Thrawn Rickle 80
EXXON VALDEZ — 15 Years Later
© 2004 Williscroft
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
it didn’t end there.
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.
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
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.”
these things make terrific news copy, and the headline boys love it, does this
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.
was the Coast Guard when this equipment was moved ashore and put into storage?
was the Port of Valdez and the State of Alaska when London decided that
keeping cleanup equipment at the ready was an unnecessary precaution?
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.
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.
the general visibility was reported as ten nautical miles, the local
visibility near Bligh Reef at the time of the grounding was near zero.
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].”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.