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On Friday, March 24, 1989, in Prince William Sound, Alaska, an oil tanker struck a reef and unleashed its lethal cargo (11 million tons of crude oil) into the still waters. The tanker was the Exxon Valdez. It had strayed a mile and a half off course and ground its bottom on the jagged rocks of Bligh Reef. This ripped huge holes into hull of the tanker.

Unfortunately, the radar that was supposed to be monitoring the course of the Exxon Valdez was not operating at the time. Also, when the spill occurred, neither the Alyeska Pipeline Service or the Exxon Corporation was able to fulfil its contingency plan for controlling oil spills.

When deep sea divers went to inspect the carnage the next day, they were confronted with a sea of blackness. Here is part of the report of one of those divers:

"Going to the tanker by boat, we saw that the oil was already inches deep in the water. We couldn’t even see the water in the wake of our boat. Once on the super-tanker, the first concern was safety. Was the ship stale, or would it roll over on top of us? It rested on Bligh Reef, near an edge that dropped off into water several hundred feet deep. If it did shift with the incoming tide, it would go all the way down to the bottom, perhaps breaking open and releasing the remainder of its oil: 42 million gallons of it."

"We inspected just about every square foot of the ship: the hull, inside the tanks, the framework. All the while the oil was gushing out. It didn’t mix with the water but streamed to the surface very fast. When we entered the tanks, our air bubbles would disturb pockets of oil, force it out, and it would swirl around our face-plate. We were not there to make repairs, only to determine the damage."

Very little was done to contain the damage for the first three days. On day four, 70 mile-per-hour winds blasted across Prince William Sound. The effect on the spill site was that the oil was mixed into a frothy combination of water and oil known as mousse. Within two months, the oil spill had travelled 500 miles and washed up onto a thousand miles of coastline. It had also coated a thousand miles of the once beautiful waters of Prince William Sound with oil.

Thousands of people were hired to clean up the beaches. Working up to 16-hour shifts with high pressure hoses, they shot spray onto the beaches, driving the water underground. The oil that was two or three feet below then floated to the surface. Then water from the hoses drove the oil into the ocean, where it was held by containment booms until skimmers came and sucked it off. A 200-yard section of beach, worked in this fashion, would yield between 200 and 400 barrels per day.

Meanwhile, the battle was raging over who was to blame for the carnage. Was Exxon at fault for letting the first three days of good weather slip by? How about the Coast Guard for cost-cutting measures that let it replace its radar system with a cheaper, less effective substitute? Or was the state at fault for not allowing Exxon to use dispersants to clean up the mess?

It is only now, 11 years after the disaster, that the ecology of the area is reverting to its natural state. Such is the devastating effect that man can have on the environment.