Dan Rather was the newscaster. His lead for the CBS Evening News on Friday, March 24, 1989 was:
“An oil tanker ran aground today off the nation’s northern most ice-free port, Valdez, Alaska.”
The Exxon vessel was holding 53 million gallons of crude oil. By 3:30 am, the Coast Guard estimated that 5.8 million gallons had already been released from the tanker. Ultimately, nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil contaminated the region.
I was reminded of today’s 28th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster by my colleague Mark Catlin. At the time he was with the Alaska Health Project, a non-profit organization that provided training and conducted research on hazardous materials in workplaces and communities. His reminder coaxed me to look back at some of the investigation reports on the disaster. One was the Report to the President from EPA Administrator William Riley and DOT Secretary Samuel Skinner which includes a detailed chronology of events. It’s the feature in investigation reports that I find most interesting. When well written, a detailed chronology takes me back in time to the chaos.
The 19-page chronology from the Report to the President begins at half past midnight on March 24, 1989:
00:28 am — …Initial assessment of pollution extent and shoreline impact could not be made with any degree of accuracy due to darkness.
And then this from three hours later:
03:30 am — Initial response efforts at the Port of Valdez under Alyeska [Pipeline Service Company]’s control are hampered by equipment casualties and holiday personnel shortages. As response personnel arrive …Alyeska is unable to comply with the response timeliness provision in its own contingency plan … Alyeska’s only containment barge is tied up at Valdez Terminal, stripped for repairs. Barge was not certified by the CG to receive oil… Before barge could be used, pollution gear had to be loaded.
Twelve hours later:
12:30 — Oil slick is already 1,000 feet wide and four to five miles long…. The two on-scene skimmers begin recovering oil near the Exxon Valdez.
By the second day, the chronology indicates that facilities were set up to treat oiled sea birds and otters. By the third day, Exxon had assigned 100 people to the clean-up operations and 200 people were on standby. On day four, wind gusts as high as 73 miles per hour impeded the response operations and
“…driven the spill nearly 40 miles into Prince William Sound, coating beaches at Little Smith, Naked, and Knight Islands.”
Other snippets from the chronology:
Day 10, 9:00 am — At wildlife cleaning centers, 28 oiled otters and 49 oiled birds are being treated. Approximately 140 oiled birds per square mile were found in Gibbons/Anchorage area. The company has hired over 350 additional clean-up workers.
Day 12 — Housing for work crews is being provided by the barge Exxon II, located in Mummy Bay, Knight Island and by the M/V Bartlett in Sawmill Bay. Health and safety training classes being set up by Exxon contractors.
Day 13 — Over 66,000 feet of boom deployed in Sawmill Bay. Coast Guard decides to deploy …booming and skimmers in defensive positions to protect hatcheries, removing capacity to fight the spill itself.
Day 14 — Mandatory health and safety classes for all clean-up crews begins.
Ultimately, as many as 11,000 workers were assigned to one of six beach clean-up task forces.
Day 16 — Dept of Interior reports that 529 birds and 94 sea otters have died.
The chronology ends at Day 34. The full Report to the President and its preliminary findings were issued two months after the disaster.
Among the other investigation reports of the Exxon Valdez disaster were two that focused specifically on worker health and safety. At the same time as the Report to the President, an independent public health team assembled by the Laborers’ National Health and Safety Fund issued a report. The team, which included Mark Catlin and Dr. Eula Bingham (who was the head of OSHA from 1977 to 1981) characterized the hazards faced by the clean-up workers and the adequacy of the safety training they received. They noted in their report and a subsequent video:
“The 90-minute training program provided the cleanup workers is inadequate and does not meet OSHA’s requirement of 40 hours. ….[It] is severely inadequate in both quality and quantity.
“To their credit, those who are interested in doing this difficult and hard cleanup work are not afraid to qet their hands dirty. It is not appropriate to convey the message that the oil is not really a toxic hazard. Unless the workers are given the full picture, including problems like second-ary contamination, the precautions necessary to limit exposure will only be partly effective. Spill workers need to respect the hazards of the oil, and understand the rationale for the detailed safety and health procedures.”
The video specifically mentions a respiratory illness the workers called the “Valdez Crud.” It may have been linked to the overcrowded living quarters and the potentially toxic vapors from the weathered oil.
The independent public health team also called on Exxon to finance a medical monitoring program organized by Alaska’s state epidemiologist. The team noted:
“Administering 4,000 exams and occupational and health histories–and reviewing and storing those records–may present logistical problems, but no worse than recruiting and housing 4,000 workers.”
A second report was published in May 1991 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The “health hazard evaluation” was requested by the Laborer’s International Union of North America, the Alaska State Health Department, and the U.S. Coast Guard. NIOSH’s evaluation was based on site visits conducted in April, June and July 1989. NIOSH deemed the safety training provided to the oil clean-up workers to be adequate. They noted, however, other deficiencies in safety practices, including:
- Wearing of PPE was not consistently enforced which led many workers to have their arms and hands contaminated with crude oil.
- Using impermeable protective garments that caused workers to remove the gear or risk overheating.
- Failing to provide a way for workers to launder potentially contaminated street clothing worn under the protective garments.
NIOSH determined that long-term medical surveillance of the health of the workers was not warranted.
The 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster was the largest crude oil disaster off of U.S. shores until the year 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. That event involved the release of 20 times the amount of crude oil than the Valdez disaster.
An estimated 45,000 individuals were involved in the Deepwater Horizon clean-up. Many of them are now registered in centralized roster and can be contacted should information emerge about possible long-term health consequences from the clean-up work. No such roster exists for the 10,000 or so Exxon Valdez oil recovery workers. Regardless, some of them will be remembering this weekend where they were 28 years ago. They will think about how they were recruited, volunteered or were assigned to work following, as Dan Rather announced, “an oil tanker ran aground today off the nation’s northern most ice-free port, Valdez, Alaska.”