Exxon Valdez – The birth of MARPOL

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was one of the largest environmental disasters in United States history. It occurred on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez, a supertanker owned by Exxon Shipping Company, ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The accident resulted in the release of approximately 11 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, which contaminated more than 1,300 miles of coastline.


The Exxon Valdez was a 987-foot-long tanker that was built in 1986. The ship was used to transport crude oil from Alaska to the West Coast of the United States. The captain of the ship, Joseph Hazelwood, had a history of alcohol abuse and had previously been arrested for driving under the influence.

The Incident

On the night of March 23, 1989, the Exxon Valdez left the Valdez Marine Terminal in Alaska with a load of crude oil. Captain Hazelwood, who had been drinking earlier in the day, was not on the bridge when the ship left port. Instead, he turned over command to Third Mate Gregory Cousins.

As the ship traveled through Prince William Sound, Cousins maneuvered the ship around icebergs in the water. However, as he was navigating around Bligh Reef, Cousins handed over control to the captain, who was not authorized to be on the bridge due to his intoxicated state. Shortly after, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on the reef, puncturing its hull and releasing oil into the ocean.

The response

The spill was first noticed by the ship’s crew at around midnight on March 24, 1989. Exxon immediately launched a response effort, but it was initially inadequate to deal with the scale of the disaster. The company deployed booms to contain the oil and used skimmers to collect the oil from the surface of the water. However, the high winds and rough seas in the area made these efforts difficult.

The U.S. Coast Guard also responded to the spill, and a joint command was established with Exxon to coordinate the response efforts. The response involved more than 11,000 personnel, including volunteers, and cost over $2 billion.

The cleanup efforts continued for several years, and various methods were used to remove the oil from the shoreline. These methods included manual labor, the use of high-pressure hoses, and the application of bioremediation agents to break down the oil.

The Consequences

The Exxon Valdez spill had a significant impact on the environment and local communities in Alaska. The spill killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and up to 22 killer whales. The spill also impacted commercial and subsistence fishing in the area, causing significant economic losses for local communities.

The incident led to increased regulation of the oil industry and changes in oil spill response procedures. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was enacted in response to the spill, which mandated measures to prevent oil spills and improve response capabilities. The act also increased the liability cap for oil companies, making them responsible for all damages resulting from a spill.

Exxon was held responsible for the spill and paid over $1 billion in damages to local communities, fishermen, and businesses affected by the disaster. The company also spent over $2 billion on the cleanup effort and was fined an additional $5 billion by the U.S. government for its role in the spill.


The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a tragic environmental disaster that had significant consequences for the environment and local communities in Alaska. The incident highlighted the risks associated with the transportation of oil and the importance of effective spill response measures. The lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez spill have led to improved safety measures and response capabilities