Some lessons take a long time to sink in. The Exxon Valdez disaster, which occurred 25 years ago this week when the oil tanker struck a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, was both the product of previous lessons unlearned and the source of new lessons that continue to be overlooked.
One lesson was that industry self-regulation and lax governmental oversight don't work to the public's benefit. In this case, the vessel was operating on March 24, 1989, with an overworked crew that was half the size of standard crews 20 years earlier; the tanker's hull construction didn't meet specifications agreed to by the oil industry for tankers carrying Alaskan oil. The Coast Guard, which was charged with conducting safety inspections of tankers, didn't do so because its staff had been cut by one-third.
The environmental effects of the spilled oil in what was then the largest ever in U.S. waters--it was surpassed by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico--have been worse and longer lasting than anyone anticipated.
The most disturbing aspect of the case may be the solicitude shown to its perpetrator, Exxon, by the courts. An Alaska jury had slapped the company with $5 billion in punitive damages awarded to 30,000 residents and workers whose livelihoods were harmed or destroyed by the spill. Exxon appealed, and got the award cut in half by a federal appeals court.
The company appealed again to the
In many ways the Deepwater Horizon blowout feels like a replay--one that's still unfolding. Safety and equipment standards were flouted; regulatory oversight was compromised. The oil industry has tried to downplay the potential damage from the released oil, but the experience of Prince William Sound suggests that the full toll won't be known for years, even decades.
More to the point, which of the lessons from the Deepwater Horizon that the oil industry claims to have taken to heart will be found to have been ignored, the next time there's a major spill?