Thrawn Rickle 80

EXXON VALDEZ — 15 Years Later

© 2004 Williscroft

They did it again: U.S. District Judge H. Russell Holland in the U.S. District Court in Anchorage, Alaska, has just levied a fine totaling nearly $7 billion against Exxon Mobil Corp. for its part in the 1989 oil spill near Valdez, Alaska. This is a huge victory for Attorney David. W. Oesting, who was the lead counsel for a coalition of environmentalists who have been bringing one suit after the other ever since the original spill. As the headlines flash around the world, leading newspapers are regurgitating material from 15 years ago. For example, on Thursday, January 29, 2004, the Washington Post reported breathlessly under the Griff Witte byline that “The grounding of the Exxon Valdez on March 24, 1989, set off the largest oil spill in history, devastating area ecosystems and the local fishing industry.”

Let’s correct the record right up front: Far from being one of the largest oil spills in history, as reported by the Washington Post (which may have gotten its misinformation from Microsoft’s Encarta Online Encyclopedia), the Prince William Sound spill was only 10.8 million gallons, and ranked a distant 54th. The Amoco Cadiz spilled nearly 70 million gallons of oil off the coast of Brittany, France, on March 16, 1978, over six times the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, and yet even this spill ranks only sixth. On June 3, 1979, the exploratory well IXTOC I blew in the Bay of Campeche off Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico, spewing 140 million gallons of oil into that beautiful bay. And even this ranks only number two. The all time “winner” is former Iraqi leader Sadam Hussein, who caused the deliberate release of over 40.5 billion gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, over 3,750 times the size of the Prince William Sound spill.

Now let’s go back four years. It is Tuesday, June 23, 1999. Captain Joseph Hazelwood dons apron and gloves at the Bean’s Cafe soup kitchen in Anchorage, Alaska. He works silently emptying lettuce into a container as part of his thousand-hour community service sentence. Monday he loaded a truck with abandoned auto parts and assorted junk thrown along Anchorage roadways. He has a month to go, working off two hundred hours of his sentence. One month a year for five years. By the end of his sentence he will by fifty-eight.

It began more than ten years earlier, at 9:12 in the evening on Thursday, March 23, 1989. Harbor Pilot William Murphy “had the conn” of the Exxon Valdez as she departed the Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal. With the help of a harbor tug, he guided her safely through the Valdez Narrows seven miles out. By 11:25 Murphy had yielded the conn to Captain Hazelwood, and departed the ship. Hazelwood reported this fact to Vehicle Traffic Center, and also reported the presence of many burgy bits — small icebergs from nearby Columbia Glacier — in the shipping channel. To avoid problems with the ice he obtained permission to divert his track from the normal outbound channel across the separation zone into the inbound channel, and then he turned the bridge over to Third Mate Gregory Cousins. Before leaving the bridge, Captain Hazelwood instructed Cousins on exactly when to return the ship to its designated outbound shipping lane. The time was about five minutes to midnight.

Good Friday was just a few minutes old when Third Mate Cousins plotted a fix and determined that he should bring the Exxon Valdez back on track. About the same time Lookout Maureen Jones reported that Bligh Reef light had appeared broad off the starboard bow. It should have been off the port bow; Cousins ordered a sharp right turn. Unfortunately, the Exxon Valdez was not yet up to normal cruising speed. She was sluggish and slow in responding to Cousin’s turn order. He was actually reporting the dire situation to Captain Hazelwood over the bridge telephone when the Exxon Valdez came to a jolting, grinding stop, hard aground atop a pinnacle at the edge of Bligh Reef. Eight of her eleven cargo tanks had been ripped open. The wind was blowing from the north at ten knots, it was just above freezing with a slight drizzle of mixed rain and snow. Visibility was ten miles. Three hours and fifteen minutes later 5.8 million gallons of crude oil had washed into Prince William Sound.

According to authorities, the final toll in Southeast Alaska was thirteen hundred miles of beaches fouled by 10.8 million gallons of crude oil. Workers counted more than 35,000 dead birds and 1,000 dead sea otters after the spill, but since most carcasses sink, this is considered to be a small fraction of the actual death toll. The best estimates are: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

Captain Hazelwood and Exxon were slapped by a federal jury with civil penalties of close to a billion dollars for their alleged part in the Prince William Sound oil spill. Although Captain Hazelwood was charged with three counts of Felony Criminal Mischief, and misdemeanor charges of operating a vessel while intoxicated, reckless endangerment, and negligent discharge of oil, he was convicted only of negligent discharge of oil, which is a misdemeanor that normally would receive no sentence. In an apparent reaction to public outcry, Judge Holland awarded Captain Hazelwood one thousand hours of community service over a five-year period.

On October 9, 1991, the U.S. District Court approved the settlement among the State of Alaska, the United States government, and Exxon. The settlement resolved various criminal charges against Exxon as well as civil claims brought by both federal and state governments for recovery of natural resource damages resulting from the oil spill. 

Exxon received the largest fine ever imposed for an environmental crime: $150 million. Recognizing Exxon’s heroic actions in cleaning up the spill and its voluntary payment of certain private claims, the court forgave $125 million of that fine. Exxon paid $12 million to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund and $13 million to the national Victims of Crime Fund. Exxon also agreed to pay $100 million as restitution for the injuries caused to the fish, wildlife, and lands of the spill region. Finally, Exxon agreed to pay another $900 million over a ten-year period. This settlement contains a provision allowing the governments to claim as much as $100 million more to restore damaged resources, where that damage could not have been anticipated from then available data.

But it didn’t end there.

In September 1994, a federal jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to 34,000 fishermen and other Alaskans who said they had been harmed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This award trumped the earlier punitive award, equal to a year's worth of Exxon profits at the time.

In June 1997, Exxon appealed the $5 billion judgment. In October 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Exxon’s appeal, but in November 2001, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the $5 billion judgment excessive, and sent case back to the U.S. District Court in Anchorage. In December 2002, Judge Holland reduced the punitive damage judgment against Exxon Corp. from $5 billion to $4 billion, and both sides appealed. Then in August 2003, the 9th Circuit again sent the case back to Holland after the U.S. Supreme Court found that a $145 million punitive damage award against State Farm Insurance was excessive.

Shortly after the spill in Prince William Sound, one news report described it as the worst man-made disaster since the bombing of Hiroshima. National headlines ranted against the huge, faceless, greedy corporation — the ogre that fouled the precious environment to save a few pennies on substandard ships and captains. The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and other groups pounced on the apparent villains, focusing their anger on Exxon and Captain Hazelwood. They even organized cut-ins where everyone cut up their Exxon credit cards. They laid plans to bring about the indictment of corporate officers on criminal charges. It became the media event of the decade. More than ten years later the Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia joined the fray, reporting that “In March 1989 the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef in Prince William Sound and caused one of the largest oil spills in history.”

While these things make terrific news copy, and the headline boys love it, does this reflect reality?

Immediately after the Coast Guard arrived at the Exxon Valdez spill scene, the senior Coast Guard Officer present requested that Captain Hazelwood remain aboard his ship to supervise the ballasting of the Exxon Valdez to minimize the spill. He later testified that the Captain was sober, alert, and fully ready and capable of carrying out this task. In interviews conducted around the world following the spill, Captain Hazelwood was repeatedly described as the “finest tanker captain afloat”, “one of the best, if not the best” ship’s captain in the world, the “best captain I have ever served under”, “the best officer I have had serve under me”…. Admiration for this captain was unanimous and came from across the industry. From where, then, comes the nearly universal perception of this brilliant seagoing officer as an incompetent lazy drunk?

 The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company operates the oil terminal in Valdez. This company was formed by seven oil-producing firms. At the time of the spill, and before, fifty percent was owned by British Petroleum through BP Pipelines, which controlled the company and was responsible for its operations. Sometime before the spill, Alyeska unaccountably removed thirty-six tons of clean-up equipment from the response barge located in Prince William Sound, and stowed it ashore. Neither the Coast Guard nor the Port of Valdez raised a question when this happened. Subsequent investigation has revealed that all decisions concerning clean-up equipment, its maintenance and stowage, were made in London by BP, NOT by Exxon.

Where was the Coast Guard when this equipment was moved ashore and put into storage?

Where was the Port of Valdez and the State of Alaska when London decided that keeping cleanup equipment at the ready was an unnecessary precaution?

Exxon, of course, was on the scene. The men running this corporation sensed how the wind was blowing and made practical decisions. They spent more on the initial cleanup than the annual budget of several nations. Exxon deserves praise and respect for its actions following the spill. As it turned out, this was finally recognized by the court when it excused $125 million of Exxon’s fine because of these actions. Nevertheless, the civil penalties levied against Hazelwood and Exxon are outrageous examples of how justice can be miscarried when emotion overcomes logic, and opinion replaces fact.

Facts like:

Only 200 miles of Prince William Coastline were significantly fouled, not 1,300 as “officially” reported, but this information appears only in the fine print at the end of the report. The remaining 1,100 miles received nothing more than possibly a light sheen of oil in one or two places along the beach.

While the general visibility was reported as ten nautical miles, the local visibility near Bligh Reef at the time of the grounding was near zero.

The Office of Response and Restoration of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports on their website: “What we have found is that, despite the gloomy outlook in 1989, the intertidal habitats of Prince William Sound have proved to be surprisingly resilient. Many shorelines that were heavily oiled and then intensively cleaned now appear much as they did before the spill. Most gravel beaches where the sediments were excavated and pushed into the surf zone for cleansing have returned to their normal shape and sediment distribution patterns. Beaches that had been denuded of plants and animals by the toxic effects of oil and by the intense cleanup efforts show extensive recolonization and are similar in appearance to areas that were unoiled [emphasis NOAA’s].”

In its evaluation of the effectiveness of the cleanup methods used after the spill NOAA says: “Our intent in creating this monitoring program was to study shoreline ecological recovery after an environmental disaster like the Exxon Valdez spill, and then to use those lessons as scientific guidance for what we do in future response actions. At this point in time, our task is incomplete. However, some of the findings have already changed the way we think about cleaning up oil spills [emphasis NOAA’s].” And then NOAA cites these examples [emphasis NOAA’s]:

·    More judiciousness in the use of aggressive cleanup methods, such as hot-water washing, would help to temper the severe effects we have observed in biological communities.

·    Using water to flush an oil-contaminated beach may also wash away fine-grained sediments and nutrients that small organisms need to successfully colonize; and it can take years for the fine sediment to return.

·    Adult animals such as clams may survive in oil-contaminated beaches, but juveniles do less well.

·    Oil that penetrates deeply into beaches can remain relatively fresh for years and serve as a source of exposure to nearby animals.

·    After large-scale excavation or reworking of gravel beaches, it can take many years for the beach sediments to recover.

·    Rocky rubble shores should be of high priority for protection and cleanup because of the potential for deep penetration and slow weathering.

What NOAA is really saying here is that the original problem was significantly exacerbated by the intensive cleanup efforts, however noble and well intentioned. It doesn’t take brilliant insight to understand that oil covering the surface of rocks and sand is much less a problem than oil heated to low viscosity and forced down into the sediment by high pressure hot steam. The hot high pressure steam not only cleaned the rocks, it also permanently destroyed the lichens and other vegetation that resided on the rocks. As it turns out, most of these would have survived the oil had they simply been left alone.

The oil floating on the cold Prince William Sound water tended to congeal into larger clumps of a tar-like substance. These clumps typically grew until they became sufficiently dense that they sank to the bottom where they eventually were covered with silt. While this certainly poses some threat to the bottom critters near the clumps, for the most part the problem is relatively benign. By spraying the surface oil with detergents, however, the clumps never form. Envision television detergent ads wherein detergent treated dishwater holds grease in suspension so that it does not stick to plates. In the ocean, detergent disperses oil in the same manner: it mixes with the water instead of floating on top. Consequently, much of the oil gets transported into the ecosystem by birds, and by fish near the surface passing oil-saturated water through their gills. Even after as much as possible of this oil is soaked up into rags and other mop-up devices, sufficient detergent dispersed oil remains in the water to do great harm.

As with the Amoco Cadiz spill, the IXTOC I spill, and even the Gulf War disaster, after five years, only a concerted effort could show that a spill had ever happened. After ten years, unless you knew about the spill, you probably could find no evidence at all.

Even ten years after the Exxon Valdez spill, the author could find only one news reporter willing to tell the truth about the spill. On Sunday, March 14, 1999, Eric Nalder wrote for the Seattle Times an accurate rendition of what happened, and the role played by Captain Hazelwood. While there may be other truthful articles somewhere, they are well buried. Over and over again one reads about 1,300 miles of ruined beaches, a drunken Captain, the largest man-made disaster in history, ad nauseum.

And now, with the huge new damage award, it has started all over again. Spin has replaced historical fact. Fiction has conquered truth.

Why? The news media reaction was and is knee jerk as always — this requires no astute insight. It is far more dramatic to thunder about 1,300 miles of polluted coastline than it is to explain that the environmental damage was really fairly slight, and that the “good guys” caused at least as much damage as the “evil polluters.” On the other hand, the environmental groups who so cold bloodedly attacked Exxon and Captain Hazelwood may have been following an agenda that was established well before the Prince William Sound spill.

In future articles, we will explore this agenda to see where it leads. Stay tuned.