The Exxon Valdez oil spill taught many lessons about preparedness, including local mariners’ knowledge about the waters in our region is vital to spill response. In this photo, the crews of several Homer fishing vessels practice using oil spill boom and skimmers during annual contracted vessel training. Photo by Cathy Hart

By Amanda Johnson 

In 1989, the few measures in place were inadequate to prevent the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and the available response resources were insufficient to contain and clean it up. Congress found that complacency among the oil industry, and the regulatory agencies responsible for monitoring the operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and vessel traffic in Prince William Sound was also a contributing factor in the disaster. 

In the years following the spill, regulatory agencies, industry, and citizens worked together to make sure the painful memories and hard lessons of the Exxon Valdez were not forgotten. Changes were enacted to reduce the chances of another spill and to prepare for an effective cleanup if another should occur. 

Much has improved in the intervening decades, but there are lingering concerns. 

Laws and regulations 

One of the most important results of the oil spill was the enactment of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, or OPA 90, which addressed many deficiencies, including liability, compensation, and oversight. It also established permanent, industry-funded citizen oversight groups for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. 


Both federal and state laws now require more comprehensive prevention measures and planning for larger spills and require more spill response equipment to be immediately available. 

Prevention: The most effective protection 

No oil spill can ever be completely cleaned up. Preventing an oil spill is the most effective way to protect human health, local communities and economies, and the environment. Since 1989, improvements have drastically reduced the risk of oil spills. 

All tankers transporting oil through Prince William Sound are now double-hulled. Double hulls, basically two steel skins separated by several feet of space, can reduce or eliminate spills that result from groundings or collisions. 

Alyeska’s Ship Escort Response Vessel System, known as SERVS, was developed after the Exxon Valdez spill. SERVS’ mission is to prevent oil spills by helping tankers navigate safely through Prince William Sound and to begin an immediate response if there is a spill. 

A major component of SERVS are the powerful tugs that escort tankers safely through our waters. Two tugs accompany each laden tanker out of Prince William Sound. These tugs can assist should the tanker experience a malfunction and begin immediate spill response if needed. SERVS also keeps trained response crews on duty around the clock and has spill response equipment ready. 

While prevention measures are the best way to avoid damage from oil spills, even the best system cannot remove all risks. Alyeska’s SERVS has implemented many improvements since 1989, creating the world-class oil spill prevention and response system in place today. 

Contingency plans, extensive documents which contain details on preventing and cleaning up oil spills, are required by state and federal law. 

Some changes in the contingency plans since 1989 include: 

Before 1989, few oil spill drills were conducted in Prince William Sound. Today, three major exercises take place per year, along with several smaller drills. The drills provide opportunities for response personnel to work with equipment and practice procedures. 

Concerns remain 

Although there have been many improvements, there are still many areas of concern, meriting the continued attention and sustained efforts from the council. A few of these include: 

More about improvements and remaining concerns in the publication “Then & Now: 35 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” 

Amanda Johnson is the public communications project manager for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. 

This story originally in the March 29 issue of The Cordova Times.