An oil spill to shock America – the differences in decades

First-hand recollections from our man on-the-ground at the time.
Share this story
By Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response (London)

The recollections are strong for those involved; the differences decades later are clear. Navigate Response will host a webinar on 24 March, taking a new look at Exxon Valdez – the oil spill and its legacy for offshore response.

Mike Gallagher of Witt O’Brien’s recalls arriving five days after the grounding: The hotel lobby swarming with news crews filing reports and camera injects to the US networks.

What was this maritime news event like at the time on 24 March 1989?

“The TV news featured a nightly segment for weeks as this was a huge news event in the US. The scale of the spill and location (Bligh Reef, 30 miles from Valdez) and the slowly unfolding impact on the marine wildlife as the oil drifted west, northwest made for dramatic TV.

“Alyeska (pipeline services) had only experienced minor spills at the terminal. The scenario of the Exxon Valdez running aground on Bligh Reef seemed unbelievable then, and preparedness didn’t consider the scale of this ‘worst case’ scenario. The resulting response was slow and inadequate which added to media coverage creating a ‘perfect storm’ of pressure and attention.”

How did this single major incident change the maritime industry?

“Prior to the Exxon Valdez, the spills were more common and every 10 years or so there was a major incident

“Only a major oil company like Exxon could have committed the funds to eventually respond on the scale that they did. Few insurers could finance the response that Exxon funded. The Exxon Valdez was record-setting in clean-up costs, even if it wasn’t the biggest spill.

“The US Congress reacted to the public by drafting the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90) to address the short comings of the incident and the times prior to International Safety Management (ISM) standards, so some of OPA-90 focused on creating operational safety standards for vessels calling on the US. The law also addressed preparedness for salvage, spill clean-up and overall incident management under a Qualified Individual (QI) who has the financial authority to commit the necessary funds to get a response underway. OPA-90 was controversial at the time but seems to have worked well in helping reduce the number and size of oil spill incidents, not just in the US but worldwide.”

What would be different now if a similar event were to occur?

“OPA-90 required all new tank vessels to be built with double hulls and phase out single skinned ships over the next 20 years.

“The grounding on Bligh Reef caused severe damage to the vessel. Experts might say that such a high energy grounding could have similar damage or cause stability problems that could have resulted in the loss of the ship. Regardless of the cause, it is very likely the response today will be much better due to more equipment (booms, skimmers, escort tugs, etc), response plans with identified responders (salvage and marine firefighting (SMFF), oil spill response organisations (OSROs), Incident Management Team (IMT) and QI which are exercised annually to test response to such ‘worst-case’ scenarios. Oil companies chartering vessels require them to have a media response strategy and capability which significantly helps mitigate and manage the media interest in the incident.”

Back in 1989, Edward Ion was in a London newsroom.

“Lloyds List, being the main source of maritime and shipping info at that time, was very busy – the whole London newsroom was mobilised,” says Ed. “I was on the insurance desk and covering all the legal, liability and insurance angles for this incident. We sent a reporter to Valdez in Alaska, and he broke several global news stories, sending shock waves around the Lloyds insurance market as this was a huge claim following on from the massive Piper Alpha incident the year before.”

The incident exposed the weaknesses of the Lloyd’s Market and revealed the limitations and weaknesses of the LMEX market. “Lloyd’s List covered it continuously for months on end,” says Ed.

“It was a huge effort from the whole London team, and we were followed and quoted extensively by the mainstream business and general media.”

I asked Ed, what if today a similar event was to happen?

“We live in a totally different world as far as media and shipping is concerned – everything would be different, “says Ed. “Exxon Valdez produced the most important changes in the global shipping industry – and the oil and gas sector. It is the single most significant shipping casualty since Titanic in 1912 – and that is not hyperbole,” he stresses.

Mike Gallagher was with ITOPF when working on the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

Sign up here for our free webinar to be held at 1500 (UK) on 24 March 2022.

Sign up for our Newsletter


Please submit this form to receive our email newsletter

Please indicate that you have read and agree to the terms presented in Privacy Statement, Acceptable use policy, Terms of use and Cookie policy