March 24, 1989 The Exxon Valdez oil tanker was carrying more than 50 million gallons of crude oil when it left Valdez, Alaska, on March 23, 1989. Around midnight, the vessel struck a reef, releasing roughly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound over several days. It was the worst oil spill in North America until the 2010 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
Chuck Meacham, a regional biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, told The Washington Post’s Bill McAllister at the time of the Exxon spill: “It’s very difficult to know what ultimately will happen. The potential for serious problems is just staggering.” Cleanup efforts began almost immediately. But aides to President George H.W. Bush later said the federal government and oil industry response was “wholly insufficient.”
The state of Alaska sued Exxon over the spill, and the federal government indicted the company for violating the Clean Water Act. Exxon paid $1 billion in settlements to the state and federal governments, and $300 million in voluntary settlements with private parties. A lawsuit was also filed against Exxon Mobil on behalf of more than 32,000 fishermen, native Alaskans and landowners, resulting in an award of $5 billion in punitive damages. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court reduced it to $507.5 million. By 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported most of the affected species had recovered, but the sound had not fully returned to pre-spill conditions.