Primary Source: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: National Response Team’s Report to the President, 1989

Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the 987-foot tank vessel Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. What followed was the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The oil slick has spread over 3,000 square miles and onto over 350 miles of beaches in Prince William Sound, one of the most pristine and magnificent natural areas in the country. Experts still are assessing the environmental and economic implications of the incident. The job of cleaning up the spill is underway, and although the initial response proceeded slowly, major steps have been taken.

The very large spill size, the remote location, and the character of the oil all tested spill preparedness and response capabilities. Government and industry plans, individually and collectively, proved to be wholly insufficient to control an oil spill of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez incident. Initial industry efforts to get equipment on the scene were unreasonably slow, and once deployed the equipment could not cope with the spill. Moreover, the various contingency plans did not refer to each other or establish a workable response command hierarchy. This resulted in confusion and delayed the cleanup. . .

The lack of necessary preparedness for oil spills in Prince William Sound and the inadequate response actions that resulted [indicate the need for] improvements in the way the nation plans for and reacts to oil spills of national significance. . . The following points deserve special emphasis:

  • Prevention is the first line of defense. Avoidance of accidents remains the best way to assure the quality and health of our environment. We must continue to take steps to minimize the probability of oil spills.
  • Preparedness must be strengthened. Exxon was not prepared for a spill of this magnitude–nor were Alyeska [the pipeline company], the State of Alaska, or the federal government. It is clear that the planning for and response to the Exxon Valdez incident was unequal to the task. Contingency planning in the future needs to incorporate realistic worst-case scenarios and to include adequate equipment and personnel to handle major spills. . .
  • Some oil spills may be inevitable. Oil is a vital resource that is inherently dangerous to use and transport. We, therefore, must balance environmental risks with the nation’s energy requirements. The nation must recognize that there is no fail-safe prevention, preparedness, or response system. Technology and human organization can reduce the chance of accidents and mitigate their effects, but may not stop them from happening. This awareness makes it imperative that we work harder to establish environmental safeguards that reduce the risks associated with oil production and transportation. The infrequency of major oil spills in recent years contributed to the complacency that exacerbated the effect of the Exxon Valdez…
  • Studies of the long-term environmental and health effects must be undertaken expeditiously and carefully. Broad gauge and carefully structured environmental recovery efforts, including damage assessments, are critical to assure the eventual full restoration of Prince William Sound and other affected areas.

Study Questions

  1. What should Exxon, the state of Alaska, and the Federal government have done as soon as they learned of the disaster, and why did they fail?
  2. Why did the location of the accident create additional difficulties?
  3. If you were an environmental activist, how would you respond to the report’s comment that “we must balance environmental risks with the nation’s energy requirements?”

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Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University and an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. He was an undergraduate at Oxford in England (1974-1977), a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley (Ph.D., 1986), and held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University.  At Emory since 1988, he teaches courses on American intellectual, environmental, and religious history, on Victorian Britain, and on the Great Books.  Author of seven books (most recently A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, 2014), he is also presenter of eight lecture series with "The Great Courses" (, including "The Art of Teaching” and, most recently, “The Industrial Revolution.”