplankton. Everything should have been about life, but now was about death. The spill eventually reached Katami National Park, 550 miles away, where it covered and destroyed 90% of the 260-mile shoreline. To bring it into perspective: If Bligh Reef were off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, oil would have covered beaches all the way to North Carolina.

The nightmare started slowly then built momentum. By the first week in April 1989, the death toll of seabirds was 2,526; by the end of the month tens of thousands would perish. The final hand count would be upwards of 100,000 seabirds, though it is estimated that 250,000 perished. It’s hard to tell since otters and seabirds sink to the bottom of the sea when they are covered in oil.

In addition to seabirds: 2,800 otters; 300 harbor seals; 250 bald eagles; 22 killer whales. It’s impossible to estimate how many wolves and bears died directly or indirectly from the disaster. But we know that billions, yes billions, of salmon and herring eggs were lost.

We are always reminded that from the past come the lessons for the future. I hope we never forget that what we do today becomes our past tomorrow. It’s clear that major lessons from the Exxon Valdez have yet to be learned. On April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon spilled 206,000,000 gallons into the Gulf of Mexico, and the damage will be felt for decades.

Let’s pay attention.

Joseph J. Dunne

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