Exxon Valdez tanker runs aground, spills 11 million gallons of crude oil

VALDEZ, Alaska -- The tanker Exxon Valdez, trying to steer clear of icebergs while loaded with 1.3 million barrels of oil, ran aground on a charted reef Friday and spilled 200,000 barrels of Alaskan crude, endangering marine life and shutting down a major port.

The Coast Guard shut down the oil port of Valdez to tanker traffic, and oil companies cut production 43 percent at Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in North America and source of one-fourth of U.S. crude oil production.


The accident created a 5-mile-long oil slick, and the state and fishing industry braced for potential disaster in Prince William Sound's salmon, shrimp, crab and herring fisheries where whales, seals and sea otters also live.

The 987-foot tanker, bound for Long Beach, Calif., went aground on a charted reef 22 miles south of Valdez, traveling through an area where it should not have been, said Chief Mark Peterson of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office.


Petty Officer John Gonzales said maritime charts clearly show the reef and indicate the area is off limits to tankers.

Exxon acknowledged its ship took a detour into treacherous waters, off established tanker routes, and Alaska Exxon coordinator Don Cornett said, 'Look at the chart and you can see the reef,' but he declined to establish blame for the accident.

Peterson said the Exxon ship was trying to avoid large chunks of ice known as growlers. The icebergs come from nearby Columbia Glacier and can be found in the area at this time of year.

The Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and crews from Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline oil terminal mobilized and Gov. Steve Cowper flew to the scene.

But by Friday afternoon, 14 hours after the spill, no containment booms were corraling oil and no clean-up was taking place, enraging fishermen, said University of Alaska biologist Rick Steiner after flying over the 2-mile-wide slick.

He said, 'This raises questions about the future of the oil industry in Alaska and whether they should be allowed to develop the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge' -- an area near Prudhoe Bay now subject of congressional debate.

Prudhoe Bayis on the north coast of Alaska. Oil produced there is sent to Valdez on the state's southern coast via an 800-mile-long pipeline. Tankers sail into Valdez to pick up Alaska North Slope crude, and carry it to refineries along the Pacific Coast.


Because the port was closed due to the spill, no oil was leaving Alaska but was being stored at the terminal, forcing a 43.2 percent cutback in oil production in Alaska, the country's biggest oil producer, according to the state Division of Oil and Gas. Production was cut from 2 million barrels daily to 1.19 million barrels because of the terminal's storage limits.

Exxon owns 21.78 percent of Prudhoe Bay oil.

The Exxon Valdez maneuvered away from the ice toward Bligh Reef and ran aground at 12:20 a.m. Alaska time. Oil leaked rapidly for 12 hours and a slick stretched 5 miles south of the tanker toward the center of Prince William Sound before the leak slowed to a trickle by afternoon, Gonzales said.

One barrel of oil equals 42 gallons. The spill amounted to 8.4 million gallons -- the worst Alaska spill since oil began flowing from Prudhoe Bay down the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline in 1977, Peterson said.

Friday afternoon, a smaller tanker, Exxon Baton Rouge, pulled alongside the Exxon Valdez to pump off remaining oil in an attempt to refloat the grounded tanker, Gonzales said.

Exxon dispatched three planeloads of clean-up crews and equipment from Texas, California, Louisiana, New Jersey and even England, Cornett said.


But fishermen were outraged.

'Zero clean-up effort is started,' herring fisherman Margaret Salmon said. 'We're terrified it's going to ruin our fishery which starts next week. All the fishermen have offered the boats to help, but Exxon doesn't return our calls. They obviously weren't ready for a big spill.'

Environmentalists said this showed why Congress should oppose controversial legislation to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

'This accident demonstrates the hazards of trying to transport oil in arctic conditions,' said Nicholas Fedoruk, spokesman for the Environmental Action Foundation.

Kenneth Florey, state regional supervisor for commercial fisheries, said the spill jeopardizes fisheries at the Sound. He said salmon eggs were beginning to hatch in streams and the fry swim to sea through waters now oily. Herring were heading toward the waters to spawn and crab are there spawning now, while shrimp fishing is going on nearby.

Jack Lamb of Cordova Fishermen United said 1,000 fishermen work in the Sound.

Steiner said he saw sea lions 'swimming around in the slick trying to find a way out' and that the spill also threatened sea otters, seals, killer whales and humpback whales.

The Exxon Valdez was built in 1986 and is one of the largest ships operated by Exxon Shipping Co. of Houston, a subsidiary of Exxon USA, Cornett said.


He said a ship pilot, who guides tankers in and out of port, left the Exxon Valdez before the captain steered it toward the reef and ran aground. It had just taken on a full load of 1,264,155 barrels of crude oil at Valdez port, Peterson said. The 20 crewmen were not in danger.

Latest Headlines