exxon valdez oil

Oil Spill Du Jour

This week connects several events. The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the first anniversary of the Pegasus pipeline rupture in Mayflower Arkansas, and a brand spanking new oil spill in the Houston Shipping Channel of coastal Texas.

On March 24th, just after midnight the Exxon Valdez, loaded with over 50 million gallons of crude oil steamed out of Prince William Sound. Before the supertanker cleared the sound however, the ship collided with a reef which tore open the single walled hull releasing about 20 million gallons of crude oil. Twenty five years later oil can be found under rocks around the beach of the sound.

Exxon Valdez attempted cleanup

Exxon Valdez attempted cleanup


In a very short time hundreds of thousands of seabirds, thousands of sea otters, hundreds of sea lions and whales, and even 47 bald eagles were killed. A robust herring fishery has yet to recover. Damage to the local economy was devastating. Bankruptcies of both businesses and individuals shot up, and many families had to leave their ancestral communities for lack of jobs.

On March 29th an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured and began spewing crude oil into the yards and streets of Mayflower Arkansas. The estimated quarter of a million gallons of crude, actually a substance known as dilbit, came from the Tar Sands of Alberta Canada. It is a mixture of tarry crude oil known as bitumen and and a diluent of lighter hydrocarbons, hence the name dilbit. Over a score of homes were evacuated. The dibit ran down the streets and intimately into Lake Conway. The pipeline has been closed and my not be reopened due to it’s passage through sensitive areas such as the Lake Maumelle Watershed.

Mayflower, AR

Mayflower, AR

On March 22nd a barge tow was struck by another vessel, releasing just under a quarter million gallons of a material know as bunker fuel – essentially heavy crude oil. The material is so viscous that it requires heating to flow threw fuel lines to burn in ship’s engines. Because of the spill, one of the busiest shipping lanes in north America was closed. This shut down oil refineries that produce over ten per cent of the oil refined in the United States.

Oil covered Shore Bird

Oil covered Shore Bird

So what connects the events besides late March? Human error. Every one of these events were due to multiple errors. Double walled hulls on the Exxon Valdez, and better navigation could have prevented the disaster in Alaska. The closure of the Houston shipping channel could have been avoided by better management of shippers involved. The ship which collided with the barge was already under probation for other problems. Replacement of aging pipelines and more frequent inspections could have prevented the Mayflower spill.

There are over 20,000 oil spills reported annually to the EPA. Some are minor and some not so minor, but they point out just how common the events are. In aggregate the economic and personal losses are large and generally unaccounted for when we look at the price of fossil fuels. The level of collateral damage we are willing to accept to avoid changing our lifestyle is staggering.

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