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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The impact of oil spills are still immeasurable 20 years later

<st twenty years ago, on March 24 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ruptured its hull on Bligh Reef, releasing around 11,000,000 gallons of crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound, and creating what has become one of the most famous—and disastrous—cases of human-inflicted environmental damage in history. Over the next two months, the oil slowly spread down the coastline for almost 470 miles, instigating a huge clean-up project that has become the most common public understanding of the disaster. In the wake of the crash, news media were swamped with pictures of clean-up workers in bright yellow waders covered in shiny black oil residue, hosing off rocks, and trying to clean the wings of sea birds who had unknowingly landed in patches of crude oil indistinguishable from the surrounding ocean. For sea-birds, otters, and other similar animals, the oil meant big trouble—it seeped into the interstices between their feathers or fur, nullifying the insulating properties of those layers and allowing the frigid sea water to wash right up against their skin, causing hypothermia. To environmentalists, it meant that it was time for oil companies to be held to stricter standards. For fishermen and other locals, it meant a possible change in livelihood. For Exxon, it meant a legislative nightmare.

Nineteen years after the disaster, this nightmare has not ended. The New York Times ran an article this February, about a 2.5 billion dollar settlement under review by the Supreme Court. If the court ends up with a four to four tie (Justice Alito having removed himself from the proceedings because of his possession of Exxon stock), the almost 32,000 business owners and fishermen who brought the case will receive almost $75,000 each. Exxon has already paid almost 3.4 billion dollars in restitution, a sum that has been lessened due to the strong cooperation of Exxon with the clean-up process.

But for Exxon, this all seems a bit much. In studies by their own scientists, the damage of the spill is always presented as non-permanent. They point to record fishing years after the crash and the relatively clean looking beaches once thick with black oil as proof of environmental recovery. These findings are in direct contradiction to outside researchers, who point to sub-surface oil patches and major reproductive decline in species of waterfowl and fish. In their turn, the company scientists gloss over these findings as unclear in cause, and possibly due to other environmental factors. After all, the realm of ecosystem biology is full of incredibly complex systems—the ‘“web of life” is heavily interdependent, and it is hard to point to any one reason for the decline of a species.

The Exxon scientists are certainly right in that regard—the delicate balance of ecosystems makes any definite answers difficult. But they show their bias when they gloss over the impact of 11,000,000 gallons of crude oil on an ecosystem. While we never may know the full impact of the oil spill on the wildlife of Prince William Sound, we cannot use our ignorance as an excuse to carry on assuming we can always fix our mistakes. Environmental issues like the Exxon Valdez and the recent sensation over global warming tend to flash in and out of public consciousness. For a moment we realize the possible consequences of our actions for the natural world. Science can’t supply proof of the damage we’re causing at the rate we’re causing it, and so we continue to stumble on obliviously. It is prideful to assume that we can completely understand the consequences of our actions. Until we have definitive proof—until we’re out of the dark—it’d be best to tread lightly and carefully, to avoid knocking over anything we wouldn’t want to break.

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