On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh said of the environmental effects following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, "[N]ature cleaned it up faster than we ever could." However, an NOAA research chemist reportedly said "very little of the oil actually disappeared," while scientists employed by the state and federal governments recently reported that the effects of the oil spill remain.
On the August 5 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh said of the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska: "The sea eats oil alive. That place up there, nature cleaned it up faster than we ever could."
But recent reports have found the effects of the oil spill remain. In November 2006, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, a division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game jointly established and staffed by state and federal agencies, issued a report titled "Update on Injured Resources and Services." The report found that the ecosystems in the area of Prince William Sound had yet to fully recover from the incident:
Seventeen years after oil spill, we are again evaluating the status of injured resources and services and providing a synopsis of the most current information available in the updated [Injured Resources and Services] List. In 2006, the Trustee Council funded Restoration Project #060783 which provided a comprehensive synthesis of information for resources and services that had been considered not recovered, recovering or unknown in the 2002 Update. [...] Several species have been moved into the recovered category: common loons, cormorants, Dolly Varden and harbor seals. Harlequin ducks are improving and moved into the recovering category. Black oystercatchers have been down listed from recovered to recovering, and the recovery status of marbled murrelets has changed from recovering to unknown. Ten resources are considered fully recovered; nine resources and all four human services are still recovering; five resources remain unknown and two resources have not recovered.
The Restoration Plan defines ecosystem recovery as follows:
Full ecological recovery will have been achieved when the population of flora and fauna are again present at former or prespill abundances, healthy and productive, and there is a full complement of age classes at the level that would have been present had the spill not occurred. A recovered ecosystem provides the same functions and services as would have been provided had the spill not occurred.
Although significant progress has been made, using this definition of recovery, the coastal and marine ecosystems in the oil spill region have not fully recovered at this time from the effects of the oil spill. For example, harlequin ducks still show signs of oil exposure and may be negatively affected by such exposure. A number of other species and communities are showing signs of recovery, but are still not fully recovered from the effects of the oil spill. Although full ecological recovery has not been achieved, the spill area ecosystem is making progress towards recovery 17 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
A January 31, 2007, article in USA Today covering this report quoted a government scientist saying that "very little of the oil actually disappeared":
Seventeen years ago, scientists predicted that the oil would be long gone by now. "We expected the natural decay rate was 25% a year. But very little of the oil actually disappeared," says Jeffrey Short, a NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] research chemist. "What's left is going to be there a long time."
Instead, the researchers estimate, the oil is "weathering" away at a rate of 3% to 4% a year. "It will be readily detectable for decades," Short says.
Jennifer Culbertson, a marine ecologist at Boston University, is among the surprised. "The theory has been that on a rocky shore, it's not going to stay for that long, that waves will wash it away," she says.
Says Michael Baffrey of the Trustee Council: "We made a lot of assumptions about what would happen to the oil. A lot of those didn't play out."
In addition, a study published in the December 19, 2003, edition of Science magazine found that impacts of the spill were still evident in the ecosystem of Prince William Sound and predicted lingering effects on wildlife:
The ecosystem response to the 1989 spill of oil from the Exxon Valdez into Prince William Sound, Alaska, shows that current practices for assessing ecological risks of oil in the oceans and, by extension, other toxic sources should be changed. Previously, it was assumed that impacts to populations derive almost exclusively from acute mortality. However, in the Alaskan coastal ecosystem, unexpected persistence of toxic subsurface oil and chronic exposures, even at sublethal levels, have continued to affect wildlife. Delayed population reductions and cascades of indirect effects postponed recovery. Development of ecosystem-based toxicology is required to understand and ultimately predict chronic, delayed, and indirect long-term risks and impacts.
From the August 5 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
LIMBAUGH: What is the damage? How has oil destroyed America? How has it destroyed people's lives? It's done just the opposite. Where does this come from? What in the world is the political calculation these people have to construct a presidential campaign based on the hatred of oil, as though oil itself is a conservative Republican? They're treating oil as if it were no different than Bush. They hate Bush, they hate oil. And both are irrational.
And our buddies, our buddies at CNN. They're preparing a retrospective special, ladies and gentlemen, on the disaster that was the oil spill at Prince William Sound and the Exxon Valdez. What they will not tell you is if you go up there today, you won't find any evidence of it other than the stupid memorials that human beings -- this is where oil was on the rock, this is where the otter got eaten by the shark, we threw it back in there -- the sea lion, whatever, ate the otter.
Nature cleaned up itself so damn fast. It was such a laughable thing to watch people with dish towels and Dawn dishwasher detergent wiping oil off of the rocks at Prince William Sound. Now, it was an unpleasant sight, of course. The birds got oil on their wings, and it was not pleasant to look at. But, it's an accident. The skipper of the Exxon Valdez did not say, "I want to destroy America, I want to destroy Alaska," and then let this stuff go. But anyway, the sea eats oil. The sea eats oil alive. That place up there, nature cleaned it up faster than we ever could.
But why in the world this abject hatred for a commodity? I mean, I can understand if you're a little kid and you don't like peas or broccoli. But an entire political party and an ideological movement has now targeted oil as -- as big a threat to this country as conservative Republicans are. It's hard to get your arms around it.