20 Years Later, Industry Still Unprepared for a Big Spill

The Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil and making it one of the largest environmental disasters in history. Its effects are still being felt by wildlife, on the beaches, and among residents -- long after experts predicted the oil would be cleaned up or dissipate naturally.

Funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, Temple University Civil and Environmental Engineering Chair Michel Boufadel has spent the past two years researching why oil from the oil tanker can still be found along many of the beaches in Alaska's Prince William Sound, according to a March 17 press release. It is the first such study to examine the spill's impact on the beaches and why oil still lingers.

"In 1994, there was a decision made to stop all remediation efforts on the beaches of Prince William Sound," said Boufadel, a hydrologist who is an expert in oil spills and oil remediation. "That decision was based on the rate of oil disappearance during the first four years after the spill."

Boufadel said that at that time, the oil was disappearing at a rate of about 70 percent and calculations showed the oil would be gone within the next few years. "The focus since 1994 has been on what is called the injury to the environment, how the herring are affected, how the salmon are affected."

Slippery disappearance
But five or six years ago, Boufadel said, there came an awareness that the oil was not disappearing at a critical rate, that it had in fact slipped to a disappearance rate of around four percent a year.

Over the past two summers, Boufadel and several Temple environmental engineering students have spent 30 days in Alaska, visiting six beaches in the Sound, and collecting oil and sediment samples, as well as placing sensors to take year-round water temperature, water salinity, and water pressure readings.

"Our goal was to try to understand what factors are causing the oil to persist in certain sediments along these beaches," he said. "If the oil had only been found in one particular beach, then we would know the oil reached that specific location and remained there. In reality, within the beaches that we examined, you can find oil in one location on the beach, then you move 10-feet to the left or right of that spot and you will not find any oil at all."

In his Temple lab, Boufadel has some 50 lbs. of sediment and soil samples from the six beaches that contain toxic material from the Exxon Valdez spill. He has focused his study mainly on the geology and hydrology of these impacted areas as potential reasons why oil from the Exxon Valdez still remains in the beaches of the Sound.

"We think there are hydrologic factors that are preventing the oil from degrading naturally," he said. "We discovered on one beach that whenever you have fresh water flowing seaward from the area behind the beach you don't find much oil."

Boufadel hopes to issue more definitive conclusions later this spring or early this summer, as well as provide guidelines for locating the oil within the beaches and how to clean it up. As part of his ongoing study, he will be leading another field research visit this coming summer in which he will explore remediation techniques on two of the six beaches.

WWF report
A report by the World Wildlife Fund demonstrates how the Arctic remains ill-prepared should another spill occur. The report, "Lessons Not Learned," finds that while practices have improved in Prince William Sound, oil spill response capabilities throughout Arctic region have improved little in the past 20 years.

WWF will showcase rocks collected from Prince William Sound beaches that are still coated in oil.

"While new regulations are in place regarding response to oil spill disasters in the last 20 years, the Arctic itself has changed considerably and is much more vulnerable today," said Bill Eichbaum, WWF's vice president for marine and arctic policy. "Sea ice is disappearing and open water seasons are lasting longer, creating a frenzy to stake claims on the Arctic's rich resources – especially oil and gas development. Oil spills can be devastating to Arctic marine environments given the current lack of oil spill response capabilities. We need a ‘time-out' until protections are in place for this fragile, extraordinary place."

WWF renewed its call for a time-out on new offshore oil development in the Arctic until technologies improve to ensure adequate clean-up of an oil spill. WWF is also calling on the Obama Administration to permanently protect Alaska's fish-rich Bristol Bay from drilling.

The House Natural Resources Committee had planned a hearing on March 24 examining the future of offshore oil development in U.S. waters.

WWF, which has the world's largest Arctic conservation program, also recommends that the most vulnerable and important areas of the Arctic be deemed permanently off-limits to oil and gas development. Such "no-go zones" should be based on the sensitivity and productivity of special priority areas, where oil spill response would be virtually impossible to clean up or where any spill would cause irreparable long-term damage.

These areas include Bristol Bay in the southeastern Bering Sea in Alaska, known as "America's fish basket," where more than 40 percent of all wild seafood is caught in the United States. Oil and gas development in the bay is estimated to bring in $7.7 billion over the 25-40 year lifetime experts predict it would take to extract the resources. By comparison, the renewable fisheries of the Bristol Bay region are valued at $50-$80 billion over that same time period.

WWF is urging Arctic countries to conduct comprehensive risk assessments of industrial activities, such as shipping and petroleum development, along with climate change-induced impacts on the marine environment. In addition, Arctic countries should also adopt a region-wide comprehensive agreement for spill response and launch conservation plans that assess the health, biodiversity, and functioning of Arctic ecosystems.

"The Exxon Valdez spill has been the best-studied oil spill in history and scientists have found that even 20 years later, the damage from the spill continues," said Margaret Williams, managing director of WWF's Alaska program. "Fishermen's livelihoods were destroyed, many wildlife and fish populations still haven't recovered and the Alaskan economy lost billions of dollars. We can't let that happen again in Alaska's productive waters."