The Shetland Oil Disaster: Damage from Alaskan slick remains despite apparent recovery: Four years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, wildlife in Prince William Sound has still not fully recovered, writes Rupert Cornwell
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Thursday 07 January 1993
Since that day on 24 March 1989, the vessel's owner, Exxon, has spent dollars 2.5bn cleaning up. In October 1991, the company settled court cases by agreeing a further dollars 1bn to restore the Sound, coupled with a dollars 25m fine. But conservationists fear even this may not be enough.
'Superficially, it looks pretty good again,' Tony Turrini, of the National Wildlife Federation in Anchorage, said. 'But dig down, and there's lots of oil still there, while many of the wildlife populations have plummeted.'
Some good has come from the disaster. Government regulations now stipulate that US-built tankers must be double-hulled - one reason, say experts, why total spills in US waters have fallen dramatically. The 1991 total of 55,000 gallons (compared with 10.8 million released by the Exxon Valdez) was the lowest in 15 years. Vessel traffic systems have also been thoroughly overhauled.
Federal and Alaskan agencies know only too well that it was largely disorganisation among the rescue efforts that turned what could have been a containable spill into America's worst pollution disaster. A fresh accident, they insist, would draw a far more co- ordinated response.
But the harm to life in Prince William Sound still cannot be quantified. 'It's too early to tell the overall impact,' Bruce Mannheim, a lawyer for the Environment Defence Fund, said, 'but there was significant long-term damage to fish, sea-birds and marine mammals.'
A report last year by the US government's Oil Spill Trustee Council contrasted with the claims of an Exxon advertising campaign that the Sound's ecology had been fully restored, warning that the oil's effect was still working through spawning and breeding cycles.
In 1992, only 2 million pink salmon returned, compared to 8 million in a normal season. Between 3,500 and 5,500 sea otters were fatally poisoned, while 'thousands' of bald eagles, sea ducks, cormorants and other birds died.
There are subtler after-effects too. Eskimos on at least one island have been forced to turn from fishing to lumber to make a living, causing deforestation.
Key links in the food chain, such as mussels, are still contaminated; even the merits of 'bio-remediation' - the release of natural microbes to eat up contaminants - are contested.
Theoretically, Exxon's dollars 1bn should make a big difference. But Mr Mannheim warned: 'There is quite a debate whether it is actually being spent on the ground, or being frittered away on studies by research groups and the like.'
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 Optical illusion turns blue demon into brunette
- 3 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 4 Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to donate entire $32bn fortune to charity
The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck divorce: Memorable quotes from one of Hollywood's most scrutinised couples
German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to donate entire $32bn fortune to charity
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: It is also essential that you p...
£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful Service Engineer...
£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Edinburgh city centre scho...
£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...