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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March 24, 1989

Get ready boys and girls!  It's time for yet another Tuesday Timeline entry, and I'll be the first to admit - I had a hard time picking a topic for this week's version.  March 24 may be a fantastic day, but it's also a day in which none of the events really stood out as being important enough to do a blog entry on.

That is...until I remembered an event that had devastating effects on the world...effects that are still being felt more than a quarter of a century later.

Before we go ahead with today's topic, why don't we have a look at some of the other events that happened on the twenty-fourth day of March?

Here we go.

1707 - The Kingdom of Great Britain is created following the union of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland as a result of the signing of the Acts of Union 1707

1721 - Johann Sebastian Bach dedicated six concertos to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt

1765 - Great Britain passes the Quartering Act

1832 - Mormon leader Joseph Smith is tarred and feathered by a group of men in Hiram, Ohio

1837 - African Canadian men are given the right to vote in Canada

1854 - Slavery is abolished in Venezuela

1878 - HMS Eurydice sinks, killing over 300 people on board

1882 - Robert Koch announces the discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis

1896 - The first radio signal transmission is made by A.S. Popov

1911 - American animator Joseph Barbera (d. 2006) is born in New York City

1930 - American actor Steve McQueen (d. 1980) is born in Beech Grove, Indiana

1944 - Seventy-six Allied POW's begin breaking out of German camp Stalag Luft III

1958 - Singer Elvis Presley is drafted into the United States Army

1965 - Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones is temporarily knocked unconscious after being electrocuted by a poorly grounded microphone stand at a concert in Denmark

1972 - The United Kingdom imposes direct rule over Northern Ireland

1973 - In the "Strange, but True" files, a fan leaps on stage during a Lou Reed concert and bites Reed on the buttocks - naturally, the fan is escorted off stage

1980 - Archbishop Oscar Romero is killed while celebrating Mass in San Salvador

1993 - Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 is discovered

1998 - Four students and a teacher are killed at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas by two other students, aged 13 and 11

1999 - Thirty-nine lose their lives in the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire

2008 - Actor Richard Widmark passes away at the age of 93

And for celebrity birthdays, we have the following to announce; Byron Janis, Mary Berry, Carol Kaye, David Suzuki, Bob Mackie, R. Lee Ermey, Curtis Hanson, Lord Alan Sugar, Tabitha King, Steve Lang, Tommy Hilfiger, Dougie Thomson, Louie Anderson, Robert Carradine, Donna Pescow, Bill Wray, Derek Statham, Nena, Kelly LeBrock, Star Jones, Mark "The Undertaker" Callaway, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sharon Corr, Megyn Price, Philippe Boucher, Jim Parsons, Chad Butler, Alyson Hannigan, Angellica Bell, Peyton Manning, Olivia Burnette, Jessica Chastain, Lake Bell, Keisha Castle-Hughes, and Isabel Suckling.

So, what date are we going to visit?  Well, I kind of already told you in the intro.  We're going back at least twenty-six years for this one.

Exact date:  March 24, 1989.

And it was a rather dark day in the world.  One that I remember quite well.

Now, keep in mind, back in March 1989, I was seven going on eight.  I was still trying to figure out how the world worked, and admittedly I didn't exactly understand it.  I couldn't quite grasp the concept between what was a serious news story and what was mindless fluff.  Hell, my biggest decision back in those days was deciding whether to watch "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" or "A Pup Named Scooby-Doo" on Saturday mornings.

However, just after midnight on March 24, 1989, an event happened that caused catastrophic damage to a portion of the Pacific Ocean, and ended up being one of the largest, most costly man-made disasters to the global environment.  Entire sections of the ocean became uninhabitable for years afterwards, and entire groups of animals were wiped out due to the aftermath of the disaster.

And it forever left a damning finger of blame towards the name Exxon Valdez.

Yes, it was twenty-six years ago today that the Exxon Valdez oil spill took place.  And twenty-six years later, the effects are still being felt.

I seem to remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill being a key event in my elementary school education.  Prior to 1989, we really had no instruction or lessons on how to take care of our planet - though I imagine that back in second grade, teachers were more concerned with making sure our cursive writing was impeccable and that we knew how to multiply numbers by four, five, and six.  After the Exxon Valdez spill, we were suddenly learning about ecology, environmental protection, and reducing, reusing, and recycling.  And don't get me wrong, I am thrilled that our classrooms were taught these lessons in elementary school.  I just wish it didn't take a devastating oil spill for us to make those lesson plans happen.

Anyway, the story of the Exxon Valdez goes like this.  The oil tanker was scheduled to arrive and dock at Long Beach, California sometime before the end of March, 1989.  The tanker contained some fifty-five million gallons of oil.  At 12:04am, as the ship made its way around Prince William Sound, Alaska, the ship brushed up against Bligh Reef, which caused a hole to open up, spilling at least eleven million gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean (though some news reports have stated that the amount of oil spilled was much higher - some even estimating that the number was closer to thirty-eight million gallons).

Either way, the spill was incredibly devastating to marine life.  Salmon, sea otters, seabirds, and seals were displaced from their home, and the casualties to marine settlements were devastating.  At least 100,000 seabirds died as a result of the oil spill.  Several sea otters, orcas, and even bald eagles lost their lives as well.  Part of the reason why the animal casualties were so great were because of a number of factors.  The oil spill took place in a very rocky area that was only accessible to small aircrafts, helicopters, or boats, making the clean-up a painstakingly slow process.  Eleven thousand Alaskan residents worked alongside Exxon staff members to try their best to clean the area, save some of the animals, and try to restore the environment as best they could.  But despite the best efforts to clean up the mess, and despite the fact that marine life is slowly coming back to the area that was most affected by the oil, the fact remains that as of 2015, there is still an estimated 26 thousand gallons of oil washed up along the beaches and coastline of Alaska, and it is estimated that for some species of animals, it could take up to three or four decades for the area to be considered "safe for habitation".

So here's the million gallon question.  What the heck happened?  And could the spill have been avoided?  Well, in the years since the initial disaster, here's what we do know.

We know that the captain of the ship - Joseph Hazelwood - was not at the controls when the ship crashed into the reef.  Some sources claim that he had a little too much to drink the night before the crash.  We also know that the RAYCAS radar system was inoperable because it had gotten damaged more than a year before the oil spill took place.  Had the radar system been properly working, the crew more than likely would have steered the ship to safety before it could crash into the reef.  And we know that the third mate who was aboard the ship failed to properly steer the ship to safety.  The reason why remains unknown, but speculation was that the third mate was too exhausted or too overworked to handle the controls.

All of those factors were a recipe for disaster.

As the investigation progressed, more details were unearthed.  Details about how the staff was overworked due to the cutbacks in crew.  Details about the slight change of course by the oil tanker to avoid colliding with smaller icebergs, causing the tanker to sail dangerously close to shore.

Regardless, the damage was done.  And Captain Joseph Hazelwood was in the hot seat, as well as Exxon, the company that owned the oil tanker.

The case was sent to trial, and in the case of Baker vs. Exxon, a jury awarded $287 million for actual damages, plus an additional five billion dollars in punitive damages.  Since that ruling, Exxon has repeatedly appealed the sentence, and the punitive damages were eventually reduced to just over $500 million - which as of December 2009 was marked as "PAID IN FULL".

As for Hazelwood, he was sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service, issued a $50,000 fine, and had his masters' license suspended by the United States Coast Guard in 1991 for a period of nine months.  He issued an apology to the people of Alaska in 2009, but still maintained the belief that he was wrongly blamed for the oil spill.  I'll leave that up to you.

But one thing remains fact.  Until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill was the worst man-made environmental disaster of modern day times.

And it happened twenty-six years ago today.

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