30 years later, researchers are still learning from the Exxon Valdez oil spill

Published: Jan. 30, 2019 at 6:52 PM AKST
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The Exxon Valdez oil spill that happened almost 30 years ago has left a scientific legacy in the marine science research field that's now being used as a powerful research tool to evaluate the impact of other spills around the world.

Wednesday was the third day of the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, and this year, much of the discussion taking place is about the Exxon Valdez spill and how it's helped shape the understanding of more recent oil spills, like the 2007 Hebei Spirit spill in South Korea, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"One really big one was lingering oil," said retired NOAA scientist Dr. Jeffrey Short. "We discovered that the oil persisted on the shorelines for way longer than anybody thought it would. Because of that, there were long-term effects because animals kept getting re-exposed to the. Another big one was discovering what led to several new toxicological pathways."

Dr. Short was the government's lead chemist following the spill. He was deeply involved with assessing the damage that oil left in Prince William Sound. He says that even now, 30 years later, there's still some lingering oil on some beaches. Wildlife, such as pink salmon, herring and killer whales are still struggling to recover. One orca pod is facing extinction, while another is slowly recovering.

"They're marine mammals. They spend a lot of time under water, and when they come up they take a deep breath, they're inhaling hydrocarbon vapors, Short said. "Subsequent research in Deepwater Horizon showed that marine mammals are pretty sensitive to lung problems. So my best guess is that it was initial exposure that compromised their lung capacity, and opened a way to getting lung diseases, and that slowly killed a bunch of them."