On 24 March 1989 the 1,000-foot-long oil supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a (well-marked) reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of oil.
The ecologically sensitive location, the time of the year, and the large scale of this spill resulted in one of the largest environmental disasters in history.
The spill affected more than 1,300 miles of shoreline, with immense impacts on fish and wildlife and their habitats, as well as on local industries and communities. The oil killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 seals, 250 bald eagles, as many as 22 killer whales and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Fishermen went bankrupt, and the mayor of a local town committed suicide.
Within a week, Captain Joseph Hazelwood was fired because of his excessive blood alcohol reading at the time of the oil spill (although he was asleep in his cabin and not at the helm when the ship struck the reef).
The ship’s Raytheon Collision Avoidance System (RAYCAS) radar was not turned on at the time of impact. The radar had, in fact, been broken and disabled for more than a year before the disaster. Exxon management knew about it but deemed the equipment too expensive to fix and operate.
A subsequent investigation also revealed that the Third Mate, Gregory Cousins – who was in charge of the ship at the time of the collision – was not licensed to pilot the vessel in the waters where the grounding occurred.
Exxon settled in 1991 with funds disbursed in three parts: criminal plea agreement ($25 million), criminal restitution ($100 million), and civil settlement ($900 million).
The Valdez was towed to San Diego before the 1990 Oil Pollution Act ban on single-hulled tankers forced the ship into exile in Europe. There she was renamed the Exxon Mediterranean, then the SeaRiver Mediterranean, and then the S/R Mediterranean.
The 1992 made-for-television film Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster, produced by HBO, dramatised the oil spill disaster.
In 1995, the ship featured as a rusty tanker in Kevin Costner’s film Waterworld, captained by a deranged pirate bent on locating the last bit of land in a world where climate change has melted the ice caps. The captain drinks a toast to “Saint Joe” (Captain Hazelwood), whose portrait is nailed to his cabin wall.
In 2002, the European Union outlawed single-hulled oil tankers, and the erstwhile Valdez, now called simply the Mediterranean, was sent to Asian waters. In 2007 she was converted into an ore carrier and renamed the Dong Fang Ocean, sailing under a Panamanian flag.
In 2010, she celebrated the 21st anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster by smashing into the cargo ship Aali in the Yellow Sea, amputating her own anchors and piercing the Aali’s ballast tanks.
In 2011 – now known as the Oriental Nicety – the ship was sold for $16 million to an Indian demolition company.