Exxon Valdez Oil-Spill Toxins Undiminished 16 Years On

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 8:33 PM EST

1989. Seems like a long time ago. The other GW was the new guy in the White House. The first Gulf War was only a glimmer in his eye. The Soviet Union officially announced its troops had left Afghanistan. Pan Am flight 103 investigators announced the crash was caused by a bomb hidden inside a radio-cassette player (remember radio-cassette players?). The Exxon Valdez's drunken skipper contributed to running the tanker aground, dumping at least 11 million gallons into Alaska's once-pristine Prince William Sound.

Well, all these years later and Jeffrey W. Short of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and colleagues, find that oil from that spill persists in an only slightly weathered form below the surface at beaches along the Gulf of Alaska—and may persist for decades more, ScienceDaily reports.

Earlier research demonstrated that buried oil could retain toxic components for years if buried in anoxic (oxygen-depleted) sediments where little decomposition from weathering occurs. The new study identified a different mechanism in which oil can be preserved in sediments that do contain oxygen. The oil persists because it exists in a thick, emulsified form sometimes termed "oil mousse" that resists weathering.

"Such persistence can pose a contact hazard to inter-tidally foraging sea otters, sea ducks, and shorebirds, create a chronic source of low-level contamination, discourage subsistence in a region where use is heavy and degrade the wilderness character of protected lands," the researchers conclude.

Wikipedia notes the short- and medium-term effects of one the largest manmade environmental disasters ever to occur at sea:

Thousands of animals died immediately; the best estimates include 250,000 - 500,000 sea birds, 2,800 - 5,000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 orcas, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Due to a thorough cleanup, little visual evidence of the event remained in areas frequented by humans just one year later, but the effects of the spill continue to be felt today. In the long term, reductions in population have been seen in various ocean animals, including stunted growth in pink salmon populations. Sea otters and ducks also showed higher death rates in following years, partly because they ingested contaminated creatures. The animals also were exposed to oil when they dug up their prey in dirty soil. Researchers said some shoreline habitats, such as contaminated mussel beds, could take up to 30 years to recover.

Hasn't hurt Exxon, though. Profits are astronomical and durable, just like the oil mousse.

Remember the Exxon Valdez when you shop for your electric scooter.

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