Voices from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: "The Day the Water Died"


On March 24th, 1989, the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound.

In fall of the following year, the National Wildlife Federation sponsored a series of hearings where more than 120 Alaskans impacted by the oil spill testified before a commission about their views and concerns, illustrating the grave impacts of the spill on Alaska's wildlife and citizens.

Their stories, thoughts and emotions were then brought together by the National Wildlife Federation in a publication titled, The Day the Water Died.

Below is a selection of quotes taken from this report...

The Past – Before the Spill

With the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline routed to Valdez, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company promised safety: state of the art pollution controls, double-hulled vessels, highly trained response teams and the latest and greatest in response and clean-up equipment. However, Alyeska failed to implement sensible safety measures, scrapped many environmental safeguards and grossly underestimated the level of oil spill response they would need.

"As I read into Alyeska's past record, I became ashamed, ashamed of my own ignorance and non involvement before the spill, ashamed to be a resident of a state that allowed the lying and cheating to continue for so long."
— Trisha Gartland, Kodiak Environmental Clean-up Effort, Kodiak

The Present – The Oil Doesn't Go Away

"Their arrogance and disregard, not only for the environment but Alaskans, was shocking to behold."
— Roberta Highland, Citizen, Homer

After the spill, response efforts were hindered by uncertainty and arguments over which company or agency should have authority. Many speakers voiced that they were against putting the entity responsible for the spill in charge of the clean-up efforts.

In the end, Exxon officials ignored Alaskan's suggestions and local expertise, impeded their clean-up efforts and staged the clean-up as a media event. Alaskans were stunned and outraged by the amount of death -- of wildlife, of the environment and of their way of life -- they witnessed while carrying out ineffectual and inefficient clean-up orders.

"For the record, as a commercial fisherman and as an Alaskan, I would like to say that the oil isn't gone, the spill isn't over, and despite Exxon's promises, neither I, nor Kodiak Island, have been made whole."
— Toby Sullivan, Fisherman, Kodiak


The Future – Beyond the Exxon Valdez

Corporate Ethics and the Role of the Government

What many Alaskans had to say about life after the spill were demands for action from the oil industry and the federal government. The oil industry had grown beyond its ability to transport oil safely or to implement an effective clean-up response if the worst should (and did) happen. 

Speakers felt that the liability for a spill should be absolute; Mike Tumey of Girdwood agreed, "We should put our foot down and say, 'the next person that does this is going to be fully accountable.'''

Citizens also stressed the need for the federal government to make re-working our nation's energy policy and reducing our dependency on fossil fuels top priorities.

"I think that our national energy policy has been 'energy dependent.' It should be energy efficiency, conservation and a wide use of resources, renewable resources being the priority."
— Nancy Bird, Cordova Oil Spill Disaster Response Center, Cordova


Impacts to the Environment and Wildlife

Sea Otter preening in Morro Bay, CA

Dead animals and birds collected totaled in the tens of thousands, and those were only the immediate casualties of the Exxon Valdez spill. Scientific assessments of the impacts to the water, the shore, the vegetation and the wildlife were hasty and incomplete.

Biologists believed the research started too late and ended too early, lasting only about a year. Alaska's fisheries were a main point of concern, and though the damage assessments were prematurely completed within a year of the spill, fisheries experts believed that the real impacts to populations couldn't be known for another three to five years.

"Science is not magic. You can't go out there in a vacuum and find out everything you have to know in a single season. Without the background research of many years, nothing intelligent can be said about the change brought by the oil spill."
— Craig Matkin, Biologist, North Gulf Oceanic Society, Homer


Awakened Environmental Awareness

Through all of the grief and the remaining challenges following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaskans feel that the disaster has brought an opportunity for change and awakened a new level of environmental consciousness in America.

In response to the potential sale of more oil leases to Alaskan wilderness areas like Bristol Bay and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaskans expressed the need to protect these remaining wildnerness areas, wildlife and natural resources from an industry that has proved it cannot guarantee there won't be another oil spill.

"As one person, one citizen, I therefore propose the following: absolutely no drilling for oil in Bristol Bay, no drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, double-bottoms and double-hulls for all tankers sailing in U.S. waters."
— Toby Sullivan, Fisherman, Kodiak 

"The oil spill is not over. It began long before March 24th and it is still happening. It will continue for as long as this country pursues short-sighted energy policies, and for as long as industry is allowed to regulate itself in the extraction and transportation of petroleum."
— Mei Mei Evans, Oil Reform Alliance, Anchorage

Related Resources
Compare the Exxon Valdez and BP Oil Spills

A chart comparing the BP Oil Spill to the similar tragedy of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Volunteer: NWF Gulf Coast Surveillance Teams 

We are organizing a network of volunteers to monitor the coast for wildlife in distress. Find out more about this opportunity to volunteer and also about how you can support the effort.

NWF's Gulf Oil Spill Restoration Fund

In order to help the wildlife at risk by the oil spill, NWF has established a Gulf Oil Spill Restoration Fund to support NWF's immediate response and longer term on-the-ground work to safeguard wildlife affected by this tragedy.

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Five Years and Counting, a report by the National Wildlife Federation