The earth is an incredibly complex and complicated ecosystem in which living organisms interact with each other and their environment. Without earth’s ecosystem, natural processes and services, human existence would not be possible. However, currently, we have constant access to technology which allows us to greater enhance our ideal conditions for living. Further, the discovery of natural resources and fossil fuels have facilitated our quality of living yet has sacrificed the health and well-being of other creatures on the planet.
Specifically, crude oil is a major fossil fuel that we use daily, however, our usage leads to massive destructive oil spills that greatly alter life. Not only are the environments living and non-living components effected, but gender and race may also be socially impacted due to human error that caused the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill.
On March 24, 1989, Exxon Valdez’s oil tanker struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, a flourishing and pristine sound full of exotic life.
The hull of the ship tore open, and approximately 11 million gallons of the 53,094,510 gallons of crude oil on the ship was released into the sound. This manmade catastrophe was considered to be the worst oil spill in the United States until 2010 when the Horizon oil spill occurred. Exxon Valdez’s oil spill caused an oil slick that covered at least 1,300 miles of coastline. In addition, the oil spill had devasting effects on the environment and on marine wildlife. For example, plants and mammals faced the threat of extinction due to rising water temperatures and seabirds were trapped and drowned in the water as they were covered in oil and couldn’t escape the imminent dangers.
It is estimated that roughly 250,000 seabirds, 300 seals, 250 eagles, 22 killer whales, and 40 percent of all sea otters living in the sound were killed in this deadly accident. In addition to the effects on the environment, crab, herring, salmon, shrimp, and rockfish fisheries were immediately closed and commercial fishing was banned until 1990. Thus, the fishing industry and economy took a major hit due to the oil spill. Recreational fishing was also greatly affected which amounted to a total of $580 million of revenue lost due to the reduction of fishing. Alaska’s tourism also decreased which affected jobs in the tourism industry; over 26,000 jobs and $2.4 billion were lost in business.
The clean-up response of the oil spill was mostly successful, and the response time was somewhat prompt. Over 11,000 people, 1,400 vessels, and 58 air crafts contributed to the clean-up of the coastline, waters, and animals that were affected. Some of the operations were complex and challenging and spanned several months. For example, many marine animals were relocated to safe facilities until the spill could be cleaned up. Exxon Mobile was forced to spend over $3.8 billion for clean-up operations and they also compensated more than 11,000 fishermen for their loss in business. In addition, the company also compensated others who were affected by the oil spill, such as paying for personal property damages and habitat restoration fees. However, Exxon Mobile was involved in legal cases between the government and Alaska’s fisherman union; the company was asked to pay a total of $5 billion in damages on top of their compensation fees.
The clean-up process of Exxon’s oil spill included many operations and efforts, including burning, using machinery to suck up of spill, skimming the surface water to collect oil, washing oiled beaches, rescuing and cleaning animals smothered in oil, and using chemical dispersants that are sprayed onto the oil slick to break up the oil into smaller droplets. However, because the oil spill was so vast and major, the cleaning of the sub-surface oil, oil that had penetrated the surface water, caused a devasting impact to the marine ecosystem, thus causing even more loss of flora and fauna. Although the clean-up efforts were great, it is still said that there are many acres of coastline that are still polluted by the crude oil spill. Further, researchers found that washing oiled beaches with hot water hoses was an extremely effective way of removing the oil, but it damaged the fauna and flora even more.
There are many theories as to what caused Exxon Valdez’s oil spill. Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the ship at the time, was reportedly under the influence of alcohol and asleep while the ship was on its voyage to its destination. According to many reports and accounts, Hazelwood handed over the control of the ship to another crew member who failed to dodge the reef. Later, authorities found that Exxon was not following safety measures, such as iceberg and reef monitoring equipment and that the ship was in fact not on the right route. Captain Joseph Hazelwood was convicted of a misdemeanor; he was fined a total of $50,000 and he was sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service.
Exxon Valdez’s oil spill had many more social impacts beyond the loss of revenue and business. According to Palinkas et all, there was a decline in traditional social relations among family members, neighbors, coworkers, and friends. In addition, production and distribution activities declined. However, there was an increase in domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse. Health statuses seemed to decline while medical conditions, such as anxiety disorders, depression, and post traumatic stress disorders worsened. Palinkas et all also discuss in their article that Alaskan natives and women were the most vulnerable to these health and medical conditions. These results show that the oil spill was significant, and it changed long-term sociocultural in this area. In addition, post traumatic stress disorder seemed to be more common and prevalent in the Alaskan natives as opposed to the Euro-Americans.
There are many types of justice that can be applied to the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. For instance, compensatory justice, compensation for injuries and damage, is a major theme in this case. Exxon Mobile was required to compensate many fishermen and their companies. In addition, they were required to provide compensation for personal property damage, and habitat loss and restoration. There are more prevalent forms of justice that are especially prominent in Gordon Walkers book “Environmental Justice,” such as distributive justice, the fair and equal distributions of benefits and burdens in the world. This justice can be applied and analyzed in this case as well; the women who were impacted by the oil spill were more vulnerably to mental health complications as opposed to men. In addition, the thousands of fauna and flora that were killed because of the oil spillage were extremely vulnerable; they had no way to escape our human error.
Because the Exxon Valdez oil spill was so deadly and had so many consequences for humans and the natural world, a law was passed in 1990 by president George W. Bush that imposed high penalties and fines for companies that had oil spills in any body of water. Although Exxon’s oil spill happened many years ago, its effects can still be seen on ecosystems and the environment in Alaska; there is still crude oil in the sound that often surfaces the water and makes its way to beaches. In addition, fisheries have not fully recovered from the accident; some marine life are still suffering from oil that is still in the sound. Further, the Exxon oil tanker accident did help to create new industries and environmental groups that advocated for the health of the environment. Many groups, scientific organizations, and psychological experts became more educated about the effects of oil spills. Moreover, there are many activists who are working towards protecting every body of water from these catastrophic events, as well as raising awareness about the effects of crude oil spills. According to EcoWatch, and environmental news channel, activists are striving for bills and laws that aim to reduce or stop the drilling of crude oil, for companies to use and maintain technology that will help reduce oil spill risks, and for quick disaster responses. Although we are still completely dependent on fossil fuels, it is with hope that disasters such as Exxon Valdez’s will lead us and encourage us to develop alternative resources so that we can end these injustices.