Monday, March 24th,  marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped 11 million gallons (40 million liters) into the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska.  This shocking disaster had a profound environmental impact, which continues to this day.  The spill acted as a wake-up call to many, yet in the past ten days, three oil spills have occurred,  demonstrating that the risks of oil containment still exist.

On Monday, March 17th, 20,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into a nature reserve 20 miles north of Cincinnati, its magnitude still not fully understood.  Then, the following Monday, March 24th,  630-1638 gallons of oil leaked from a BP Refinery into Lake Michigan. Finally, the most severe and worrisome of these spills happened the morning of March 22nd, when an oil tanker collided with a ship in Galveston Bay, spilling approximately 168,000 gallons of crude oil into a sensitive economic and environmental area.  Located one mile away from Bolivar Flats Bird Sanctuary, a designated Globally Significant Bird Area, this Galveston Bay spill is a prime example of the broad ecological and economic harms of the oil industry.

Oiled bird found near Houston Ship Channel Sunday [Image Attribute: National Geographic]
As of Monday, 50 oiled birds had been discovered, yet experts expect to find more.  The oil has been headed South, away from the Bolivar Peninsula on which the sanctuary is located, but it is coating the shores of Pelican Island.  This poses dangers to the shore birds such as gulls, which sit on the now oil-covered rocks.  The oil will degrade their waterproofing, thus exposing them to the water temperatures and reducing their buoyancy.  As the birds preen to clean their feathers, they will ingest the oil, and it will harm their internal organs, leading to pneumonia, ulcers, or other damage. The spill will also affect other animals in the water, including fish, mammals, and sea turtles.

If the oil remains in the water long enough, it can lower the spawning of fish and aquatic invertebrates, long-term consequences, which were experienced during the BP oil spill.  The oil that leaked, called RMG 380, is heavier and will persist in the environment longer than gasoline or other oils, going deeper into the ocean and possibly smothering aquatic wildlife.

Though experts expect the bacteria to remain in saltwater, therefore forming tarballs, which are less harmful to wildlife, these sticky pollutants pose another threat to the area. Tourism, an important industry in the area, has suffered from the threat of tar-covered beaches.  Business-owners have already received cancellations for spring break, and are in fear of losing summer business.  As more and more tar balls wash up on the beaches, local businesses worry that the cancellations will only escalate as the media coverage does.

Galveston Bay is both a large commercial and a popular recreational fishing area, and the spill occurred only a few hundred yards from Texas City Dike, one of those recreational locations.  This spill has caused an indefinite loss of business with regards to fishing.  In addition, authorities closed the shipping channel for three days.  This closure caused limited access to the Houston petrochemical complex, the world’s second largest, making the incident not only locally important, but global as well. The Galveston Bay spill holds significance outside of the local economy or environment; it has ramifications for future policy.

Some news outlets have used the Galveston spill as support for building the Keystone XL pipeline.  This ignores the fact that the construction of the Keystone pipeline would cause an increase traffic to the area of the spill seven times its current level, thereby increasing the likelihood of such spills in an ecologically and economically sensitive area. 25 years after the spill that shocked the world, the focus should not rely on increasing contamination risks; the preservation of the nation’s precious aquatic ecosystems should hold priority.  The spills of just the past two weeks from a pipeline, a refinery, and a tanker show that Exxon Valdez has not yet fully taught its lesson.  Until the energy industry moves toward safer practices and cleaner fuels, there will continue to be broad damages.

[Image Attribute: Think Progress]