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Damage from oil spills lingers for years

By Margaret Hartley
Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Twenty-five years ago, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran into a reef off the coast of Alaska and spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, home to salmon, seals, seabirds and killer whales.

The photos that flooded the media — piles of dead otters and birds, tarred beaches and oil-covered orcas — left an indelible image of environmental disaster.

The spill also caused changes in the way oil is carried by tanker, from one-way tanker lanes, weather restrictions, escort vessel rules and alcohol screening for crew members. The biggest change was in tanker design — a requirement that oil tankers have double hulls.

Now the Exxon Valdez spill doesn’t even make the top-50 list, which includes drilling accidents and refinery accidents.

But tanker spills still happen. Last week in Galveston, Texas, a tanker collided with a container ship, spilling about 170,000 gallons of a thick, tarry oil into Galveston Bay near the Port of Houston.

The type of oil spilled — called bunker oil and used as fuel for ocean-going ships — is viscous and heavy. The fear is that besides harming migratory birds on the shores of the bay, it can sink into marshes to be stirred up by storms for years to come.

The Galveston spill is comparatively small, and the bay sees hundreds of oil spills a year, most under 100 gallons. But no oil spill is a good oil spill.

The “good news” last week in Galveston was that much of the oil was heading out into the Gulf of Mexico, away from the shorelines. Oiled birds numbered in the dozens, not the hundreds or thousands found after massive oil spills.

But oil spilled in water can never be completely recovered. It sinks, pools under rocks or floats off. It shows up on shores close and far, gets ingested by animals and causes problems for generations.

Last Monday, a study released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration linked deformities in fish with contamination from oil spills.

The NOAA study, done in the laboratory and designed to mimic conditions in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, showed serious heart defects in bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack that had been exposed to oil as embryos.

Those are the kinds of fish impacted after some 210 million gallons of oil spread in the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April of 2010.

Fishermen have reported deep drops in tuna and other fish in the gulf since the explosion, and because those fish take years to grow, NOAA estimates the effects are still being seen.

And they probably will be for decades at least.

In Prince William Sound, a quarter-century after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the oil lingers.

The Anchorage Daily News reported last week the herring fisheries and orca populations have not yet recovered.

“Prince William Sound today looks spectacular, a stunning landscape of mountainous fjords, blue-green waters and thickly forested islands,” the paper said. “Pick up a stone on a rocky beach, maybe dig a little, though, and it is possible to still find pockets of oil.”

There’s no simple answer. As long as we’re driving cars and demanding more and more power every year, as long as we’re drilling, transporting and burning fuel, there are going to be spills. And spills can never be totally cleaned up.

So the answer is going to lie in preventing spills. Demanding safe drilling, and safe transportation, demanding quick and thorough cleanup of as much spilled oil as possible, and holding companies accountable for safety, prevention and cleanup is key.

I’d like to think we could teach ourselves to find clean sources of energy, and to use less energy instead of more.
Twenty-five years after Exxon Valdez, though, I’m not feeling real hopeful on that front.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact mhartley@dailygazette.net or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

 
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