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8 moments that shaped the environmental movement

By: Shea Gunther on March 16, 2010, 6:28 a.m.
Exxon Valdez oil spill

Photo: Jim Brickett/Flickr

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Exxon Valdez oil spill

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred on March 24, 1989, when the nearly 1,000-foot oil tanker struck a reef and spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil in the Prince William Sound in Alaska, one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the world.

Within a few days, the oil had coated nearby beaches and had killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, thousands of sea otters and seals, 22 orca whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Thousands of people and agencies sprung into action to clean up the oil and to save whatever wildlife they could. Residents accused Exxon (now ExxonMobil) of dragging their feet on its initial response. While people scrubbed rocks and sopped up oil on shore, ships did whatever they could to fight the oil from the sea and air. A solvent and surfactant mixture was sprayed on the oil in hopes that it would break up the oil, but the water wasn't choppy enough for it to work properly. A day after the spill, booms and skimmers finally reached the spill site and started to suck up spilled oil.

In terms of historic oil spills, the Exxon Valdez was small, (it's No. 15 on the list), but the spill's impact was much larger due to its visibility in the media and the fact that it happened on American shores. The spill left ExxonMobil a few billion dollars poorer, the Alaskan economy and environment severely impacted, and even now, 20 years later, tens of thousands of gallons of oil are still soaking right below the surface on thousands of miles of coastline. Much was learned about the best way to respond to oil spills, and the move toward mandated double-hulled tankers was hastened.