History Repeats Itself: A Look at a Few Other Notable Oil Spills

The oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico begs comparison with other oil-related disasters. Here's a look at a few notable spills, including the largest in international history (and it's not the Exxon Valdez).

Exxon Valdez, March 24, 1989

Oil was transferred from the Exxon Valdez (left) to the Exxon Baton Rouge (right), in a successful effort to keep the oil remaining on the Exxon Valdez from spilling into Prince William Sound. About one-fifth of the oil carried by the Exxon Valdez was spilled; the remaining 42 million gallons of oil was safely transferred to the Baton Rouge. Credit: NOAA

Cause: En route from Valdez, Alaska to Los Angeles, California, the Exxon Valdez tanker was traveling outside of normal shipping lanes in an attempt to avoid ice when it ran aground on Blight Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound. It subsequently dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil—an amount that could fill, roughly, 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools—into the marine environment, eventually impacting about 1,300 miles of Alaskan shoreline. It was one of the biggest spills in U.S. history to date, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which was set up to oversee restoration.
Effects: The spill occurred in one of the largest and most productive estuaries in North America, according to the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. It killed untold numbers of seabirds—probably in the hundreds of thousands—as well as thousands of sea otters, hundreds of harbor seals and bald eagles, and nearly two dozen killer whales. It also destroyed billions of salmon and herring eggs.
Cleanup: More than four summers of clean-up efforts were spent on the spill before they were called off. Yet, “to this day, you can still find oil,” says Eric Myers, policy director for Audubon Alaska. The beaches around the Sound aren’t sandy like, say, Florida’s—instead, they’re cobbly, so in certain areas unexposed to wave action, the oil slick got in, and stuck around.
Aftermath: There’s still debate as to what impact the residual oil has had. One of the problems with identifying species recovery and opportunities for restoration is the lack of original baseline data before the spill, says Myers. In some places, the oil is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the accident, according to the trustee council, which has identified a suite of organisms and human services in various stages of recuperation. Pacific herring and pigeon guillemots aren’t recovering at all, while 10 are currently “in recovery.” Four organisms’ status is unknown. On the bright side, nine species are identified as fully recovered, including the bald eagle, pink and sockeye salmon, and river otters.


Santa Barbara well blowout, January 28, 1969 

Oil-stained sea wall, Santa Barbara Yacht Club. Credit: UCSB Map & Image Library
Cause: Union Oil workers were attempting to pull a drilling tube out of a well stationed between five and six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. A pressure imbalance in the pipe strained the casing of the upper portion of the well, prompting workers to attempt to cap it. That only made things worse. Under extreme pressure, a burst of natural gas blew out all the drilling mud, splitting the well casing and cracking the seafloor, according to a 2001 retrospective paper   presented at the 64th Annual Meeting of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers. “Gas and mud from 3,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface shot into the air, splattering the panicked workers on the platform with grease and grime,” recounts Miles Corwin in a 1989 article from the Santa Barbara Independent. “They managed to plug the well, but nothing could control the oil and gas. Eight hundred feet away from the platform, the sea boiled furiously.” It took nearly 12 days for workers to cap the well. Adding insult to injury, on Valentine’s Day of that year, another well blew out resulting in an additional spill, according to the County of Santa Barbara Planning and Development website.
Effects: The spill—in total, about 3-4 million gallons, by some estimates—impacted 800 square miles of ocean, and oil up to six inches thick coated 35 miles of coastline, according to the retrospective paper. Thousands of dead seabirds were found, along with large numbers of poisoned seals and dolphins. “The spilled oil killed innumerable fish and intertidal invertebrates, devastated kelp forests and displaced many populations of endangered birds,” note the paper’s authors, Keith Clarke and Jeffrey Hemphill, of department of geography at UC Santa Barbara.
Cleanup: Recovery efforts began shortly after the accident, with crews—consisting mainly of prisoners—scattering piles of straw to soak up the oil, and mopping, sandblasting, and steam-cleaning beaches, according to a recent New York Times article. Skimmers collected oil from the ocean, and planes poured detergents over it in an attempt to break up the slick.
Aftermath: Despite the spill's insults to wildlife, its aftermath had a silver lining: It helped fuel a burgeoning modern environmental movement that ushered in a wave of eco-activism and environmental policies. “It became a huge, huge galvanizing force,” says Glenn Olson, Audubon’s Donal C. O’Brien Chair in Bird Conservation and Public Policy who was a freshman at UC Santa Barbara when the disaster struck. Among the outcomes: The State Land Commission banned offshore drilling for 15 years; the California Coastal Commission, which oversees land and water use over much of the state’s coast, was created; President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act; California’s own state version, the California Environmental Quality Act,  became law; Earth Day went nationwide in 1970.
Might the current Gulf spill have a similar positive influence? “It could be the next generation of environmental protection coming forward from this oil spill,” says Olson. “If we have the same kind of response that we had in 1969 and 1970, we could really take the environmental movement to the next level”--for example, by committing serious funding to renewable energy technology, says Olson.

Persian Gulf spills, beginning January 1991

Gulf War incident, Kuwait and Persian Gulf, January 1991. Bergan oil field fires, Kuwait. CREDIT: NOAA

Cause: Responding to U.S. pressure to relinquish occupation of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army set fire to more than 600 oil wells in several oil fields. Then it turned to the water, discharging about 6-8 million barrels of oil—which translates to at least 10 billion (with a “b”) gallons—into the Persian Gulf. The main emission came from a terminal, the second largest from several tankers, according to a 2003 report by King’s College in London, England. At least 80 ships were also sunk during the war as well, many which also carried oil and munitions. This was the largest oil spill on record.

Effects: Prior to the war, the Persian Gulf was already “possibly the most chronically oil-polluted marine area in the world,” according to the 2003 report, but it is also one of the most productive water bodies, supporting a huge fishing industry and a number of birds, green and hawksbill turtles, and dugongs (similar to manatees). Many species are endemic to the region. The spill caused local impacts “on the fishing industry, coral reefs and dugongs,” notes the 2003 study, but birds were most severely affected. At least 3,000 wintering seabirds succumbed, mainly cormorants and grebe.
Cleanup: About half the oil evaporated, while 2-3 million barrels washed ashore, primarily in Saudi Arabia, according to the recent New York Times article; more than a million barrels were recovered. Cleanup entailed a variety of methods to accommodate the various Gulf ecosystems, including mechanical tillers to enhance aeration and biodegradation on sandy beaches, and irrigation and sprinkler systems in mangroves to gently release oil.
Aftermath: The 2003 analysis concluded that, “overall, there is evidence of ecological recovery of sandy and rocky shores; although full recovery of marsh and mangrove biota may take longer in some cases. Initial acute impacts on bird populations were overcome fairly rapidly. However, negative effects on fisheries caused substantial economic losses for a number of the Gulf nations, although a full recovery is now evident.”
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