The at 2330 to begin loading cargo bound

The
1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was the largest
ship-based oil spill in US waters where more than 11 million gallons of crude
oil poured into the Gulf of Alaska after the ship ran aground on Bligh Reef in
Prince William Sound, Alaska. The incident was attributed to a fatigued crew, a
lack of a proper navigation team while transiting through the Sound, and an
inadequate ship design, among other causes. The oil spill led to federal
legislation for ship hull requirements, oil spill prevention and response improvements,
and new escorting requirements through the Sound.

On
22 March 1989, the Exxon Valdez
arrived in Valdez, Alaska at 2330 to begin loading cargo bound for California
(Alaska Oil 1990, 5). The next morning, Capt. Joe Hazelwood and other officers
drove into town with William Murphy, the pilot who would be leading the ship
through the Valdez Narrows. While in town, Hazelwood ran some errands but also had
a few alcoholic drinks that afternoon at a local bar and at least one more
drink as the group waited for dinner (NTSB 1989,29). At 2024 on 23 March, the
officers returned to the ship at 2024 and found out that the ship’s schedule
was moved up and was preparing to leave at 2100, instead of the originally
scheduled 2200. They discovered that Third Mate Gregory Cousins had already performed
pre-departure equipment tests and found that the tests were successful. With
these tests complete, the ship set off and was clear of the dock at 2121.

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While
Murphy conned the ship from the dock through the 7-mile long Valdez Narrows, Hazelwood
left the bridge at 2135 and did not return until 2310 when Murphy called for
him as the ship was approaching the end of the Narrows (NTSB 1989, 4). After
his piloting duties were completed, Murphy disembarked the ship with help from
Cousins at 2324. Hazelwood was the only officer on the bridge at this time and
there was no forward lookout as required by regulations as Hazelwood instructed
the lookout, Maureen Jones, to go aft and assist Cousins in disembarking Murphy
(NTSB 1989, 4). At 2325, Hazelwood reported to the Vessel Traffic Center (VTC) that
Murphy had departed. He then notified the VTC that he planned to increase speed
and proposed to alter course from the traffic separation scheme (TSS) because of
floating ice and would “probably…end up in the inbound lane if there is no
conflicting traffic” (NTSB 1989, 6). The VTC concurred, stating that there was
no traffic in the inbound lane. For reference, the outbound lane ran from
northeast to southwest and the inbound lane ran southwest to northeast.

At
2330, Hazelwood told the VTC that he was turning the ship east to 200°
and reducing speed to avoid ice. Engine logs later showed that the helmsman did
not make this change (NTSB 1989, 6). At 2339, Hazelwood ordered a second course
change to 180° and then placed the ship on autopilot, an uncommon thing
to do while transiting in a TSS. For the next 10 minutes, the ship sailed due
south through the separation zone and the inbound lane towards Bligh Reef. At
2352, “load program up” was enabled, which gradually increased the engine speed
from ahead full to ahead full sea speed over the next 43 minutes (NTSB 1986,
8). At 2353, after discussing with Cousins when to return the vessel to the
traffic lanes, Hazelwood left the bridge.

At
2354, Jones saw the red flashing light of Bligh Reef Buoy No. 6. She informed
Cousins, who then ordered the helmsman to put the rudder right 10°.
Cousins then called Hazelwood to inform him that the ship was going to turn
back toward the traffic lane (NTSB 1989, 10). After his call, Cousins noticed
that the heading did not change. He ordered the rudder to right 20°.
When he noticed the ship was still following a 180° track
after 2 minutes, he ordered a hard right rudder. Cousins called Hazelwood stating,
“I think we are in serious trouble” and at 0005, Cousins felt the vessel
contact the reef (NTSB 1989, 11). Hazelwood rushed to the bridge when he felt
contact and began to give rudder orders to free the ship. At 0019, Hazelwood
finally ordered the vessel’s engine to idle speed and it wasn’t until 0026 that
Hazelwood reported that they had run aground and started to leak oil. At 0035,
Hazelwood ordered the engine ahead full and attempted to free the vessel by ordering
more rudder commands to wiggle the ship off the reef. Hazelwood kept the engine
running until 0141, at which point he finally ceased his attempts to get the
vessel off the reef (Alaska Oil 1990, 14).

Upon
further analysis, Hazelwood’s actions before, during, and after the grounding
was evidence of poor leadership and personal responsibility. Hazelwood had a
history of alcohol problems, such as DWIs and drivers’ license suspensions
(Postman, Frost, Hulen 1989), and was found with alcohol in his system several
hours after the accident (NTSB 1989, 31). His potential inebriation at the time
and his alcohol history was a defining characteristic that investigating boards
attributed to the other mistakes that night, such as leaving Cousins in charge
of navigating through the TSS even though he was reportedly fatigued for having
been awake for 18 hours before the event (NTSB 1989, 127). His decisions, in
addition to some executive decisions made by the Exxon Shipping Company, lead
to a degradation in quality and manning power of the crew. Exxon failed to account
for risks attributed to under-manning their tankers, which lead to overworked
crew members across much of its fleet (Alaska Oil 1990, 11). Hazelwood’s
failure to piece together full watch teams amplified the manning issues that
the ship had, like often having less than the required amount of personnel on
the bridge, especially during critical maneuvers like operating in TSS’s and
leaving just a few people to do the jobs of many (NTSB 1989, 137).

In
addition to the personnel issues surrounding this accident, the ship had its
own structural deficiencies as well. At the time, most tankers of that size
were single-hulled, meaning only one layer of metal separated the ship’s
contents from the outside water (A Final Farewell). Had the ship utilized a
double-hull structure, the bottom of the ship may have withstood the initial
scraping of the reef and could have lessened, if not completely prevented, the flow
of oil into the sea. The ship’s lack of protection, bundled with the crew’s navigation
errors, contributed to the rapid outflow of oil in such a manner that the ship
was not adequately prepared to avoid.

Because
of the immense damage caused by the oil spill, several changes were made to how
tankers were designed, how oil spills could be taken care of in a more
expeditious manner, and how ships would be piloted through the Sound. After the
spill, the US Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which set the
foundation for the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to prevent and
respond to future oil spills. The act required that all future tankers and
tank-barges be built with double hulls (A Final Farewell) to best prevent
catastrophic ruptures of ships’ storage tanks. The act created more
preventative measures, such as requiring “oil storage vessels and facilities to
have detailed plans” on how they would respond to large oil spills of their own
fault and required heavy-trafficked areas to “develop Area Contingency plans to
prepare for oil spill responses” on a large scale (EPA 2017). In addition, a
trust fund was created to fund oil spill cleanup efforts if the responsible
party unable or unwilling to do so (The Oil Pollution Act 1984, 12).

Along
with the regulatory changes that were made, changes were made to the traffic
flow through Prince William Sound to ensure that a ship did not stray too far
from the TSS. In July 1989, then-Alaska governor Steve Cowper signed an executive
order requiring “that two tugboats escort every tanker from Valdez out through
Prince William Sound” (Berlatsky 2011, 164). This requirement ensured that experienced
pilots and tugs accompany every ship to help prevent another grounding on the
reef and other shallow areas. To this day, this requirement stands in order to mitigate
another incident of this nature from occurring.

All
of these changes, in addition to the many others, helped increase the chances
that another ship-based accident like this one could be mitigated before it
happens again or, at the very least, prevent lasting damage to wildlife
habitats in and around oil-rich parts of North America.

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