What Happened with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill & What Are they doing to Clean Up Their Act?

A landmark even in Environmental Law, the Exxon Valdez oil spill resulted in drastic changes to oil regulations and new safety procedures to prevent against future oil spills. The March 1989 oil spill was one of the largest in history, resulting in over 10 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the Prime William Sound, directly impacting the entire oceanic ecosystem. The 300 meter tanker was employed to transport oil between the Alaskan Valdez pipeline for domestic US refineries, and the oil spill led to litigation which changed the shape of modern oil production.

As a result of the oil spill, over 30,000 plaintiffs were awarded punitive damages which were reduced by the Supreme Court, and the settlement finally cleared in 2008 after a decade of appeals. The lasting environmental impact left over 25,000 gallons of oil in the Alaskan Gulf, creating a challenge for modern day environmental cleanups. While the companies worked to minimize the damage with dispersants and solvents, the lasting impacts continued to be felt throughout the Prince William Sound. Environmentalists estimate that hundreds of thousands of sea-borne animals were negatively impacted, while salmon populations in the region continue to suffer from defects resulting from the oil spill.

The class action lawsuit Baker v. Exxon started in an Anchorage district court and went all the way to the Supreme Court before a final settlement was reached. In addition to punitive damages, Exxon settled with local industry and environmental groups to alleviate the impact of the oil spill. Lasting regulatory shifts included the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that limited the precautions oil companies must take in the export trade. New ship designs were required to minimize the potential impact of the spills, while the National Transportation Safety Board implemented stricter controls over those involved in maritime navigation.

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