Legal challenges over Exxon Valdez sputter to an end

When the sun set just after 8 pm on March 23, 1989, nothing was amiss in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The ocean lapped at rocky, seaweed-strewn beaches, boats dotted the horizon, and thousands of sea otters floated serenely on their backs.

But all that changed the following morning, when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground and hemorrhaged 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sound. The spill not only transformed human and ecologic communities for decades to come, it also upended the world’s understanding of the long-term effects of a marine oil spill. Prior to Exxon Valdez, scientists believed that the biggest impacts were the animals that washed up dead in the immediate aftermath of a spill. They predicted that Prince William Sound would fully recover within 15 years.

In reality, it took much longer. Sea otter populations didn’t bounce back to pre-spill levels until just last summer, and other species may never recover: One group of orcas hasn’t birthed a surviving calf since before the spill. And while the precise cause of these long-term impacts isn’t always clear, there’s little doubt that lingering oil plays a role. “The chronic effects for some species can be of the same magnitude as the immediate effects,” Dan Esler, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey said.

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