The key improvement since the Exxon Valdez incident has not been in hardware but in "peopleware," says Robert Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, (who has driven an oil tanker as part of his research). "What the incident did was began coalescing the international marine community to clean up its act and focus on people and not just [sea] vessels and the like," Bea says.
After all, human error played the biggest role in the accident, according to the National Transportation Safety Board's analysis, along with other official reports. Instructions from the ship's captain, Joe Hazelwood, to return the vessel to the shipping lanes after steering clear of icebergs apparently never reached the helmsman, Robert Kagan, at the time of the wreck. Anecdotal reports about seeing the captain at a bar prior to leaving port, confirmed by a blood test revealing alcohol in his body hours after the accident, also spoke to the lack of staff oversight at the time by Exxon and other oil companies with supertankers on the high seas.
But thicker and doubled hulls, better monitoring and a rested, well-trained crew will not always be enough, says Bea. When spills from tankers do happen, an array of cleanup and remediation techniques, along with specialized technology come to the fore, both to tackle the mess and save the wildlife caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. See the slide show to learn more about the consequences of the Exxon Valdez incident, and how both preventing and remediating oil spills' long-lasting effects have advanced in the last 20 years.
Slide Show: Preventing Another Exxon Valdez Disaster