Skip navigation Mixing oil and water again



1. Oil, oil, out of control

2. Exxon exonerated?

3. Over the long term

4. Deep oily sea

5. Memo madness translated



Cured, or cursed?
By 1992 or so, the 37,000-ton spill in Prince William Sound had been washed (at Exxon's expense) off the rocks and beaches, or simply weathered away. Now, 13 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, a casual observer won't see oil.

A duck is coated in thick black oil.
Oiled duck after the Exxon Valdez spill. Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

Oil does remain in sheltered locations - immune to wind and wave - mainly on about 20 acres of rocky shore, according to an extensive 2001 survey. Although that's a lot less than the 149 kilometers of shoreline that were heavily oiled during the spill, "In terms of critical habitat for wildlife, that is a significant amount, because there is not a large amount of suitable habitat, you have sheer rock, or rocky transition zones," says Phil Mundy, science director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which administers a research and restoration program in the sound, funded by a bank-ful of Exxon settlement money.

Map shows 56-day movement of oil southwest into the Cook Inlet, past Alaska Peninsula.
Valdez oil moved from Prince William Sound to the Gulf of Alaska. Courtesy David Page

However, David Page, a chemist at Bowdoin College, notes that the National Wildlife Federation did not list Knight Island, where the most oil was found, in a recent report on biological "hot spots" in the sound.

Totally toxic?
Oil loses some of its toxic components through exposure to the weather, but the deep pockets left in the sound are still surprisingly toxic. The report from the 2001 survey said:

"Twenty subsurface pits [of 6,775 dug in Prince William Sound] were classified as heavily oiled. Oil saturated all of the interstitial spaces and was extremely repugnant. These 'worst case' pits exhibited an oil mixture that resembled oil encountered in 1989 a few weeks after the spill -- highly odiferous, lightly weathered, and very fluid."

A sea otter,  its fur matted with oil, sits on a rocky beach.
Oiled otter may be doomed by hypothermia Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

Mundy finds this surprising. "If you'd asked in '89, would we still have oil around in 2002? I'd have said it's highly unlikely. One thing we have learned, contrary to what you find in the literature, especially in literature sponsored by the oil companies ... is that oil that's not exposed to the atmosphere ... can surface time and again, to do damage at local scales."

In general, says Robert Spies, a marine biologist and former chief scientist for the trustee council, "Oil tends to clean itself up, it's a curve. You get rapid loss in one to two years, then the rate begins to fall off. Where there was protection from the physical energy of the ocean, it can take a long time to break down."

Yum. Oiled oyster a la crude!
Even huge spills can be erased by a few years of weathering, says Page, of Bowdoin College. The largest spill in the region where Prestige went down was in 1978, when Amoco Cadiz sank, spilling 220,000 tons of light Arabian crude. "It was quite toxic.... And every bit of oil was released," Page says.

Workers dressed in bright yellow protective gear and masks spray oiled rocks. Cleanup worker hoses a beach to test a washing agent in Prince William Sound. Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

Although the spill polluted "a lot of holiday beaches and oyster-growing areas on the Brittany Coast," Page adds, "the French Government responded rapidly, mobilized the army, and did a masterful cleanup job. They compensated oyster growers, and within two years, the oyster farming industry was back in business."

Most of the fish and shellfish eaten by local people in Prince William Sound are no longer contaminated. Mundy says Trustee-sponsored sampling shows that "in all but a few cases, they seem to be reasonably safe for people to use." Nonetheless, he adds, local people "still have a basic distrust of resources that originate in the oil spill area; doubt the purity of subsistence resources."

So how did wildlife fare?














the why files


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