Skip navigation Mixing Oil and Water AGAIN
POSTED DEC 19, 2002



1. Oil, oil, out of control

2. Exxon exonerated?

3. Over the long term

4. Deep oily sea

5. Memo madness translated


Dark days for the "Death Coast," the Cabo Vilán, Galicia coastline earned the name for the many shipping accidents. Courtesy © WWF-Canon / Raúl García.


Oil on another beach
This time, it's Galicia, Spain's northwest coast, where the sluggish oil slick is coming to rest. The story itself is familiar -- the dying seabirds, the oil-smeared volunteers trying to remove the sticky stuff from beaches, coves and rocky shores that, we can only imagine, were magnets for people and wildlife alike -- before the wretched slick moved in.Oil-covered rocks line the edge of a beach

As the TV cameras zoom in, drawn to destruction like lawyers to a car wreck, the talking head discusses the blunders that caused the spill and the hasty decisions over the clean-up. Soon you'll hear the second-guessing and finger-pointing.

Almost nothing beats a huge oil spill as a made-for-TV ecodisaster. Even though they are relatively common (history records 66 spills more than 10 million gallons) the cameras still show horrorific despoilation.

Although the details were different, the Prestige spill reminded us of 1989, when the Exxon Valdez slobbered 37,000 tons of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska.

The Exxon Valdez was hardly the biggest spill -- it ranked 54th in size back in 1993.

Looking back
Map shows Prestige spill area off the northwest coast of Spain This area, the entrance to the English Channel, is famous for nasty tanker accidents.

But Valdez was a highly controversial spill . Not only did it despoil a stunning sub-Arctic sound, but it was an American tragedy, with, shall we say, a certain resonance in the courtroom.

(ExxonMobil is now contesting a court's unprecedented award of $5-billion in punitive damages for the spill. The company, having already paid for cleanup, damages to local residents, and research and ecological restoration in Prince William Sound, argues that the company neither deliberately spilled the oil, nor engaged in deceit, so punitive damages make no sense. "The $5 billion was justified, because you ought to punish Exxon, send a message to the industry," says Thomas Cirigliano, ExxonMobil spokesman. "Our response is that this company spent $3.2 billion on the spill, that ought to be a clear message that you better try not to spill oil.")

A woman stands on boardwalk holding a sagging bag, looking mournful. Workers clean the oiled beach in the distance. This lady used to dig clams on the beach where Spanish soldiers are scooping up oil. Courtesy © WWF-Canon / Raúl García.

Finally, and for our purposes most importantly, Valdez was subjected to more research than any other spill in history.

A fury in the Sound
The Exxon Valdez was leaving Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, carrying 180,000 tons of North-Slope crude oil, when she steered to avoid icebergs -- and promptly went aground. Although Valdez spilled 37,000 tons -- 10.9 million gallons -- into the Sound, 80 percent of the cargo was transferred to a second tanker, averting a larger catastrophe.

At any rate, 41.3 million liters of oil can do a lot of damage to an enclosed body of water, and to the plants and animals living there. Crude coated the rocks, sea birds and mammals. It gooked up feathers and fur, destroying insulation and killing mammals and birds alike.

BELOW LEFT: Forty-two million gallons of oil was transferred from the Exxon Valdez (left) to the smaller Exxon Baton Rouge, limiting the spill into Prince William Sound to one-fifth of Valdez's cargo. Photo by NOAA
RIGHT:In heavy seas, the tanker Prestige is awash and close to breaking. Prestige was towed to deeper water. Had the Spanish authorities lugged the ship to shelter, they might have been able to unload her cargo,, much as Exxon Corp. did with Valdez.
Photo by Spanish Coast Guard
Two tankers are tied side by side. Valdez is much bigger than Baton Rouge. An injured Prestige sinks into the gray, stormy sea.

It didn't take a genius to spot an ecological catastrophe. As volunteers and later Exxon-hired crews moved in to clean wildlife and the atrociously "oiled" beaches and rocks, we outsiders sat back to wonder:

Would the Sound ever recover?












the why files


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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.