WWF-Canada Blog:

“It Cannot Happen Here”? A closer look at the Exxon Valdez spill

What can anyone make of the categorical statement by Canada’s Natural Resource Minister that an Exxon Valdez-type spill cannot happen here?

For a start, recall that another politician-on-a-mission, the late Senator Ted Stevens, famously promised fishermen in Cordova, Alaska that “not one drop” of oil would be spilled in Prince William Sound. That was before the name of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker became synonymous with environmental catastrophe.

rob powell exxon valdez

Photo courtesy of Alaska Resources Library and Information Services.

When the big tanker ran hard aground on Bligh Reef, eight of the vessel’s eleven tanks were punctured, spilling an estimated 11-million gallons of crude oil into the ocean.  Even though the sea was calm at the time, almost no oil was contained before it reached the shore.  Oil ultimately contaminated 3000 kilometers of coastline, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds, thousands of sea otters, hundreds of bald eagles, and more than twenty orcas.  The herring fishery was devastated.  Despite a massive cleanup effort involving ten thousand workers, oil from that spill can still be found in mussel beds and rocky intertidal zones.  And, it’s the gift that keeps on taking.  Winter storms expose still-toxic globs of the stuff to this day.  The hit to the local economy in lost subsistence harvesting, commercial fishing and tourism has been estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.  The ensuing legal battles have been hard on the fabric of the community.

The heartbreaking damage to the environment and communities of Prince William Sound caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster is a stark warning of the harm that could come to BC’s north coast as a result of the Northern Gateway Pipeline. .

And, a just-released study by Simon Fraser University’s Thomas Gunton and Sean Broadbent, says that there’s a much higher risk of that happening than industry would lead us to believe.  While the SFU study doesn’t predict an incident of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez, it does estimate that at least one tanker condensate or oil spill of 1,000 barrels or more is a given within the next 50 years and that one could occur every five to twelve years.

rob powell exxon valdez2

Photo courtesy of Alaska Resources Library and Information Services

Anyone who mistakenly imagines the risks of oil spills are more manageable now than they were in the time of Exxon Valdez  should read WWF’s review published on the 20th anniversary of the disaster: Lessons Not Learned.  Then they should give their head a shake.

Let’s not let Minister Oliver’s meaningless assurance that “it cannot happen here” become one more lesson we failed to learn.  Instead, let’s do what it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen here and not allow oil tankers to imperil this coast.

  • It’s hard to believe that it cannot happen here, especially now that our environmental protections have been weakened. And thanks for highlighting that Simon Fraser University analysis. People need to hear perspectives other than Enbridge’s.

  • I haven’t seen anything historically that gives us the assurance that a spill cannot happen here! How can Oliver claim otherwise? is he God?