1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Disaster

Shortly after leaving the Port of Valdez, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef. The picture was taken 3 days after the vessel grounded, just before a storm arrived.

One of the worst oil spills in American history took place off the coast of Alaska in 1989. 2000km of coastline was contaminated from the disaster.

Crude oil is used in many everyday items including ink, explosives, fertilizer and medicines. Oil is used to run cars and factories. The world depends on oil. Supertankers are used to transport oil around the world.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Disaster

On the evening of 25 March, 1989, a supertanker smashed into Bligh Reef off the coast of Alaska. The Exxon Valdez was headed out into Alaska’s Prince William Sound and was granted permission from the US Coast Guard to steer east, to avoid icebergs. According to later investigations, the ship was never returned to the normal shipping lane after the danger of hitting icebergs was past.

Ruptured Tanks Causes Oil Spill

The Exxon Valdez smashed into Bligh Reef and two of the 13 tanks were punctured, leaving eight holes in the tanker’s starboard side. The tanker then smashed further onto the reef and six more tanks were ruptured. The crude oil cargo was spewed into the sea at a rate of 200,000 gallons (910,000 liters) a minute. 30,000 tonne of crude oil was spilled into the ocean causing one of the worst oil spills in American history. Within the 12 hours before any emergency action was taken, bad weather and storms washed the oil spill further out to sea. The oil slick quickly became a major environmental disaster. With each tide, oil was washed onto shore of over 2000km of coastline.

Sea Life and Natural Habitats

Hundreds of thousands of birds and animals were killed in the disaster and all commercial fishing was stopped in the area. When covered, birds try to clean their feathers and as a result swallow large amounts of oil which poison them. When the fur of seals and otters becomes covered in oil, they cannot float or keep warm, resulting in them sinking. Plants and animals along the shore line where also badly affected from the oil spill.

New Laws as a Result of the Disaster

After the Exxon Valdez disaster the US Government was forced to take action and the Oil Pollution Act, 1990 was passed. All oil tankers using US waters are required to have double hulls, this helps to reduce the chance that they can sink or leak oil. Tanker owners and oil companies must have emergency plans in case of accidents and tough penalties apply for those responsible for any oil spills.


  1. World’s Worst Oil Disasters, Rob Alcraft, (Heinemann Library, 2000)