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Have sea otters recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill?

 Monitoring shows populations have returned to pre-spill numbers

Alaskan_Sea_Otter

Sea otter in kelp. Photo by Benjamin Weitzman, U.S. Geological Survey.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — It took almost quarter of a century, but federal scientists say that sea otters have recovered to pre-spill population numbers in the most heavily oiled areas of Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling tens of millions of gallons of oil.

“Although recovery timelines varied widely among species, our work shows that recovery of species vulnerable to long-term effects of oil spills can take decades,” said lead author of the study, Brenda Ballachey, research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “For sea otters, we began to see signs of recovery in the years leading up to 2009, two decades after the spill, and the most recent results from 2011 to 2013 are consistent with recovery as defined by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.”

Several thousand otters died in the immediate aftermath of the spill, and recovery was slow. Scientists monitoring the area say chronic exposure to oil remnants likely hampered recovery. Other studies documented persistence of oil in the sea otter’s intertidal feeding habitats. Continue reading

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Travel: Exploring Valdez

Glaciers and rainforests meet near Alaskan harbor town

Ice melting after breaking free from the receding Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Alaskan coastal rain forest near Gold Creek.

Valdez is best best known for an oil tanker disaster in 1989, when the ship’s hull was ripped open and subsequently flooded Prince William Sound with 11 million gallons of crude oil that covered an area extending 470 miles to the southwest. However, the port of Valdez today is a biologically vibrant and beautiful part of the coastal rainforest that extends along the Alaskan coastal region.

Bus transportation is available from downtown Anchorage to Whittier, where ferry service delivers visitors to Valdez. I chose to drive the 265 miles across Alaska from Palmer, through the Matanuska River Valley, in order to pass Matanuska Glacier and explore Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Along the way, I camped beside Squirrel Creek, a river filled with fast-running, opaque, silt-filled glacial water. Next day, I dropped from a glacier-covered pass to the coastline at Valdez.

At the harbor, I joined a Stan Stephens tour of the Columbia Glacier on a sunny sky, passing friendly sea otters, whales, sea lions, and porpoises. According to the Boulder Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, Columbia Glacier has receded nine miles since 1980 and is expected to lose another nine miles during the next fifteen years. Discharging two cubic miles of ice into Prince William Sound each year, the Columbia Glacier is the largest North American glacial contributor to rising sea levels. Continue reading

Oil from Exxon Valdez spill still an environmental threat

Workers use high-pressure steam and water to try and clean up Alaska beaches after the Exxon Valdez spill.

ExxonMobil tries to avoid paying for new remediation efforts

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal scientists say oil from the Exxon Valdez spill more than 20 years ago is still affecting coastal ecosystems in Alaska and requires more restoration efforts — But Exxon (now ExxonMobil) attorneys are asking a federal court to release the company from any additional financial liability for the spill.

According to recent documents filed with U.S. District Court in Alaska, some of the oil that gushed from the busted tanker is degrading more slowly than anticipated and remains as a toxic exposure threat to to sea otters, harlequin ducks and other animals using intertidal habitats.

According to the latest court filings, discovery of the oil raises several questions that must be addressed before finalizing the details of a restoration plan, including the location and extent of the oil, factors limiting natural degradation and a quest for new technologies to accelerate the degradation and dispersal of the residue. Continue reading

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