Exxon-Valdez Anniversary Reminds Us Oil Spill History is Everywhere

Where were you on March 24, 1889? Maybe that date isn’t seared into your memory like the day JFK was shot or the horrors of 9/11, but for anyone in Prince William Sound, Alaska, it’s unforgettable. Today is the day 21 years ago that the Exxon Valdex ran aground due to pilot error and began spilling what eventually would be 240,000 barrels of oil into the environment. (Sadly, this has now been somewhat eclipsed in our minds by the equally horrendous April 2010 oil leak in the Gulf.)

Homer, an 11-year-old otter rescued after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. (Zuma/Newscom)

Think a big spill like that can’t happen in Maine? Well… think again. Mainers may remember a Portland harbor spill on September 27, 1996 of 179,634 gallons of a combination of heavy fuel oil and diesel. While 78% was recovered, approximately 38,618 gallons “were carried into the upper Fore River and Stroudwater Marsh area” and “lost to the environment” according to this Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management page on the Maine.gov website.

And there’s this from the Maine Memory Network vault, contributed by the Oakfield Historical Society: In 1975 the U.S. Navy contracted to charter a fleet of nine Sealift class tankers–including the “Sealift/China Sea” that you see docked in Searsport in the image below. The ship transported 200,000 barrels of jet fuel, diesel, and unleaded gasoline.

Bangor and Aroostook Railroad Facility, Searsport, ca. 1990

All well and good until some years later, in 1994, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported to Congress that a review of these Sealift tankers had “found understaffed and unqualified crews–some with felony records; deteriorating vessels plagued by everything from massive oil leaks to inoperable life boats; and poor oversight by the Military Sealift Command.” (08/31/94, GAO/OSI-94-27). Yeesh… sounds like an Exxon disaster waiting to happen.

Of course, the the Sealift/China Sea didn’t hang out in Maine for 20 years. And presumably because of that report, it was decommissioned in 1995… and sold to an unidentified foreign country. And that’s where our story ends. So one wonders: What kind of history has the Sealift/China Sea gone on to have in another part of the world? We hope a quiet, secure, and unmemorable one.

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